Last Sunset for the Sand and Sea Club
It was a day for memories: old friends recalling seemingly endless summers. Many members had grown up there; some had even fallen in love. And so they gathered one last time, knowing that when the day ended Sunday, a place they treasured would be no more.
Last Sunday looked like any other day at the Sand and Sea Club in Santa Monica. People were playing paddle tennis, swimming in the pool, playing volleyball or gin rummy. Children were noisily playing in a sandy playground nearby.
But this was not an ordinary day. It was the last day the 30-year-old Sand and Sea Club would operate as a private beach club.
“An era has come to an end,” said Doug Badt, who had operated the club since 1960. “You accept it.”
City officials evicted the club from the state-owned 4.9-acre parcel at 415 Pacific Coast Highway to make way for what they hope will be a luxury hotel and community center.
But rather than a tearful event, the last day provided more than 1,000 visitors with a chance to once more enjoy what has been a second home for some of them.
Sunday’s farewell was one of the largest turnouts at the club, said Mary Lee Gowland, who had been office manager since 1977.
“It was like a graduation party,” she said. “There was so much loving and warmth. I’ve never seen so much kissing and hugging. It was like a big family.”
At one point, a group who had grown up together at the club sat at a table reminiscing about the past 30 years. Some members had met their spouses there and then continued a tradition by bringing their own children. Others talked of trying to meet new people at the club.
“I remember a friend wanted to introduce me to a guy at the club,” said Shelly Wissot, 39. “When she pointed him out, it was a guy I grew up with at the club and had known for a long time.”
Wissot pulled out a 20-year-old volleyball schedule she had found when cleaning out her locker. The people in the group looked over the names, most of them still members, and shouted out those that brought back memories.
But the reality that this was the last day of the club eventually sank in.
“Being able to grow up here is something really special,” said Michael Roth, 29, whose parents first took him there as an infant. “It’s kind of sad that I won’t ever be able to bring my kids here.”
The city closed the club, although voters will not decide on the hotel project until the Nov. 6 city election, because officials said it was inappropriate to have a private club on public land.
But on Sunday many members said they never felt like their club was private, saying no one was denied membership because of race, color or religion. Some said they favored converting the club to a public facility.
“You’re talking about friendships; you’re talking about an environment,” said Meg Freeman, 31. “Why should that be termed elitist? You’re talking about people.”
“I figure that 75% of my life has been spent here,” said Rick Gold, 38, a longtime member who met his wife at the club. “I’ve never thought of this as a private club. Anyone could join.”
The property was originally developed in 1929 as a private estate for actress Marion Davies by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. The 60-room Ocean House, demolished in 1957, included a dining room for 25 guests, 37 fireplaces and a room finished in gold leaf.
The area around the estate was known as the The Gold Coast and was noted for extravagant beach houses and beach clubs that flanked the west side of Pacific Coast Highway, as well as the Hollywood celebrities who frequented them.
The Davies estate was purchased in 1945 by a private party and converted to a hotel and beach club. It was not very successful, and in 1959, the state acquired the property and granted management responsibility to the city of Santa Monica under a long-term operating agreement.
Since 1960, the property has been leased by the Sand and Sea Club for $250,000 a year, which went to the city for beach cleanup. Improvements since then include a public beach restroom at the northwest corner of the site, a 176-space public beach parking lot at the south end and a small food concession stand and banquet room at the southwest corner.
On the northern portion of the site is a rectangular two-story house called the North House, one of only two remaining original structures. The North House consists of wood-frame construction in the architectural style called “millionaire’s colonial,” a grandiose version of neoclassical. The exterior is white clapboard with a pillared portico, flanking wings and a gabled roof.
The 110-foot-by-33-foot swimming pool, another important survivor of the Davies estate, is made in part of Italian marble.
Under current plans, only the North House would be saved and incorporated into the hotel and community center proposed by restaurateur Michael McCarty.
John Lynd, the city’s acting director of cultural and recreational services, said the city took possession of the property on Monday, and it has posted a 24-hour guard.
Lynd said city officials will assess what needs to be done to reopen some of the facilities for public use, particularly the paddle tennis courts, the swimming pool and the restaurant.
He said the county Health Department has closed the swimming pool because of an inadequate filtration system. However, he said he hopes all three facilities can reopen for public use within six weeks.
But on Sunday, members tried to enjoy their last day. Even some former employees returned for one last memory.
Hattie Pinson, 73, retired four years ago after working for 33 years as manager of the women’s locker room. Pinson was there Sunday, stopping every few minutes to hug another person whom she had not seen for a while.
“I know them all,” said Pinson, adding that she missed church on Sunday to revisit the facility and friends. “I knew those young men over there when their mothers would bring them into the women’s locker room. But only till they were 5 years old, then they had to go to the men’s locker room.
“This is really sad,” Pinson said, then paused for a moment. With a slight smile, she continued: “You know, they gave me a lifetime membership when I retired. I really hadn’t used it, but I thought I better start using it today.”
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