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The Beach Bubble Beauties perform tricks atop the public pool on opening day of the Annenberg Community Beach House at the Santa Monica State Beach on Saturday (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM BEACH — Standing next to a massive Victorian sand sculpture, Claudia Freire stared across the sand at the families dancing to the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” in celebration of the grand opening of the Annenberg Community Beach House, known for years simply as 415 PCH.

“This is beautiful,” she said, her face decorated with the smile of an elated child. “I’ve been waiting awhile for this.”

It’s been a long time coming. An earthquake, recession and threats of development and a lawsuit by neighbors were some of the challenges community members and city officials faced over the last 20 years during their campaign to create the nation’s first public beach club.

With the dream finally realized, thanks in large part to $27.5 million from the Annenberg Foundation, hundreds packed the 5-acre site Saturday for a bash that rivaled those thrown by the Gold Coast property’s former owner, silent film actress Marion Davies, and her lover William Randolph Hearst, whose guests included Hollywood’s finest like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.

The event featured ornately decorated synchronized swimmers from Cirque du Soleil, who performed a graceful routine in the beach club’s historic pool lined with black and white marble and colorful tiles. Ballroom dancers gave demonstrations of their talents in the event house. Sand Sculptures International gave lessons to kids on how to build the ultimate sand castle. Families lined up for free shaved ice. All while surf rock played in the background.

“To the left we have the community’s front porch, the sand and the surf,” Mayor Ken Genser told the crowd. “Our front porch has been here since the beginning of time. We finally built our living room.”

As a kid, Genser said he remembers visiting family in Ocean Park and seeing fences blocking off portions of the beach to the public. That image stuck with him throughout the years and he was excited Saturday to be able to welcome so many to the beach club. Genser promised the beach house would be a place of inclusion where all are welcome to enjoy that natural beauty of Santa Monica Bay.

The nearly $35-million project would not have been possible without Wallis Annenberg, the TV Guide heiress and philanthropist. While the beach club was definitely the star of the production, Annenberg wasn’t far behind. State, county and local officials continuously thanked her for her generous gift that many said was key to getting the project completed. Without the help from the Annenberg Foundation, those involved said the beach club would still be a dream, not a reality.

“The truth is this glorious expanse of sea and sand, these stunning ocean vistas, should belong to us all and that is why I wanted to help return it to … [and] help the city of Santa Monica transform it into a shared-used, community treasure, a window not just onto Santa Monica’s past, but onto eternity for everyone to enjoy,” Wallis Annenberg said.

In addition to the $27.5 million, the Annenberg Foundation on Saturday announced the establishment of a new environmental leadership fund named after famed activist Dorothy Green. Annenberg put forth $200,000 to crate the fund.

City Manager Lamont Ewell said City Hall was truly grateful for Annenberg’s commitment and called the beach club the “crown jewel of Santa Monica.”

The long road

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The Davies’ estate, which at one time had more than 100 bedrooms and 55 bathrooms, a guest house, tennis courts and a dog kennel, was built by Hearst for his lover in the late 1920s. It was designed by architect Julia Morgan, who created Hearst Castle in San Simeon. in 1945, after 17 years of fun in the sun, Davies fell into financial trouble and had to sell the compound to investors for $600,000.

Hearst died in 1951, and Davies a decade later.

The state purchased the land in 1959 after the main house was demolished, with most of its pieces sold off. City Hall leased the property and a private developer created the Sand & Sea Club, where Annenberg was a member. The club existed from 1960 to 1990.

During the Northridge earthquake, the guest house, which has been restored and is the sole remaining structure of the Davies era, was badly damaged. The structure remained like a ghost, haunting those who wanted to restore the property to what it once was.

“It was awful watching the city screw around for so many years,” said Sharon Gilpin, a political consultant and activist who helped lead the fight to stop the construction of a luxury hotel at the site during the early ‘90s. Gilpin campaigned for Proposition Z, which repealed an agreement between City Hall and a hotel developer.

“The mindset of City Hall was always to max-out revenue out of everything,” Gilpin said. “There were some amazing local heroes who didn’t want the coast to look like Miami Beach. We called ourselves SOBs, or Save Our Beach.

“I’m glad they found the money. I’m glad that [the beach house] is there. It’s not easy saving parkland.”

Once the Annenberg Foundation stepped in, it seemed as if there was nothing standing in the way. Then a group of residents living adjacent to the site raised concerns about security, noise, traffic, and parking, and questioned whether or not City Hall could afford to subsidize operations, hoping the beach club does not turn into an eyesore when economic times are tough.

The residents threatened a lawsuit, saying the project violated a local law prohibiting the creation of food-serving facilities along the beach. The restriction come out of the fight Gilpin and others waged against the creation of a hotel. Gilpin said the homeowners were distorting the original intent of the law, which was to restrict large developments, not a public beach club.

Supporters formed Friends of 415, created a Web site and continued to put pressure on the City Council to move forward. The group was concerned a lawsuit could put funding in jeopardy. The group went so far as to organize a beach bash on the lawn of City Hall, complete with a volleyball court.

A settlement was eventually reached in 2006, with the council agreeing to a list of demands. City Hall is required to provide around-the-clock security for at least seven years, with certain conditions in effect for 10. The settlement also reduced the size of the event house and prevented the creation of a kitchen.

Some supporters are concerned that without the kitchen, it will be harder to financially support the beach house. But judging from the response of city officials at the grand opening, City Hall will do whatever it can to ensure the beach house remains open for future generations to enjoy.

Michael Karr, whose father was a member of the Sand & Sea Club, brought his family to the grand opening in hopes of creating some new memories, just as his father did when he was a boy.

“It was a shame to see this waste of land. Whether it was going to be private or public, the land should have been used for something,” Karr said. “Now I am excited to see what this has become. … I just remember a lot of laughter, which I heard today. Everyone is laughing and having a good time. The sounds remind me of what it used to be.”

And not only will the club itself be an attraction, there is hope that it can turn the beach north of the pier into a destination as well.

“It’s open, it’s accessible and it’s on the beach in Santa Monica. I don’t think it gets any better than that,” Misti Kerns, president and CEO of the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau, said of the beach house. “Were hoping this will get people to experience the north side of the pier, which is not as well explored or known. I think this will do that.”

Kerns hopes that visitors will stumble upon the beach house and “go ‘Wow!’ What an incredible community to come together and create something not only for residents, but people who are visiting as well.’”

Keeping it green

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The beach club was created with sustainability in mind while preserving and restoring the natural environment. The facility is on track to receive a LEED silver Rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Before any concrete was laid, the property underwent significant remediation as part of the construction of the beach house, city officials said. Hazardous materials were removed, including lead-based paint, asbestos, insulation and wooden piles containing preservatives. Contaminants found in the soil, the pool and guest house were removed.

Materials used in construction was post-consumer, including insulation made from old blue jeans in place of fiberglass. Decking is made of recycled plastic and building panels of recycled concrete.

Large water retention basins installed underground capture 90 percent of dry or wet weather runoff and treat it before reaching the ocean. Native and drought-tolerant plants and trees are irrigated through a drip system that reduces water usage 50 percent. There are also low-flow shower heads and dual flush toilets.

Green power is purchased for the facility from an alternative source of energy generated by wind, and water for the pool and the splash pad is heated by solar collectors on the roof of the Event House.

Visitors are encouraged to use alternative transit when visiting.

The beach club is now open to the public, with no membership fee required. Guests can reserve beach volleyball and tennis courts, dine at the Back on the Beach Café, dance in the splash pad and soak in some photography at the event house or enjoy cool ocean breezes in Davies’ historic guest house. The pool will be open starting on weekends in May.

Most of the facility will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Reservations are strongly recommended given the expected demand for use of the pool, parking and volleyball courts. Pool passes are $4 for children, $5 for seniors, $10 for adults — or $24 for a family pass (two kids, two adults). Parking ranges from $6 to $10 per day or $3 to $4 per hour depending on the time of year.

Volleyball courts may be reserved for $5, or are available on a walk-up basis for free.

Booking for private events will begin in June, with events starting in October.

kevinh@smdp.com