The Fabled Gold Coast



Called “Ocean House” or simply “The Beach House,” this 34 bedroom Georgian mansion on the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, California was the pinnacle of architectural opulence during Hollywood’s golden era.


Bankrolled by media mogul William Randolph Hearst (owner of another modest little piece of real estate up the road in San Simeon) for his long-time paramour and mistress, Ziegfeld Follies’ dancer and screen star Marion Davies, the Beach House was intended as a little getaway spot where Marion would escape to when the pressures of Hollywood, or her relationship with “Pop” became too great.


Construction on the colossal bungalow began in 1926 with both Hearst and Davies actively involved in its creation. Initially, William Edward Flannery was called in to do the architectural honors on the expanse of beach known as the Gold Coast, but subsequent problems led to his replacement with  Hearst favorite, Julia Morgan (architect of the fabled Hearst Castle).


Morgan was assigned to fashion an estate on 5 acres of prime beachfront property at the furthest point west of the celebrated Route 66 trail where the pristine shores of Santa Monica met the cool blue waters of the famed Pacific ocean.


While much has been made of Hearst’s reputation for having invented the concept of the multimedia empire, it was his notorious exploits with Davies and gargantuan appetite for luxury consumption that he is best remembered. An inveterate art collector, he was reputed  at one time to own twenty-five to thirty percent of the worlds art market.


It was in this exclusive concave north of the Santa Monica Pier that the extraordinarily rich and celebrated set up domesticity. Along this private road, Palisades Beach Road, lived four of the five men who were instrumental in creating Hollywood; Irving Thalberg and his wife, actress Norma Shearer, oil man J. Paul Getty, comedian Harold Lloyd and leading man Douglas Fairbanks. Not surprisingly, the area was affectionately known as Rolls Royce Row.


Considered the grandest house in the neighborhood at a reported cost of seven million dollars (a staggering expenditure for a little vacation getaway in the 1920’s) the rambling estate was an enthralling setting of cohesive grace that featured two ornate swimming pools, three guest houses, tennis courts, gardens, dog kennels and a 110-room main house or mansion.


The Beach House served its creators well, forming the backdrop against which the openly unmarried pair threw lavish theme parties solidifying their reputation as the power couple of Hollywood.


No expense was spared. Modest little get togethers like the circus gala thrown in 1937 had the Warner Brothers lot ship and assemble a carousel right on the tennis courts establishing the former showgirl’s renown as a generous hostess and a full-time party animal. Hardly any mystery as to why she enjoyed a multitude of friends before the days of Facebook.


It was said that everybody who was anybody made their way to Bill and Marion’s cozy little 110-room beach bungalow. Guest lists included the biggest celebrities of the day, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Gloria Swanson, Cary Grant and actor most buffed, John Payne.


William Haines and George Arthur shown here lounging with Marion at one of the two pools adorned with ladders, staircase, and bridges inlaid with imported marble frequently stopped by for a bit of opulent rest and relaxation.

Beach House_restored

The fabled Beach House proved as momentary as the people who enjoyed its pleasures. It served as Davies’ primary residence from 1929 to 1942. By 1945 the property was sold and run as a hotel. However, the hotel would fail and in 1959 the mansion was demolished and the property sold to the State of California.

Over the next 30 years it was operated as a private beach club. Then the 1994 Northridge earthquake rattled the property to its foundation, leaving it dormant until the City of Santa Monica embarked on an extensive public input process to re-envision the role of 415 Pacific Coast Highway as a public gathering space. In 2005, Wallis Annenberg and the Annenberg Foundation made a generous commitment to preserve the site’s potential, erecting a new building and repairing the remaining original structures which included the historic pool and guest house.

Last year, it reopened as the nation’s first public beach club, the only such facility on the California coast that doesn’t require membership. Anointed as the Annenburg Community Beach House, it includes volleyball and tennis courts, cafe, playground and swimming pool. The pool, the very same marble-tiled pool that Marion used to entertain her celebrity friends in, lives on. You’ve got to believe that would have put the preeminent hostess of the illustrious Gold Coast over the moon.




~ by eaesthete on 09/01/09.

3 Responses to “The Fabled Gold Coast”

  1. Wow! This is stunning. I’ve been to San Simeon and had heard about this.

    I’ve done some research on St. Donat’s in Wales and am happy to share what I know. All of my images of the place are gone {sigh}, but I have so many happy memories of being there.

    I had to leave because my father was dying and I needed to be back in the States. I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend time there. E-mail me and I will send you some pix, if you’re interested.

  2. Hello Errant Aesthete;

    This is fantastic. Are these photos and stories in a book? i’d love to know if this is from one collection or you compiled this? I have a condo on the pCH and would love to know more.

    all my best,


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