Historic celebration | Community | argonautnews.com
Marina del Rey residents reminisce about the port’s past
Marina del Rey – Spanish for “king’s docks” – is now a hot property filled with expensive condominiums and home to around 5,000 boats. With beautiful ocean views, multiple yacht clubs and trendy restaurants, it’s a popular destination in near-constant development.
But one of LA’s youngest communities wasn’t always the crowded playground it is today. Earlier this month, the Marina del Rey Historical Society celebrated the 57th anniversary of the official inauguration of the community on April 10, 1965.
Stretching back, the current marina was once a salt marsh that was a favorite of duck hunters and a destination for birdwatchers who belonged to the Los Angeles Audubon Society and the southern chapter of the Cooper Ornithological Club. There was a mile-long wooden circular race track in the early 1900s where people would go out into the wetlands and race cars up to 100 miles an hour on the treacherous tracks.
Eventually, the promoters took an interest in it and the land changed hands a few times in order to make it a viable port.
Helen Stevenson remembers arriving there with her parents in what was then Venice in the 1940s. They bought a house in what is now Catamaran Street. The area had open vacant lots, oil wells, the canal and was a few blocks from the beach.
“Life was simple and people usually left their front doors unlocked,” Stevenson said. “My parents bought the tiny house around 1943 for $3,500, where I lived until 1959. The remodeled house is still there, and in 2018 the house sold for $1,688,000. My parents sold the house in the early 1960s for $65,000, which was fine for the time.
In 1958, she graduated from high school in Venice. The previous year she joined the “Venice Models”, a group organized by Robbie Robinson of the Venice Evening Vanguard Newspaper. It was a group of high school girls who organized social and media events in Venice and the Marina. This gave her the opportunity to play an important role in the history of the Marina.
“As the marina plans moved forward, I was blessed to be selected as the first Miss Marina del Rey for the Grand Opening Ceremonies and to participate in various marina functions and social and media events,” said Stevenson said.
When the US Corps of Army Engineers assessed the marina in 1936, the plan was to build a harbor for commercial shipping. Howard Wenger, president of the Marina del Rey Historical Society, said a railroad to Long Beach changed everything and that’s why the Port of Los Angeles moved to San Pedro.
“To this day, I can’t imagine having all these big ships and what it would have been like,” Wenger said. “The marina obviously wouldn’t have looked like the marina, but there is a railroad in Long Beach and that’s why Long Beach looks like it and we don’t.”
Stevenson said that when they began building the marina, the street names south of Washington Boulevard to the current harbor entrance were changed from numbered avenues to nautical street names.
Jerry B. Epstein was one of the first investors, invited to the area by supervisor Burton Chace. The concept presented to him was that the county would own the land, but private developers would do the construction and pay long-term leases.
The US Army Corps of Engineers began dredging in 1959, and the Marina del Rey small craft harbor opened in 1962. Things weren’t easy, however.
“As I refer to it, they forgot to put a front door in the square,” Wenger said.
Roger Wilson was sailing in the marina long before there were any slips there. He tried to inform the engineers that there was a power surge that needed to be taken care of.
“The Corps of Engineers made a very serious mistake,” Wilson said. “It only cost $3 million to install the breakwater, but they had to do some major things to realize that was what they had to do. They were made aware of this prior to construction, but they chose not to listen to someone who had a lifetime of experience in the marine industry in this part of the world.
Wilson, who was then competitively sailing out of the Port of Los Angeles, said there was a 2ft push every time the waves came in. The water in the marina would rise 2 feet, then when the tide went out it would come back. down. The California Yacht Club had just been reformed so he came from the port of Los Angeles with his boat.
“There were no sheet pile deflectors and obviously no detached breakwaters,” Wilson said. “The only slides in the marina were the slides behind the gas tank. We got on and slept on the boat. Every two minutes you go up 2 feet and down 2 feet.
A huge storm blew in January 1963 and since there were no breakwaters, waves 7 to 8 feet high came down into the channel and caused major damage to boats in it. Many investor loans were canceled and it looked like the project might collapse until the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appropriated money to build a breakwater, bringing rocks from a rock quarry on Catalina Island, according to Wenger. Finally in 1965, the Marina was officially inaugurated.
Willie Hjorth and her husband, John, were active members of the California Yacht Club at the time, and Wilson said they would hold the Christmas Boat Parade each year. Other events included fireworks for July 4 and the Food and Wine Festival, which was a fundraiser for the Marina del Rey Chamber of Commerce.
The California Yacht Club was originally founded in the Port of Los Angeles and is celebrating its centennial this year. They moved to Marina del Rey in 1963, initially residing at the Sheraton Marina del Rey hotel. In 1966 they moved to their own clubhouse and the club’s fleet moved into the 230 slips to its present site at the head of the main Marina del Rey canal. These facilities were inaugurated on June 10, 1967.
The other major marina club is what started as the Del Rey Yacht Club in 1952 and then in 1962 entered into a 60 year lease with the marina and built its clubhouse which will open and be dedicated in September 1965. In 1999, they extended their lease until 2047.
Wilson said at one time there were as many as eight yacht clubs in the marina. Many have since merged or closed.
In 2015, the Marina celebrated its 50th anniversary. Four tall ships visited the marina, including the 113-foot-long brigantine “Irving Johnson”. The public were able to take rides on the boats, which proved to be a popular attraction. Other events included a boat parade, fireworks, a free “Three Dog Night” concert, historic harbor tours, and a mid-harbour shootout.
“They were firing cannons all day and there were helicopter flyovers and all kinds of things,” Wenger said.
Wenger, whose father, Greg, was a professional photographer, went out with his family in 1968-69 for a two-week Christmas vacation. When they got home to New York, they were snowed in for three days – the kind of blizzard where snow stopped the front door from opening and they had to drive a nail in the back door because snow and wind were blowing. They passed the time looking at slideshows of photos their father had taken in California.
“The short version, the real short version, is my dad said, ‘Fuck you,'” Wenger said. “Nine months later, we moved here.”
His father’s first major client was The Argonaut, taking pictures for them and getting free publicity for his business. Wenger’s father joined Hjorth and others in founding the Historical Society. Wenger was appointed director of the gallery and is now president of the Society.
The Society was originally organized as a non-profit in 2007, but it would be several years before the museum and gallery opened. In December 2013, they opened their current home in Fisherman’s Village, just steps from the lighthouse.
Wenger said he often struggles to explain Marina del Rey’s charm to people, in part because it’s so unique and unlike anything else in LA County.
“It’s the fact that it’s an artificial harbour,” Wenger said. “We’re the biggest in the western hemisphere and second only to Dubai, but only because they have more money and bigger boats. It just has a unique feel.
Wilson said the marina was, until recently, a marina for the public, but recent changes have threatened its appeal.
“One of the things that people in the county haven’t taken into account is the fact that the attraction of the marina is the boats in the marina. The draw is not buildings bordering the marina. What they did is
on the windward side,
build three- and four-story apartment condos…that block prevailing winds. It’s not a very smart thought process when you’re trying to sell the marina to a restaurant that wants to sell a boat view.
Despite this, he said it was still a very favorable and safe sailing area for small boats or for young people to learn to sail. It’s also, he said, a much more comfortable port to sail to Catalina than the Port of Los Angeles, in part because it’s strictly a marina, not a commercial one.
And with the 57th anniversary behind them, Wenger hopes people will help them prepare for the 60th, either by visiting the Historical Society
Museum and gallery or sharing photos and ideas.
Marina del Rey History
13737 Fiji Way, Suite C-3,
Marina del Rey