There is an unearthly quiet that surrounds me on Bluff Top Trail in Dana Point. Below the craggy, green and brown cliffs is beautiful Dana Point Harbor, where hundreds of sailboats silently bob up and down and the dark roofs of upscale seafood restaurants shine in the sun. The cement trail leads me past "The Admiralty," a gated condo development. Elderly residents in brightly colored spandex occasionally walk by me at a quick clip, their smiling faces and friendly greetings speaking volumes about a successful life well lived. At first glance, the sights I encounter all appear to be nothing more than the hallmarks of an efficient, thoroughly corporate and modern brand of upper class South Orange County beach living.
However, the dusty cliffs I walk on are lined with the rocky ruins of a former scenic walk, built in the 1920s. The statue of a muscular man, throwing what appears to be a large sheet onto the shore below, commemorates the "hide drogher's" of the Mission era. Three vine covered cement arches I walk under are, in fact, remains of the never completed Dana Point Inn, the grandiose dream of showboat developer S.H. Woodruff--of the Hollywood sign fame--who died before it was halfway completed. Now called "the Arches," they were originally supposed to be giant bay windows, and they still picturesquely frame the rocky peaks of the 188-foot "Headlands," which hug the harbor. The genteel neighborhood around the trail is also part of Woodruff's grand plan, with street names like Amber Lantern and Violet Lantern, and fanciful homes in the California-Revival and Colonial-Revival styles.
The brash commercialism of Woodruff's original vision never came to fruition, but remnants of his gimmicks -- neighborhood lamp posts, the Arches, and the Inn's abandoned elevator shaft -- give this oh-so-lovely beach enclave of 2015 a dash of boomtown pizazz.
The Only Romantic Spot on the Coast
The Captain told us to begin and throw the hides down. This, then was the way they were to be got down- thrown down, one at a time, a distance of four hundred feet. Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far out into the air as we could; and as they were all large, stiff and doubled, like the cover of a book, the wind took them, and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. It was really a picturesque sight. The great height, the scaling of the hides, and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites on the beach. This was the romance of hide-droghing!--Richard Henry Dana, "Two Years Before the Mast"
Dana Point Harbor led several lives before its current incarnation. Archeological evidence suggests that local Native Americans may have used this natural bay, with its soaring cliffs and lovely beaches, as a recreational spot. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo took note of the famed Headlands during his voyage in 1542. In 1776, the Spanish founded Mission San Juan Capistrano only four miles away. The bay -- called both Capistrano and San Juan Bay -- became the port for the Mission. Here, Mission padres would barter on the bluff top with visiting traders, trading valuable cow hides for much needed supplies. The hide trade was so important to California that a hide was called a "California Bank note," since it was the territory's only form of currency. Instead of chancing it down the dangerous cliffs, "hide drogher's" (usually visiting sailors or Mission employees) would throw these oversized bank notes off the cliffs, down to the sailors on the beach below.
The bay and its commercial activities were made famous by a man who spent only two days on its craggy expanse. Richard Henry Dana was a future lawyer from an old, well-respected Northeast family. In 1834, he postponed his law studies at Harvard, after a bout with the measles, to spend two years as a regular sailor on the high seas. His memoir "Two Years Before the Mast," which recounted his travels around Cape Horn and up to Alta California on the brig The Pilgrim, was a modest success when it came out in 1840. But its popularity soared in 1848, when gold was discovered in California. Many 49'ers used Dana's recollections as a guidebook for what they should expect in the new promise land. In one particularly famous passage, Dana recalled his visit to "San Juan" Bay, which he singled out for its beauty:
San Juan Bay is the only romantic spot on the coast. The country here for several miles is high tableland, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep cliff, at the foot of which the water of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water rushes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea. Just where we landed was a small cove, or bight which gave us, at high tide a few square feet of sand-beach between the sea and the bottom of the hill. Directly before us rose the perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet. How we were to get the hides down, or goods up, upon the tableland on which the mission was situated, was more than we could tell...
Over the next sixty or so years, the area was home to fishermen who built simple tarpaper shacks on the shore. Judge Richard Egan, justice of the peace in San Juan Capistrano, is said to have successfully lobbied to rename the Headlands (then known as San Juan Capistrano Point) Dana Point in 1884. In 1914, the wealthy Dolph sisters of Pennsylvania built the first permanent residence, a grand two story mansion, at Dana Point. Many day trippers from Los Angeles also came down to enjoy the secluded beaches of the bay.
By the 1920s, the coast of Orange County was experiencing a boom in construction, much like its sister county to the north. In 1923, a syndicate called the San Juan Point Corporation, comprised of Laguna Beach realtors Guy and Joe Skidmore, Anna Walters, Dr. J. L. Beebe and others, was formed to develop a 900 acre area around the bay at Dana Point. A cliff side rockwork trail (the ruins are still visible on Bluff Top Trail) leading to a beachside picnic area was built to lure prospective buyers. Two local brothers, Thomas and George Seeman, hand set the rocks, which were mined from local sources. Along the trail were scenic "lovers landings" supplied with benches. The covered picnic area was called "The Scenic Inn" and quickly became a popular spot for day trippers. Events designed to woo L.A. locals were advertised in the L.A. Times, including one inviting folks to "Be our guests, Labor Day at Dana Point, where Fred Ramirez will serve one of his famous Spanish lunches." A glossy, color pamphlet entitled "Dana Point and Vicinity, California," touting Dana Point as a "beauty spot of historic interest and scenic splendor," was published in 1924.
However, the development failed, even as Orange County boomed. But in 1926, a big man from the big city bought the development. And if he couldn't make Dana Point a success -- then no one could.
Wiley Woodruff Comes to Town
Here are beautiful Palisades, golden beaches, a charming Stillwater bay, splendid soil, an incomparable climate and splendid Water Supply --S. H. Woodruff promotion, 1927 1
Your presentation of Dana Point to the Great American Public is very convincing and is very constructive and attractive. If work like this doesn't sell property, it can't be sold. --Mack Sennett 2
Sydney H. Woodruff was flying high in 1926. Since 1923, Woodruff (along with a syndicate of others, including Harry Chandler) had been successfully developing "Hollywoodland," a fanciful, economically attainable fairyland of a residential community in Hollywood's Beachwood Canyon. He believed that Dana Point had similar potential, especially since the Roosevelt Highway (now the PCH) was soon coming to town (its Dana Point portion opened in 1929). As the symbol of his new development, Woodruff chose the silhouette of Richard Henry Dana's ship, The Pilgrim. He immediately set about improving the roads and tracts laid out by previous developers. Anna Walters stayed on with him as a real estate agent, and many say it is she who came up with development's most famous gimmick. Every street was named for the lanterns which dotted the wide roads -- Amber Lantern, Green Lantern, Blue Lantern. While most of the lanterns shone clear, white light, the lanterns at the end of each street had another light on the top of their posts that shone the same color as the name of the street. Thus a traveler lost in the evening would always know what street she was on.
At the same time Woodruff was developing Dana Point, doomed L.A. golden boy Ned Doheny, son of oil tycoon Edward L., was developing Capistrano Beach next door. The Doheny family built a mansion and a variety of beach homes on the Palisades above the beach. In 1928, the grand Capistrano Beach Club opened on the shore below.
As these powerful L.A. men all descended on Orange County in a race to develop the coast, they all tried to make their developments stand out. Woodruff began building spec and show homes on these fancifully named streets. Overall, around forty houses were built during the Woodruff era (38 are still inhabited). They were all built in similar style. Woodruff explained grandiosely, "the architectural restrictions of Dana Point are such that only homes and buildings of beautiful architecture can be constructed. This is for the protection of every property owner in Dana Point. Architectural restrictions do not add to the cost of home buildings; as a matter of fact, the beauty and environment of the community are protected by architectural restrictions to a greater extent than where monetary restrictions only govern. The prevailing motif of the architecture at Dana Point will be the new California-Renaissance architecture, a rebirth of the early Spanish hacienda type homes in California." 3 Woodruff usually built these homes clustered in twos on otherwise empty streets, so that in pictures and ads, Dana Point would look much more developed than it actually was.
The consummate showman, Woodruff would often invite prospective buyers to Dana Point. He constantly touted the area's historic past, referring to "Two Years Before the Mast" at every opportunity. From the Blue Lantern Gazebo (still there today), he would show them the fantastic view of the bay and point to a group of young people frolicking in the water. Little did the visitors know, the frolickers were his step-daughter and her recruited friends. "It was the middle of winter," she said. "We were freezing, and it was hard trying to look like we were having fun." 4
From nearly the beginning of his involvement in Dana Point, Woodruff claimed the centerpiece of his new development would be a grand hotel, similar to ones on the Mediterranean, built on the bluffs where Dana once chucked cow hides onto the beach below. Woodruff claimed the hotel would "rival the tourist hotels of Europe and America." 5 Many plans were sketched of the grand hotel, and interest was high. Although the stock market crashed in 1929, it took a while for the reverberations to be felt in California. On January 26, 1930, construction on the Dana Point Inn began, based on plans by architect Charles A. Hunter:
Work has started yesterday on the Dana Point Inn, a hotel costing approximately $750,000 at Dana Point, seacoast recreational community, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Ground breaking ceremonies inaugurated the beginning of the work by the Western Construction Company for the Dana Point Inn, Inc. S.H. Woodruff, developer of Dana Point, presided at the ceremonies. The Dana Point Inn is planned in California-renaissance architecture and will combine the beauty of an early California hacienda with modern hotel facilities. Broad terraces, balconies, tile roofs, ornamental ironwork, arches and deep reveals are designed to typify the architectural feeling of this structure. Special furniture is being designed to fit the character of the surroundings. The inn will have its own bathing beach. The grounds, comprising approx. five acres, will be landscaped. Villas of the Mediterranean type of architecture will augment the capacity of the hotel. 6
Work continued for several months. The Los Angeles Times (with Woodruff's investment partner Harry Chandler at the helm) continued to hype the project, even as the depression finally arrived on California's shores:
Indicative of the progress being made by this coast, toward a position of importance exceeding even that of the Mediterranean's best, is the construction designed for the comfort and welfare of the constantly increasing thousands of visitors to this American Riviera. An outstanding feature in this respect is the $750,000 Dana Point Inn project now rising at Dana Point. Occupying a commanding position on the palisade overlooking both the ocean and the still water bay, this structure of Spanish architecture, in keeping with the character of the Southland, will be from two to five stories in height. A dining patio facing the sea will supplement a large dining hall accommodating 1250 patrons. An elevator shaft sunk into the structure's site for 135 feet in length gives interior access to the beach. 7
But the depression soon halted the Inn's construction. By June, 1931, a special meeting was called by local dignitaries to "urge completion of the Dana Point Inn" before the onslaught of tourists expected during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. (LA Times, June 20, 1931 Olympic Guests Wanted) Construction did not resume.
During the 1930s, Woodruff's dreams for Dana Point died a slow death. Neighbor Capistrano Beach suffered a similar fate when the murder of Ned Doheny at Greystone Manor brought his dream development to an end. In 1931, the Doheny family donated much of their Orange Country land to the state in memory of Ned, and Doheny State Beach was born. In 1935, desperate to make his acreage profitable, Woodruff toyed with planting flower beds along the coast, using them to make perfumes that featured the "scents of California." One longtime resident told current Dana Point Historical Society President Barbara Johannes that he and other neighborhood children used to play in the house she now owns. Like many Woodruff-built homes, it sat empty for years, much to the delight of the children of Dana Point. In 1939, Woodruff finally gave up the ghost and sold the development. But the hulking concrete foundation of the unfinished Inn sat atop the bay's bluffs, a ghostly reminder of what might have been.
Bluff Top Trail
At first glance it looks like the ruins of a fortress that stood guard over the harbor. Actually, it is the unfinished foundation of what was to be an elegant bluff top hotel... The concrete remains have been silent sentinels for almost 50 years. Graffiti, dominated by a swastika, mark the old foundation. It is a structure with pillars, holes where windows were to go and an outside staircase leading nowhere. An elevator shaft- long since sealed for public safety descends from the hotel basement to the foot of the bluff where a beach once was. A bunker-like structure in the face of the cliff marks the site. The wood is gone except for weathered window jambs. Protruding pieces of reinforcing bar have rusted and snapped or been bent by visitors. Bits of colored glass from broken bottles litter the area. There is no sound, except bits of conversation that carry upwind from Dana Point Harbor below.--Los Angeles Times, September 17, 19788
For the next few decades, Dana Point grew at a snail's pace as the beachside towns around it boomed. The Scenic Inn washed into the sea, and the unfinished Dana Point Inn became the hangout of teenagers and scavengers, who hauled away its wood frame piece by piece. Below, Dana Cove became a popular hangout for surfers, due to the legendary wave, "Killer Dana." In the 1960s, a breakwater and the present day harbor were built, killing "Killer Dana" but jumpstarting commerce. Although it had been owned by the Chandler-Sherman Corporation since 1945, the concrete remains of the Dana Point Inn survived.
In the 1980s, the Pulte Corporation planned to build "The Admiralty" on the site of the abandoned Inn. A group of concerned Dana Point citizens, worried that the remains of the scenic trail would be closed to public use, formed the Dana Point Historical Society in response to the proposed threat. A deal between Pulte and the concerned citizens was reached. Although most of the Inn's foundation was removed, the three iconic arches were restored. In all, Pulte spent around $500,000 on the renovation and the construction of the public "Bluff Top Trail," which leads people across the bluffs atop the ruins. They also paid for the construction of the bronze "Hide Drogher's" statue, designed by F. Benedict Coleman. The statue was unveiled Oct. 28, 1990, less than two years after Dana Point officially became a city. Once again, the preservation of Dana Point's history was saved by pragmatic commerce.
Special thanks to the Dana Point Historical Society.
1 Doris I. Walker, "Images of America: Dana Point" Arcadia Publishing, 2007: pg. 56
2 Doris I. Walker, "Images of America: Dana Point" Arcadia Publishing, 2007: pg.51
3 " Interest High at Dana Point" Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1927
4 "Headlands History a Kaleidoscope of Dream" Orange County Register, May 31, 2001
5 Dana Point Historical Society Materials
6 "Work begins on hotel at Dana Point" Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1930
7 "Coastline development testifies to progress" Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1930
8 "Unfinished inn keeps vigil at Dana" Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1978