Doing her best impression of Rosie the Riveter, this Douglas Aircraft Co. employee helps build a fighter plane during World War II. Douglas operated out of a factory at the Santa Monica Airport. (photo by Photo Courtesy Santa Monica History Museum)

MAIN LIBRARY — For the past 35 years, Louise Gabriel, with the unconditional support of her late husband, former City Councilman Bob Gabriel, has made it her mission to preserve and display Santa Monica’s rich history for future generations. On Sunday, that mission will finally be realized.

Gabriel, a soft-spoken but passionate preservationist who can talk for hours about the city’s founding fathers, will be on hand to witness the grand opening of the Santa Monica History Museum — a permanent home for more than 500,000 images, artifacts and documents that include telephone directories from the 1800s, Works Progress Administration paintings from the 1930s, the largest collection of rare books on Southern California history and even an authentic Hot Dog on a Stick uniform and Dogtown skateboard.

“My husband and I started the museum … with just a little bit of money. Everything we had was donated,” Gabriel, president of the Santa Monica Historical Society, said Wednesday as she stood in the museum’s permanent gallery consisting of historical images and artifacts covering all aspects of Santa Monica life as well as an interactive replica of one of Douglas Aircraft Company’s planes and a station to read articles from the Evening Outlook newspaper archives.

“My husband and I were always grateful to live in Santa Monica and we wanted to give something back,” said Gabriel, who realized the importance of preservation as a child when her family home burned down, the fire destroying family heirlooms and photos. “To see this museum finally realized, it’s really a dream come true. I know my husband, if he were here, would say after all these years of work; ‘It was all worth it.’”

The journey has not been without its challenges. The Santa Monica Historical Society, a nonprofit organization founded in 1975 during the planning for the city’s centennial celebration, has had four different homes since its inception. Space was scarce, forcing staff to store the vast majority of artifacts. Creating a permanent home that included a climate controlled storage area, research stations and funding for tours for local school children was always the goal, Gabriel said. But money was tight.

When City Hall built the new Main Library, a 5,200-square-foot space was carved out for the museum. Gabriel, members of the society’s board and staff were excited and inspired to make the dream a reality.

“We wanted to have some more visibility and this space offered that,” Gabriel said.

The only problem was they needed to raise $1.5 million for construction and millions more to create an endowment to cover operating costs. (City Hall is leasing that space for a very affordable rate of $1 a year.) A capital campaign was launched with “Murphy Brown” star Joe Regalbuto, a long-time Santa Monica resident, named the honorary spokesperson.

That was around the time that the recession hit and donations dwindled, delaying the museum’s grand opening by two years. However, some key donors stepped up, including Morley Builders, Gabriel and her late husband, former Evening Outlook editor Ron Funk and his wife Ann, Macerich Co., the Bourget Bros., who donated stone slabs for the lobby, and Boeing Aircraft.

“Because of the economy it took longer than usual to build,” Gabriel said. “But everyone kept pushing for it. It’s amazing how in this economy people supported this museum. We got them to see what a great asset this was.”

The museum, designed by Santa Monica-based architect Kristina Andresen, features a research library, climate and humidity controlled storage area, offices for staff and volunteers, rotating gallery space and a permanent gallery with a timeline and five themes: The Origins, At Work, At Play, In the Headlines, and In the Arts. (These areas feature a replica of a car from the Whirlwind Dipper roller coaster, an authentic school desk from the 1800s and the original tools used to build the first fence at Palisades Park.)

There’s also a “Then & Now” space where visitors can pick a specific location like Third Street and compare photos from the past and the present to see how things have changed.

“The goal was to have the museum be multi-functional,” Andresen said.

While the home has been built and furnished, money and volunteers are still needed to keep the museum open. Staff with the historical society are in desperate need of funds to grow the endowment to $5 million and are looking for docents to help lead tours and interact with guests. Those interested are urged to visit www.santamonicahistory.org.

Gabriel said it is critical the museum remain open for generations to come so that future leaders gain more respect for Santa Monica and its contributions to the region.

“It’s so important for young people to learn about their community,” she said. “By doing so they will be more appreciative of where they live. What’s a country without its history?”

The entire community is invited to the opening, which is set for 2 p.m. Sunday. The museum is located at the Main Library, 1350 Seventh Street. For more information, call (310) 395-2290.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *