Jill Zachary, director of the department, gave me the back story. The Spanish Colonial–style building was constructed in 1926, and donated to the city by philanthropist David Gray in 1927. He insisted that it be used for recreation, which initially meant it was a tearoom with dancing, but during World War II servicemen were housed there, and by the 1970s it was an arts center and also used for special events.
The city never really took care of it, though, despite an attempt at renovation in the 1980s. By the early 2000s, it was falling apart. “It was cold and dank, and it leaked,” said Zachary. “And this has always been an important building to the community—for weddings, celebrations, fundraisers. It’s the only public building like it on the beach, and you could never built it today. The Coastal Commission would never let you.”
Around 10 years ago, the Parks Department embarked on a full-scale renovation with $200,000 in redevelopment funds allotted to get a sense of the scope. Then, in an effort to bail out the state, the governor abolished redevelopment agencies—and the restoration stalled. It wasn’t till 2014 that the project got $14 million from the state, which the city council supplemented with another $9 million. Zachary points out that the project is a private/public partnership, with additional funds from local foundations and private donors.
“We started construction in January 2018,” says Zachary. “And we essentially finished in May, but then Covid happened.” So we’ll have to wait for the building’s full debut (the restrooms opened in June). Currently, the Parks department has a few staff members working there, and the Junior Lifeguards program is based there, but the kids aren’t allowed inside.
The tour started on the upper level, which you enter via Cabrillo. It will only be for private events; the public can’t just walk in. First, there’s an anteroom—which I neglected to photograph—where guests might be checked in or served cocktails. The main room lies just beyond…
The building looks fantastic. The primary achievement of the renovation was to open the space up, the better to let in the extraordinary ocean view. There used to be four staff members stationed on this level, and now there are none. The mechanicals were all hidden in walls, and an elevator and catering kitchen were added. The ceiling and lighting are original, and the carpet was custom designed. A historical note: The building was designed to end at the arches, but in the 1940s, it was pushed out to incorporate some of the deck. Patrons may use the two decks, but there won’t be any furniture outside.
Next door to the lobby is the restaurant, La Sirena, which I didn’t get to see, but Zachary said the operator—the folks behind the Beachcomber in Orange County—is nearly done with the buildout. La Sirena will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with an adjacent snack bar for takeout. The chef will be Budi Kazali.
Less interesting, but still noteworthy, are a conference room and staff room that can be rented.
The goal with the fitness room was to open the space up, in order to maximize public use of the space. There won’t be treadmills—because you could easily run outside—but there will be weights, a rowing machine, kettleballs, small group classes, and so on. In theory, the fitness room could be opened now, but a) the equipment is Covid-delayed, and b) the Parks department is spread thin, having had to let 230 hourly workers go, so it has been focusing on recreation opportunities that are both easier to get back on track and will benefit as many people as possible (the Municipal Tennis Center, Santa Barbara Golf Club, Los Baños del Mar…).
As Zachary and I headed to the parking lot, we stopped at the stoa (learned a new word there), which she said used to have an outside wall, blocking the views. And there was once a saltwater wading pool where the playground is now; it was filled in during the late 70s.
Thanks again to Jill Zachary and the Parks & Recreation Department for the tour, and congratulation on a gorgeous renovation. Obviously, as soon as the Cabrillo Pavilion and La Sirena are open, I’ll let you know.
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