Giant aeroscope ride on Looff Pier, c. 1917 (Santa Monica History Museum)

Tony McGinn

SMDP Intern

A new exhibit at the Santa Monica History Museum is centered around a one-of-a-kind prospectus from 1917 by Charles Looff, the architect behind the Santa Monica Pier.

Featuring nearly over 50 documents, including photographs, maps, letters and other ephemera related to the pier, the exhibit, titled “Santa Monica Pleasure Pier: A Look Back to 1917 from Today,” was compiled by Michael Murphy and Jen Luking to show the earliest transformation of Santa Monica Pier into the famous landmark it is today.

The Looff prospectus, the only known copy in existence, is a scrapbook featuring photos and letters on heavy black paper. The prospectus includes photos of the pier’s attractions, maps of the transportation to the pier, bank statements, diagrams of attraction placements and inventories of the pier’s amenities.

Santa Monica’s municipal pier was built in 1909; the “pleasure pier” was constructed after Charles Looff, the architect and entrepreneur behind Coney Island, acquired the rights to build on Santa Monica Beach in 1916. His 1917 prospectus book was a way to advertise stock in his “Santa Monica Pleasure Pier Company.”

Along with pier artifacts, the exhibit gives a sense of the cultural impact the attraction would one day have. Photos show Looff’s Hippodrome, the original Blue Streak roller coaster, rides and attractions such as “The Whip” and the “What Is It” fun house, as well as more domestic, familial scenes, such as picnickers on the beach, orchestras under the pergolas and tourists in their Sunday best strolling the pier or taking a ride on the battery-powered, electric trolleys that serviced the pier over a century ago.

Provided by the Stephen Raul Anaya Collection, the photos from the original 1917 prospectus have been blown up and placed around the museum, overlaid with present-day photographs from the same viewpoint, in what artist Michael Murphy calls “Look Back Art.”

“A lot of these shots were very complicated to recreate. It’s a lot of fun and quite a huge reward,” Murphy said.

Triangulating the exact location of where historical photos were taken in order to recreate the shot was only half the battle; to get the shots themselves, Murphy used ladders, drones and in the case of a shot of Topanga Canyon, a tripod balanced on the top of a truck.

Some of Murphy’s favorite shots include a group of tourists riding on an electric, battery-powered trolley. A wicker curtain around the wheels of the trolley give it the appearance of a “hovercraft.” Other photos Murphy enjoys are the montages of the sidewalks and walkways of the area, where present-day photos and historical photos show little change.

“These old photographs, you don’t necessarily know where they are. So as soon as you put them in their place and know where they are today, they kind of have a larger added value, because you’ve walked this pathway, or you’ve been to that point at the pier, and you can see where the trolley was. ,” Murphy said. “What that does, in architectural conservancy world, is called continuity of place … We can’t preserve this, it’s all long gone, but we can preserve the memory.”

A book of the images in the exhibit is collected in Murphy’s third publication featuring “Look Back Art,” part of his larger “Look Back Project,” designed to give people a sense of connection to the historical background of their physical location. His first book, “Santa Monica: A Look Back to 1902,” featured rare photos of Santa Monica’s streets, ones featured in a book published by the Fire Department for fundraising purposes.

Murphy said his hope that the exhibit will attract kids from Santa Monica schools in particular.

“This is a great educational opportunity for these kids, and an opportunity for us to share local history,” he said.

The exhibit was installed Nov. 5 and will run through Feb. 22. There is a free admission day on Dec. 19.

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