IN PICTURES: Inside the Empty, Historic Ocean Center Building (Before It Becomes Something Else)
Photos by Brian Addison. To see all the photos, scroll through the gallery above.
It is home to fourteen stories of gorgeous Spanish Revival architecture, standing 197 feet tall above DTLB, complete with terra cotta tiling on its roof after breaking ground in Long Beach on January 25, 1929 at a cost of $1.1M.
And the historic Ocean Center Building on the southwest corner of Ocean and Pine Ave. sits empty after an initial attempt at development nearly three years ago—converting the building into 74 residential units designed by Los Angeles firm David Lawrence Gray Architects—failed but its office tenants were already kicked out.
But now, hopes for a 139-room boutique hotel, complete with eateries, food artisans, retailers, and public space, are riding high on an impeccable historic building that remains unused, uncared for, and of no use to the community. Even more? A rooftop pool and bar that will be accessible to the public, complete with views of the Queen Mary and DTLB, are part of the plans to be included in the development.
Here’s the big caveat: if Ocean Center is to become a hotel, it has to include not only the history but the community. Contemporary hotels need to eschew the exclusiveness it holds with its guests and incorporate some type of public space that will activate the hotels in a dynamic fashion. It’s what travelers seek and what Long Beach yearns for.
Designed by Raymond M. Kennedy under the famed Meyer and Holler firm—responsible for Hollywood’s iconic Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theaters—the building is quite unusually shaped. Formed by an octagonal towern and surmounted by a pyramidal-roofed penthouse which contained the elevator and ventilation equipment, it was originally home to some 190 offices (with garage space for 160 cars underneath).
At the time of its opening, its north and east-facing facades were fronted on major streets, the southern overlooked the waterfront, and while the west face was bounded by the fifteen-foot Ocean Way tunnel, leading to the Pike amusement zone.
“For 15 years, Walter Lowrie Porterfield—known to most as W.L.—had been battling to get his high-rise built in downtown and had crossed swords with many of the powerful elite in the city,” said Long Beach historian Claudine Burnett. “A moneyed man himself, Porterfield sold his interests in the Home Telephone Company in 1906 for a reported $1M and he vowed to spend it all on developing something in Long Beach.”
The man was a busy man. Porterfield was involved in the building of the Hotel Virginia, bid against Henry Huntington and the Pacific Electric for the electric rail line franchise for Long Beach, was a partner in the First National Bank, and as a member of the school board was involved in a scandal related to a contract for school desks.
“In 1910, he began to push for a horseshoe-shaped pier on property he owned in Long Beach—or what would eventually become Rainbow Pier,” Burnett said. “He also owned extremely desirable property adjacent to the Pine Avenue Pier and the Pike—and it was here that he wanted to build his Porterfield Building.”
Come 1928, the Porterfield Building, later dubbed Ocean Center, finally came into fruition.
“There’s also a fun fact here after it had opened: in June 1930, the Ocean View miniature golf course opened in the Ocean Center Building,” Burnett said. “Occupying some 12,000 square feet, the course was ingeniously laid, complete with 18 holes. There were real sand hazards, water holes, unusual curves and angles… Fairways were covered with a type of woolen felt fabric—a precursor to today’s astro turf. Located on the Pine Avenue side of the building, the course had windows extending from floor to ceiling offering a three-sided view of the Pacific.”
Nearly sixty years after it was built, heavy with the wear and tear of human usage, the building was finally designated an historical landmark—and that is perhaps where its current purpose can best be used.
A few lamented over the “theme park-y” aspect of the Queen Mary development proposals—and to some extent, those concerns were respectable but there is something that I think is part of the equation when dealing with Long Beach history—and that is: don’t mess with it. What the Queen Mary proposals do is something I feel Long Beachers want when it comes to something historic: preserve the feeling of it, harken to its historical significance; not surround it with incongruent contemporary structures.
Ocean Center, in this sense, is the same. Becoming a hotel, mind you, is something I am actually in support of because, as with the Mary, it needs to generate revenue to maintain the structure if we are to keep it in our historical hearts. With the Convention Center now limited in the capacity of the events it can hold due to hotel room limitations, adding more rooms to DTLB would actually be quite welcomed from an economic angle.
But here’s the big caveat: it has to include not only the history but the community. Contemporary hotels need to eschew the exclusiveness it holds with its guests and incorporate some type of public space that will activate the hotels in a dynamic fashion. It’s what travelers seek and what Long Beach yearns for—and it seems that the rooftop bar and pool that is open to the public provides just that.
And if the hotel is going into an historical building? It would behoove developers to recognize that history—and in the case of Ocean Center, it isn’t just the gorgeous marble floors or wood paneling.
Ocean Center was the gateway into an underbelly of cheap thrills, tattoos, eyebrow-raisers, and mental escape. It was, in a sense, a trophy space for the downtrodden, outcast, and deplorable. A hotel could harken to that culture while creating a hotel space that moves our rooms for visitors away from the corporate feel that saturates our hotel market.
Now whether the development goes the way of attaching itself to a specific hotelier brand or becomes a distinct Long Beach-only location is up in the air. What is certain that is that we have yet another empty space, being unused, standing there, filled with ghosts.
And to be frank, I am over current ghosts far more than I am the potential heartbreak of future ghosts.