It's there right in front of you: all the elements that make up a typical day on Second Street in Downtown Santa Monica. Health enthusiasts hustling to Orange TheoryFitness and Soul Cycle. British expatriates readying themselves for darts at the King's Head Pub. The hungry and impatient waiting in a line leaking out of Tender Greens. Buried within all of this, specifically in front of Hostelling International USA's Santa Monica outpost, is the Rapp Saloon, the oldest structure still standing in Santa Monica.
The Rapp dates back to 1875, the year the city was founded. Since its birth as a barroom, the Rapp has also served as city hall, a radiator repair shop and a warehouse for an early 20th century film company. More recently, it's been the meeting place for groups like Heal the Bay, Alcoholics Anonymous and Surfrider, as well as a space for events at the hostel.
(The Rapp Saloon, built in 1875, the year Santa Monica was founded, continues to be used as an events venue)
You'd hardly think that the oldest building in Santa Monica would be surrounded by downtown tourists in trendy new travel gear, but it's that juxtaposition of old and new that makes Second Street unique and drives it forward. Even as the future arrives in the form of new and revitalized businesses and restaurants—North Italia, Hiho Cheeseburger, Flower Child, Cava, Bookmonster, a “coming soon” restaurant on the rooftop of the Monica Film Center, the recent remodel at Tender Greens—the past remains on Second Street in the form of a small town community vibe.
Anna Lucas Marin, southwest regional engagement manager with HIUSA said, “the Promenade feels like a tourist destination. Same with Ocean. Second is like a little town,” she said. “I hope it continues to feel like a small town.”
“I think Second Street caters more towards locals,” said Jim Cahlin, owner of OrangeTheory Fitness. His studio is particularly connected to the area, thanks to partnerships with local restaurants, but he also sees it as part of a fitness strip on Second that includes the surrounding gyms and yoga studios. “I think more of the locals are walking Second to get their exercise,” he said.
Jessica Amodeo, store manager of Bookmonster, located off the Promenade on Santa Monica Boulevard near Second Street, sees her business as a used bookstore for locals as much as for tourists. Despite only being open a handful of months, the store has already attracted a local crowd thanks to its healthy foot traffic and open floor design. “We're getting a lot of people who found their way off the Promenade,” she said. “People who live in the area are coming in and are surprised they have a local bookstore now.”
Jonas Brewis, general manager of North Italia, envisions the eatery joining the ranks of some restaurants that set Second apart as a dining destination that's more low key than the streets around it. The freshly opened Italian restaurant employs locals, serves locals and shops local for fresh ingredients whenever it can, he said. “For us, the locals are our bread and butter,” he added. “That's who's going to help us grow.”
Downtown was the civic and industrial heart of Santa Monica, and it always had that small-town feel. However, it wasn't a postcard perfect small town. In the 1950s, downtown was labeled “skid row” on some maps of the area. Second became mostly a strip of warehouses and empty lots, which is what the Monica Film Center was before 1970.
“It was a vacant lot, just a parcel,” said Greg Laemmle, now president of Laemmle Theatres but then working in his family's Santa Monica location.
(Take a trip down memory lane with these photos of Second Street, taken the morning of Feb. 14, 1970, Photos courtesy Santa Monica Conservancy)
Luckily, some of those lots were parking lots, since where to put your car was as much of an issue then as it is now. “When I was working at the theater, the northwest corner of Santa Monica and Second was a parking lot,” Laemmle said. “That was one of the things that encouraged us to build on that location. Surface parking.”
But there wasn't a lot else on Second.
“The theater was the first nighttime business on the street,” Laemmle said. “I think we predated the Pussycat,” he added, referring to an adult movie theater that remained on Second until the 1990s and is one of the more infamous and colorful characters in the history of the street. The police department allegedly made 2,000 arrests for lewd conduct on the premise from 1977 to 1994. In 1981, an ordinance was passed banning adult movie theaters in Santa Monica.
But soon there was more than adult theaters. Garth Sheriff, now an architect but then involved in some Santa Monica political campaigns, including the effort to save the Santa Monica Pier, recalls the mid-70s downtown area as a pleasant “five and dime” neighborhood. “It had a small town, not necessarily beach town, atmosphere,” he said. “If you'd picked it up and put it in Nebraska, you wouldn't have been uncomfortable.”
“It definitely seemed out of date and out of time and place, and ready for renovation of some kind,” Sheriff added. “And therein became the whole political argument of the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Although changes were proposed for different parts of the area, it was ultimately Third Street that saw the biggest transformation, becoming the world-famous Promenade in 1989.
Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica Inc., said that, while the Promenade is the crown jewel of downtown, there has always been an effort to push some of its energy onto Fourth and Second streets.
“We didn't do anything for Second that we didn't do for the rest of the district,” she said. “We did a lot with lighting and pedestrian orientation, whether that be in the public realm or encouraging businesses just to be more active after 5 p.m.”
The encouragement has clearly worked. Today, pedestrians can be found heading into Coffee Bean for a morning cup of joe, taking lunch at Flower Child or grabbing a pint at the King's Head long after dark. And the past is with them every step of the way.
(The hustle and bustle of Second Street during a weekday afternoon. The Rapp Saloon and hostel can be seen on the left.)
Back at the Rapp Saloon, another day was ending as afternoon faded into evening. Bright white light illuminated the windows, emphasizing the dark and chill of the 19th century interior. Its history might present possibilities for the future as well as a record of the past. HIUSA's Anna Lucas Marin said she'd love to see the hostel use the building for more community outreach, perhaps by revisiting one of the Rapp's previous incarnations.
“It's been used for so many different things. We see that continuing and hopefully expanding. Like having an exhibition for local artists,” she said, referring to the time the Rapp acted as an art gallery. “It's great to look back and see where you've been.”