130 Years in 2 Hours: Downtown Santa Monica History Tour

History is all around us. Especially if you live in Downtown Santa Monica. You just have to know where to look. Need help? Kay Pattison is at your service. A docent with the Santa Monica Conservancy, Pattison guides visitors and locals through 130 years of Downtown Santa Monica history.

Kay and her notebook of Downtown Santa Monica History.
Kay and her notebook of Downtown Santa Monica History.

In approximately two hours and six blocks, the tours takes you from its Wild West frontier beginnings as a sleepy Spanish rancho to the sophisticated metropolis it is today, home to luxury hotels that pamper guests from all over the globe as well as cool commercial spaces attracting the hottest tech companies.


I recently had the pleasure of taking the Downtown Santa Monica History tour and I highly recommend it to locals who want a better understanding of their beautiful city, and visitors craving something more than shopping and dining.

Downtown Santa Monica History Fact: Ranchos Before Restaurants

Not only was Kay extremely enthusiastic, she also had a wealth of knowledge about Downtown Santa Monica’s history and that of each building featured on the tour. She touched on Santa Monica’s early years when it was home to the Gabrieleño Indians before becoming part of the Spanish and Mexican ranchos.

Kay then went into its creation by two entrepreneurs, Col. Robert S. Baker, who made a fortune in cattle and sheep ranching; and Sen. John P. Jones from Nevada, owner of several silver mines. They purchased the land that is now Santa Monica with hopes of creating a prosperous port. While that never happened, they laid the foundation for what is now one of the most desirable places to live, work and play.

Downtown Santa Monica History: Maps and Plans
Downtown Santa Monica History: Maps and Plans

Standing inside the 1875 Rapp Saloon, Santa Monica’s first brick building and once home to the city government, Kay broke out a book filled with old maps and pictures of the founding fathers. I had no idea that the saloon, which is now incorporated into the Hostelling International facility, served so many uses. Today poets fill the space with their passionate words of wisdom — probably more elegant than the words exchanged while sipping pints and downing whiskey shots in the early days.

Downtown Santa Monica History Fact: Home to Hollywood

From 1911 to 1914 the Vitagraph Film Co., an early movie studio, used it. (Filmmakers loved Santa Monica’s weather, but that damn June Gloom blocked the sun, making for many lost man-hours. They eventually packed up and moved further east to avoid the stubborn cloud cover.) The saloon has also been home to the Salvation Army, a radiator repair shop, a piano tuning shop and an art gallery. Old painted signs on the north wall memorialize some of the previous occupants.

From the saloon we walked down to Broadway where Hotel Carmel stands. In its heyday this hotel was a favorite retreat for Hollywood stars. From the outside it looks like a conservative Beaux Arts structure, but inside you can see the amazing craftsmanship. The lobby fireplace, columns and beamed ceiling are richly ornamental, inspired by Spanish Revival designs.

One of the decorative columns inside Hotel Carmel -- Another snippet of Downtown Santa Monica History
One of the decorative columns inside Hotel Carmel — Another snippet of Downtown Santa Monica History

I don’t want to give all of the tour away, but as a lover of language, I have to share this excerpt from a newspaper ad enticing prospective property owners to the city by the sea:

July 10, 1875: “At one o’clock we will sell at public outcry to the highest bidder the Pacific Ocean, draped with a western sky of scarlet and gold; we will sell a bay filled with white winged ships; we will sell a southern horizon rimmed with a choice of purple mountains carved in castles and turrets and domes; we will sell a frostless, bracing, warm yet languid air braided in and out with sunshine and odored with the breath of flowers.”

Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it?

In our fast-paced, social-media obsessed world, there is little time for reflection. If we don’t take the time to truly digest what we have consumed, then what’s the point? If we don’t understand the lessons of the past, aren’t we doomed to repeat the mistakes made by those who came before us?

The Downtown Santa Monica History Walking Tour is an excellent excuse to put our smartphones down, pause and appreciate. Take it! You just might learn something.