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Opulence Gone to Seed: The Pacific Coast Club of Long Beach

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Exterior view of the Pacific Coast Club building on the ocean side of Pacific Boulevard and Hendricks Avenue in Long Beach on February 14, 1938. |Photo: LAPL
Exterior view of the Pacific Coast Club building on the ocean side of Pacific Boulevard and Hendricks Avenue in Long Beach on February 14, 1938. | Photo: LAPL 

Today, Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach is a grand thoroughfare, with buildings that tower over you majestically as you drive by in your little car or truck.

The Pacific, a 16-story condo building, is no exception. It is a rather pretty building, built in 1992, where condo prices start at over half a million dollars. Its shiny facade hides the fact that its construction was a point of contention and sorrow for thousands of Long Beach residents. For it replaced the fortress-like Pacific Coast Club of Long Beach, a magical castle built by SoCal patriarchs during the optimistic glory days of this city by the sea.

The Castle

Rising abruptly out of the environing sea, almost like a fairy realm, this property commands an incomparable panorama of the languid Pacific with its gentle tides kissing the silver strand. -Pacific Coast Club Inaugural Book
[The PCC embodies] all the highest ideals in club life and sportsmanship. It stands for civic prestige and pride. It stands for the furtherance and protection of the American home. It is the personification of the spirit of the American will to win. It gives to Long Beach a medium for the outward expansion of the civic ideals that are the basis of American principles and prowess... -Pacific Coast Club Inaugural Book

It was the roaring, sociable 1920s in Southern California. In emerging cities like Long Beach, opportunities looked limitless and cash was flush. The pioneering families of SoCal were finally feeling established enough to enjoy some luxurious R&R.

Private gentlemen's sporting clubs, most modeled after the wildly successful Los Angeles Athletic Club (which was itself modeled after East Coast and English clubs), were popping up all over the area. Long Beach was no exception. In 1923, two nascent sports clubs joined to form the Pacific Coast Club of Long Beach. The membership included many of the biggest names in Long Beach -- the Llewellyns, W. Harriman Jones, Jotham Bixby and Walter Desmond.

14-story Pacific Coast Club tower | Source: LA Times, 1926
14-story Pacific Coast Club tower | Source: LA Times, 1926

They had the names, they had the incorporated club, and now they needed a building to rival the clubs in Los Angeles.

In June 1925, construction was started on a massive, fortress-like club headquarters at 850 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach's fashionable main thoroughfare. Designed by the firm of Curlett and Beelman, and built by the firm of McGrew and Sons, the fantastical facility was constructed on the edge of a bluff overlooking the sea. On Sept. 4th, 1926, the Los Angeles Times reported:

Elaborate dedication ceremonies will be held at the million dollar Pacific Coast Club this afternoon. Formal laying of the corner stone will mark the completion of the 14-story athletic and social building on the east beach bluff. To conform with the Norman architecture of the clubhouse, the dedication will have a medieval setting. Mounted knights, heralds and pikemen will patrol the boulevard and guard the building during the ceremony. Airplanes will fly above the clubhouse dropping bombs. President David M. Smith will lay the mortar with a gold trowel after community and club records have been deposited in the cornerstone.(L.A. Times, 1926)

The next month, the club was formally opened with an elaborate program spread out over five days. Opening night began at 5:30 p.m. on October 27, 1926, when the "massive bronze doors of the big Nordic building" were thrown open, and 700 representatives of the aristocracy of early California poured in:

[As] Guests arrived in groups and as each group entered the tall portals of the beautiful club building that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, a photographer made everlasting records of their visit... Five orchestras provided music for the diners, who were served at 7 o'clock...(LA Times, 1926)

Guests were led on tours of the new chocolate colored building. They were impressed by what they saw: a patent leather bar, numerous guestrooms, an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool, high oak beam ceilings, chandeliers, massive fireplaces, a beauty shop, basketball court, a barber shop, a sauna, a haberdashery, gym, a women's tea room, and a padded wrestling room. The massive library offered splendid ocean views, as did the Sunset Dining room with its three large walls of glass. There was also a private beach area for members.

Viewers raved that the club was "noble, massive, dignified, and superlatively beautiful-the finest example of classical Norman style ever reared on the western hemisphere."

Exterior view of the Pacific Coast Club in Long Beach. | Photo: LAPL
Exterior view of the Pacific Coast Club in Long Beach. | Photo: LAPL

A peculiar tradition started over the five nights of revelry. According to the Los Angeles Times:

One of the features of the club's opening will be the trying on of the golden slipper, a costly bit of footwear made by A. L. Letart, a jewelry designer... Modern Cinderella's will be asked each evening of the open week to try on the slipper. Successful candidates will meet at a time to be named later, when a final try on contest will be held. To the young Cinderella whose foot best fits the slipper will go the honor of having her name engraved on the gold of the bit of footwear and a Cinderella ball will be held later in her honor. The Cinderella slipper will be placed in a case in the Trophy Room of the club.

This tradition would evolve into an annual Cinderella Ball, which would delight Long Beach teenagers for decades. The club quickly became the social center of Long Beach. Members wheeled and dealed in the billiard room and library, the club's AAU sports teams hosted rival clubs like the L.A.A.C., and bachelors called the tower bedrooms home. Part-apartment, part-gym, part-nightclub -- it also became an important place for naval officers and their wives to entertain:

Pacific Coast Club in Long Beach that has been the setting for a number of the most attractive parties of the season to bid bon voyage to officers of the battle fleet and their wives. At an elaborate dinner dance Thursday night more than 200 were bidden for dinner and there were scores added to the number who enjoyed dancing from 9pm to midnight to the strains of the USS California orchestra.(LA Times, 1928)

The Prince and the Pauper

One summer in the 1930s, I worked as a bellboy in a modest beach hotel near the Coast Club, which stood, with its wonderful mock-medieval turrets, as a symbol of a desired world beyond my reach. Sometimes in the evening I watched in envy as gleaming young naval officers drove up to its canopy in Desotos and LaSalles and escorted nubile schoolgirls into its forbidden foyer...-Jack Smith, LA Times, 1978
When a city can build a club like the Pacific Coast Club, it is entitled to more than passing notice. Private enterprise indicates, at best, personal interest, but this institution bespeaks unselfish devotion, civic pride and vision. These three qualities are making Long Beach. They are her greatest asset, not exceeded even by the oil of her beach. It is the vision of the organizers of the Pacific Coast Club that has opened the way for a development never to be exceeded on the Pacific Coast. -Frank A. Garbutt, LA Times, 1928

However, all this opulence came at a cost. The club had borrowed a large amount of money to build their new home. Within a year, they were almost bankrupt.

Leaders at the club appealed to the financially stable L.A.A.C. for help. In a private trolley car, a deal was ironed out. The L.A.A.C. and PCC would merge. The PCC would become financially solvent, and the L.A.A.C. would get something leader Frank A. Garbutt had longed dreamed of -- ocean front property that could potentially become a yachting center (it never did). In 1928, the merger was heralded in the local papers:

Consolidation of the Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Pacific Coast Club, considered two of the most outstanding club organizations in the Southland, was announced yesterday by president W.M. Garland of the Athletic Club and President Frank E. Wall of the Coast Club.(LA Times, 1938)

According to L.A.A.C. historian Betty Lou Young, "When the corporate adoption was announced in the Mercury [the L.A.A.C. in-house magazine], the L.A.A.C. was congratulated for taking 'under its strong financial wing the lusty Long Beach baby of the club family.'" Members would be able to pay one fee for membership in both clubs, although their sports teams and management would remain separate. To celebrate the clubs' partnership, L.A.A.C. members drove down to Long Beach to participate in a "stage night," where the clubs' teams competed in handball, wrestling, and boxing.

With its new status as one of the L.A.A.C. "family" (which would eventually include the California Yacht Club, the Surf and Sand Club, the Hollywood Athletic Club, and the Riviera Club), the PCC continued on its merry way. Long Beach debutantes danced on the ocean view patio, members of the "naval" colony hosted bridges, teas and smokers during Fleet Week, and art shows were held featuring "marine landscapes."

Members of the Senior Assembly, sons and daughters of Long Beach socialites, practice the Conga Chain for their annual Christmas dance at the Pacific Coast Club, 1940s | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL
Members of the Senior Assembly, sons and daughters of Long Beach socialites, practice the Conga Chain for their annual Christmas dance at the Pacific Coast Club, 1940s | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection/LAPL

The PCC basketball team, the Cagers, frequently battled against the L.A.A.C. Mercuries, a rivalry closely followed by the media. According to the LA Times, the Cagers always played their best game against the Mercuries. "They can lose to teams of lesser light," one reporter wrote, "but always battle the local club men on even terms." Numerous high profile AAU swim meets were also held at the indoor pool. In 1932, famed "mermaid" Helene Madison of the Seattle AC helped smash the women's relay world record during a meet at the PCC.

The PCC's serene routine was shaken in 1933, when the 6.4 Long Beach Earthquake struck on the evening of March 10. According to Betty Lou Young, PCC manager Harry Schiffk, who had recently moved to Southern California from Germany, was the hero of the incident:

[Schiffke] was a few blocks away at the time of the quake. He rushed back just as the athletic director was guiding the elderly residents down the damaged staircases and out into the street. The storage area in the basement was a shambles. Where it was safe to enter two days later, the perishables were removed, but 200 pounds of shad roe, purchased for a party, had achieved the ultimate in aroma and had to be shoveled out. Meanwhile, Schiffke, and the food buyer set up a post across the street, building a bonfire out of the debris, and for two weeks kept a sharp lookout for looters.

The PCC was heavily damaged, and the club had to take out an RFC government loan for a costly renovation. It was reopened in 1934, but as the recession deepened, luxurious clubs around the country began to suffer, and many folded. Though the PCC stayed open, the L.A.A.C. organization began to shed many of its other satellite clubs in an attempt to stay afloat. World War II brought new challenges to the PCC, whose height and coastal location made it a potential target for the enemy. Betty Lou Young recalled an early blackout at the club:

One of the first red air raid alerts was sounded one night just as two hundred men were nearing the end of a "Ducks Unlimited" dinner. Since the dining room had not yet been draped, the men were sent to the lobby, the lounge, or the bar-which were prepared for blackouts- and the front doors ordered locked. Frantic to talk to their families, the men crowded into the hallways and lined up in front of the telephone booths. Everyone grew restless as time dragged on. Finally, when the all clear was given, an equally anxious Charles Hathaway and PCC Manager Harry Schiffke were stunned when some of the members came up to them complaining that the incident was nothing but a ruse to sell drinks at the bar.
A street view of the Pacific Coast Club in Long Beach and the Villa Riviera Hotel which towers over the club on the right. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
A street view of the Pacific Coast Club in Long Beach and the Villa Riviera Hotel which towers over the club on the right. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

The Best Laid Plans...

Silver and crimson motifs offered a charming background for the beautifully gowned feminine guests. Candlelight illuminated the Sunset Dining Room where red tapers glowed at each table and two six foot crimson cathedral candles burned at either side of the orchestra. Wooden holders for the tall tapers on each table were covered with shiny tinfoil and banked at the base were glistening silvered cones and cedar boughs. Adding another note of festivity to the club was a sparkling Christmas tree which greeted guests in the foyer.(LA Times, 1937)
This place was "The Great Gatsby," and now it's a crying shame.(LA Times, 1984)

In 1940, a strange event occurred in the famed lobby of the PCC. A mentally disturbed man named Theodore Alphonse Girmschied had been sneaking into the boiler room to sleep for a week. He had married a sixteen year old girl the month before, and had been scared to tell her he had recently lost his job. Instead, he lied to her, and said he was working the night shift at a local airplane factory, while in reality he was sleeping in the boiler room -- next to his loaded gun.

While Girmschied was attempting to sneak out of the lobby at 5:30 a.m. one morning, he came upon night clerk Harry Dale. During the attempted hold-up that followed, Girmschied shot Dale and fled. Dale managed to run to two night porters for help. The porters caught Girmschied and wrestled him into submission on the lobby floor. Dale eventually died from his injuries, and Girmschied pled guilty to murder.

Money problems continued to plague the PCC. The RFC loan had come due, and the club was unable to keep up with the payments. But as the war ramped up and naval officers flooded Long Beach, membership spiked to an all-time high, saving the club from its money woes.

After the war, membership dropped again, but the club remained an elite social center of Long Beach throughout the 1950s. For several years, it played host to the Miss Universe Pageant's annual swim suit photo shoot:

...the girls appeared for cheesecake pictures on the sands outside the Pacific Coast Club. Hordes of photographers- amateur and professional-clicked shutters at the long stemmed lovelies under the clear, hot sky. Miss Switzerland, Daniele Oudinet, used to Alpine climes, collapsed in a lovely heap and was carried into the club, where she revived. Despite the protests of their chaperones, some of the girls actually went near the water, and a few got wet. Thelma Brewis, Miss Canada, boldly splashed in up to her neck but kept her hair dry.(LA Times, 1953)

These heady times were not to last. In 1963, the PCC building was sold to a new owner. The AAU portion of the club would struggle on for a time in other facilities, having continued success in track and field, while the "castle's" new owner would attempt to revive the building.

This attempt was a failure, and the little used building would be sold numerous times, falling into disrepair. A teenage boy exploring the building was killed when he fell from the tall tower. Homeless people broke in and camped inside the cavernous rooms. In 1979, columnist Jack Smith said of the once grand building, "that great fake Norman Castle...now stands dark and empty, under siege by modern battles."

A crowded beach edged by a breakwater juts into the ocean on a stretch of beach just before the Villa Riviera Hotel, left, and the Pacific Coast Club, right. | Photo: 	Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL
A crowded beach edged by a breakwater juts into the ocean on a stretch of beach just before the Villa Riviera Hotel, left, and the Pacific Coast Club, right. | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/LAPL

It was a slow death. Numerous legal battles were fought in city halls, public meetings, and courts of law. Preservationists battled developers and the city, developers battled the government, compromises were reached -- and then scuttled. The building, which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, continued to fall apart and was occasionally used as a location for horror films.

The Pacific Coast Club, which had once represented the pride of Long Beach, finally came down in 1988. It took over a month for the wrecking ball to bring the mammoth structure down.

However, something positive came out of the PCC's painful, protracted end. New historic preservation regulations were drafted to protect significant structures in Long Beach. "It took the demolition...to wake the citizens of Long Beach up," said Douglas W. Otto, chairman of the Coalition to Preserve Historic Long Beach. "We learned through the Pacific Coast Club that the community cares about its past and is willing to go to some lengths to preserve it."

Further reading: "Our first century: The Los Angeles Athletic Club", 1880-1980, by Betty Lou Young

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