On the Plaza : The “Meeting Place” of Palos Verdes

Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic

Like well-trained pigeons, the morning runners home in on Malaga Cove Plaza, wending their way with gritty determination along tree-shaded, lushly landscaped residential streets and lanes that gently dip, rise and curve through Palos Verdes Estates, finally to descend, panting, on the pleasantly faded, red-tile-topped plaza.

There, they tend to downshift with a sigh into the Sidewalk Cafe and Bakery, which everybody seems to call “Jack’s” after a former owner, and in a rush of rationalization (“I must have burned up 3,000 calories getting here”) reward their morning tribulation with a heavily sweetened pastry (“it goes right into the bloodstream and to the muscles”) and a cup of coffee (“it helps jump-start my heart for the run home”).

The runners are only the first of successive waves of local residents and occasional visitors that each day roll into Malaga Cove Plaza, tucked into the northwest slope of the hilly, verdant peninsula, just off of circuitous North Palos Verdes Drive. Replete with a slightly smaller, 1930s marble replica of Nettuno--a famed 16th-Century Bolognese bronze fountain--in the central piazza-cum-parking lot, the collection of arcaded, flower-bedecked commercial buildings is one of the more engaging people places in Southern California.


“It’s our hangout,” says Janet Connolly-Berens as she somehow, with the aid of friend Donna York-Ames, bottle-feeds her two infants in separate strollers and takes intermittent bites of her luncheon salad at a cafe table.

She adds that “BC”--before the children--she used to jog with her husband, Jerry, almost every morning from their home to the plaza, 3.5 miles, have a pastry and a cup of coffee, say hello to friends and acquaintances and jog back. “That’s the sort of place this is--more of a meeting place than a food place,” she says. “My husband still runs, while for my exercise I push strollers. But we both still come here, he in the morning--he likes his pastry and coffee--and me at lunch, when I can. It’s casual, relaxed, peaceful. You wouldn’t think you were in L.A.”

“What makes it so friendly is that we get a lot of regulars here,” says Mike Corcoran, who grew up in P.V.--as locals tend to call Palos Verdes. Among the more notable regulars, he whispers, is actor Ray Milland.

“Almost everyone knows one another here,” interjects Dana Lemesh as she purchases a pastry to go. Also raised in the area and now working for a doctor in the plaza, Lemesh adds that the arcades, brick paving and plantings greatly aid the ambiance. “It makes for a very pretty little village,” she declares.

Creating that effect was a very conscious decision made more than 60 years ago, when New York banker Frank Vanderlip, the developer of what was to become Palos Verdes Estates, directed the prestigious design firms of the Olmsted Brothers and Charles Cheney to draft a master plan for 3,200 of the 16,000 acres that he had bought sight unseen in 1913. The brothers were strong advocates of the so-called City Beautiful tradition, a movement founded in part by their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the foremost American planners of the late 19th Century.

Vanderlip wanted a plan that would take advantage of the peninsula’s rolling terrain and views, detailing extensive landscaping and parks while creating a series of model villages surrounded by exclusive residential areas. And to make sure that the architecture to follow would be sympathetic with those plans, he formed an art jury to review design proposals and appointed as its head Myron Hunt, Los Angeles’ leading architect of the period. The jury soon afterward established the Mediterranean look of thick stucco walls and terra-cotta tile roofs as the area’s guiding architectural style.


Although the Olmsted-Cheney plan called for four commercial centers, Malaga Cove Plaza, designed by the firm of Webber, Staunton and Spaulding, was the only one built, with the first building completed in 1925. Other buildings designed by other architects followed, keeping in the spirit of the Mediterranean style but adding a little more personality. The Palos Verdes General Store, crafted by Walter Swindell Davis, is particularly charming. The store’s nooks and crannies crammed with knickknacks, toys and silver, the low beamed ceiling and the smell of potpourri combine to create a down-home atmosphere. The quaint tower above the store completes the scene. Davis also designed the unpretentious, cluttered, convenient Moore’s Market, a grocery popular in the plaza for more than 50 years.

“The plaza, with its modest scale and styling, certainly lends the area its personality--laid-back and easygoing but with taste,” says architect Donald Hendrickson, whose office overlooks the Sidewalk Cafe. “It really is a wonderful place to work, especially if most of your work is in the area, as is mine.” Rolando Julio, of Hendrickson’s office, agrees but notes that the cost of a cup of coffee at the cafe recently rose from 50 to 75 cents.

Rising costs in the plaza are a problem, particularly in rents. Hendrickson--along with Connolly-Berens, Jill Yalch of the General Store and others--observes that recent increases forced out a number of businesses, including a bookstore and a designer tile shop, that had lent the plaza diversity. In their place have come boring banks and ubiquitous real estate offices, a trend that could undermine the area’s charm.

Still, the plaza perseveres as a distinctive gathering place, a sharp and welcome contrast--indeed, a relief--to the spread of deadeningly homogenous mini- and maxi-malls now mauling other communities. It deserves to be toasted, preferably with a cup of coffee at the Sidewalk Cafe.