Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)

The future of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was debated at a community meeting held at the Main Library last Monday.

The late 1950s era, multi-purpose facility has been operating in the red for years. City officials plan to mothball it on June 30 then decide whether to renovate or demolish it

The auditorium was a major show place when it opened in 1958. It hosted the Academy Awards from 1961 through 1968 and was a major regional concert and show venue for decades.

As time rolled on, the Civic lost favor. In 1969, the Oscars moved to the swankier Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Touring shows, rock and pop acts moved to the Forum, Whisky A Go Go, Aquarius Theater, Hollywood Bowl, Universal (Gibson) Amphitheater and a host of other venues.

At 3,000 seats, the Civic is too small for headline acts and too large for lower tier events. Punk and rap concerts were banned in the 1970s because of fears over unruly crowds.

Aside from an occasional concert by the Santa Monica Orchestra or “Stairway to the Stars” student showcase, the facility today basically hosts table top exhibitions/trade shows such as the “Jewelry Expo,” craft markets and architectural lighting exhibition — and runs up to $2 million in the red, annually.

City Hall officials estimate it would cost over $50 million to upgrade the facility including seismic retrofits, heating/air conditioning upgrades, modern restrooms and reconfiguration of the auditorium.

Still, it would be like gussying up an aging sow’s ear. And, the result still wouldn’t be a silk purse. With the loss of redevelopment agency money last year, there’s nothing in the kitty to even pay for the work.

Ten years ago, Santa Monica College’s Madison Theater (now the Broad Stage) was in the planning stages. The 500-seat theater and adjacent performance space would have been a perfect complement to the larger Civic.

A combined Civic and Broad complex in the Civic Center would have provided the anchor for a top-notch performing arts center. With the addition of art galleries, small outdoor amphitheater and a caf√© or two, we would have had a “world class” arts venue.

Instead, college officials built their theater on leased school district property at Santa Monica Boulevard and 11th Street. A fabulous opportunity to provide a heart and purpose to the Civic Center evaporated.

As it is, the Civic Center is a monument to “shoehorn” planning. There’s no focus. Suggestions to renovate the Civic and add amenities needed to create an “arts and entertainment” center among the random mix of government buildings, parking lots, RAND’s corporate headquarters, a hotel, 324 units of housing, a seven-acre public park and a pending childhood development center are too little and way too late.

Alone and forlorn at the far end of the Civic Center, the Civic is an uninviting, large, white monolith. The odd-shaped auditorium is uncomfortable and dated. It was designed as a multi-purpose room and has the unpleasant ambiance of a middle school cafeteria. Seating consists of folding chairs on a flat floor.

Its warehouse-like exterior is a large, unattractive, windowless mass hidden in front by a 1950s-era concrete screen. Those trying to “Save the Civic” would have a hemorrhage if someone proposed building this today with its plain walls, height and clumsy massing.

There’s talk of using the Civic’s one saving grace, the 1,100 car surface parking lot next door, for other purposes. Moving parking to behind the courthouse would be the final nail in the Civic’s coffin. Even if rehabbed, it would still face operating losses every year.

Those trying to save the Civic need to get real and say “good-bye” because City Hall should tear it down and replace it with something new, fresh and exciting.

I’m thinking a modestly sized, outdoor amphitheater or architecturally exciting, flexible, indoor creative space for community meetings, music, dances and performances. Including cafes and art galleries would be icing on the cake.

If all else fails, there’s always more housing.


Old Santa Monica fading away


A few weeks ago, I wrote that the AMF Bay Shore Lanes at 234 Pico Blvd. — directly behind the Civic Auditorium — was slated for redevelopment as a four floor, mixed-use building with 91 apartments and retail space.

Last Monday night, the Landmarks Commission voted to consider designating the 1959 bowling alley as a city landmark. Landmarking would require that property owner 234 Pico PS LLC/GRT Portfolio Properties Santa Monica, LLC maintain the building’s fa√ßade and classic 1950s signage but would not require it to keep the 24 bowling lanes or interior furnishings.

Congratulations to all involved in finally considering landmark status for a significant example of Santa Monica’s cultural history. The matter will be back before the Landmarks Commission in about two months for review and a decision.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have a bowling alley there than another ugly, cookie cutter mixed-use apartment building.

And, the family-owned Norm’s Restaurant at Lincoln Boulevard and Colorado Avenue will serve its last meal on July 17. After 49 years of feeding Westsiders, it’ll be demolished and replaced by … can you guess?

Of course you can. Yet, another multi-floor, mixed-use/apartment building — one of four contiguous projects called “The Lincoln Boulevard Collection” slated for the east side of Lincoln. Maybe one of them will have a coffee shop. Wanna bet breakfasts won’t be cheap?



Bill can be reached at

Join the Conversation


Leave a comment

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