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Historical Museum Explores Miramar's Past  

By Michael Aushenker
Special to The Lookout

August 2, 2011 -- Harry N. Stetson, as in Stetson hats, signed in on August 29 1893. Arabella Y. Huntington, wife of Collis and once the nation’s richest woman, also spent a few nights there in 1891.

Before her portrait was ever emblazoned across a silver dollar, she signed the guest book, on June 22, 1895 after a long trip from Rochester, New York, in a flamboyant cursive, “Susan B. Anthony.”

The history of the Miramar on Wilshire Boulevard and 2nd Street is a long one, dating back to the birth of Santa Monica itself. Today, as the hotel looks forward to a multi-million-dollar, two-year expansion, the Santa Monica History Museum is currently telling the Miramar’s story, through rare photos and artifacts, from the site’s beginnings as the estate of Santa Monica founding father and U.S. Senator John Percival Jones, to its current incarnation as the Fairmont Miramar hotel.

Mary Pat Cooney, the Museum’s newly installed director of operations, flips through a Miramar guest book that dates back to the 1890s. Susan B. Anthony and Arabella Huntington are among the Miramar’s visitors whose signatures are inside the book.

“We have visitors from all over the country,” said Mary Pat Cooney, the Museum’s newly installed director of operations, as she flipped through a guest book on display that is circa 1890s, dating back to before the Miramar was officially a hotel.

Among the visitors of yesteryear: John Muir, Mark Twain, and Robert Peyton Carter, an entertainment figure who handwrote in ink a lengthy, nostalgic poem about the Miramar.

The Miramar exhibit, which was put together with input from the Fairmont Miramar, will run through October 18, and it contains rare photos that once belonged to Senator Jones.

“He had stored, for 40 years, a huge collection of pictures, documents, and all kinds of papers in storage,” said Santa Monica History Museum founder Louise B. Gabriel. “They were discovered five years ago by Rick Bandini Johnson, a longtime supporter of our museum for at least 25 years. He was a close friend of John Farquhar, grandson of Senator Jones.

“He catalogued that huge collection,” Gabriel continued of Johnson. “It took five years to catalogue. He’s a great historian.”

The hotel sits on the property of the Nevada senator -- one of the founders of Santa Monica in 1875 -- once called home before and after he was a public official. A contemporary of Senator William Randolph Hearst, who also made a mint mining in Nevada, Jones, whose fortune came from silver, is well represented in the show’s vintage images, as is his wife Georgina and various friends and family, circa 1900.

“Senator Jones donated the land for the VA Hospital” in Westwood, Gabriel noted.

Jones sold the Miramar property to King C. Gillette, inventor of Gillette safety razors, for $77,500, and, by 1921, Gilbert Stevenson had purchased it and developed it into a hotel.

The History Museum’s exhibit displays plenty of indications of the athletic activities and musical performances that took place on the property, and the fashion of the day, represented by clothing from the Farquhar Jones estate. The display also includes a hotel brochure from the 1920s, and a thank-you letter from a former employee named Doris Day, written more than three decades ago.

“It’s a really sweet letter,” Cooney said of Day’s fond note, referencing the days she was employed by the hotel. “She was working so she couldn’t use the pool.”

Day was not the only actress with a Miramar connection. As evinced by exhibit materials, “The Divine Woman” herself, Greta Garbo, lived in the Miramar apartments (that were not reserved as hotel rooms), and Betty Grable sang there with the Ted Whidden Band in 1934.

A 1950s cocktail menu from the historic landmark features African and Polynesian flourishes that hint at the funky Tiki-culture craze that swept the West Coast across the decade. Among the list of exotic libations: a white rum and soda and a Blue Hawaii.

Cooney’s personal highlight: the hotel’s signature Moreton Bay Fig tree. Planted in 1898, the second biggest fig tree in the state of California is of special interest as a non-native species.

“The fact that these trees adapted to this climate…,” she said, “it was a treat to read how, over all these years, it’s still there.”

Cooney also enjoyed “a cute story about a sailor who bartered [the fig tree] to the bartender, who knew someone who worked on the grounds of the Miramar.”

In the past 40 years, the Miramar continued to change hands, going corporate in 1973 when the Tokyo-based Fujita Corporation took it over before the hotel was bought a couple more times: in 1999, and in October 2006, when current management MSD Capital took over the hotel.

If the exhibition will show visitors anything, Cooney said, it’s “what the Miramar was when it began and a dedication to hospitality, a cordial life, and an acknowledgment of the beautiful setting of Santa Monica that has been retained…by Miramar today.”

The exhibit on Miramar’s past arrived just as the hotel’s future was making news. In May, the conceptual redesign plans of the Fairmont Miramar were submitted by the hotel’s owners to the City of Santa Monica’s Planning Department.

The owners of the Fairmont Miramar had unveiled a version of their plans during a March meeting of Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (formerly Bayside District Corp.) to overhaul the luxury hotel into a complex standing 138 feet high (three feet taller than the building today) that would add retail space and condos and affordable housing while reducing available hotel space from 302 rooms to 265.

The new plans call for 12 times the current retail space and three times the parking space. The plans also include moving the entrance to the hotel from Wilshire Boulevard to Second Street, an acre of open space called Miramar Gardens, which, when not utilized for private events by the hotel, would be open to the public, and an exploitation of rooftop views of the ocean and mountains via the addition of a bar and a pool.

An economic impact consulting group pegged potential revenue from the hotel redux for the city at $8 million.

With the development application submitted, what will follow in the months ahead are community town hall meetings that will incorporate public opinion into the project’s ongoing development and include conceptual discussions with the Planning Commission and City Council. Once the project is finalized, the hotel’s overhaul will take roughly two years to complete.

Currently, there is no public outcry over the Fairmont Miramar’s intentions. Originally, members of the Santa Monica Bay Towers Home Owners Association expressed some concern over the direction of the expansion, fearing an obstruction of the Bay Towers’ view if the project were to expand toward Ocean and California Avenues. However, that concern was quelled as the hotel’s proposed expansion is toward Wilshire and 2nd.

In a press release, Alan Epstein of MSD Capital, an affiliate of the hotel's owner, Ocean Avenue LLC, stated: "The Miramar Hotel has been a beloved institution in the city of Santa Monica since it originally opened in 1927. The hotel market has, of course, become intensely competitive since then.

“Our proposed revitalization plan will ensure that the Miramar regains its stature as one of the great coastal resorts in Southern California, while at the same time contributing to the dynamic mixed-use environment that the city hopes to create in Downtown Santa Monica."

And so, as the story of the Miramar continues to unfold and evolve well into the 21st century, the Santa Monica History Museum invites locals to bone up on the hotel’s past.
“Keeping history alive is our main purpose,” Gabriel said.

For more information, visit the museum's website.

".So when I muse on Santa Monica, flowers and sunshine amidst the fogs and cold, my wistful thoughts, swift-winged from afar, shall speed back again to Miramar, and clear through dreamland's vision, I shall see outstretched toward me hands across the sea, greeting me as of old."--    Playwright/actor Robert    Peyton Carter, late-19th    century Miramar guest

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