by Woody LaBounty
The apartment building at 1536 La Playa is ugly, or, to be charitable, plain. Its flat facade of beige stucco is a massive dull square on the ocean-fronting streetscape, with nothing to offer in looks beyond rows of sliding aluminum-sash windows.
Pick your cliché: appearances can be deceiving, you can't judge a book by its cover, true beauty lies within…any and all apply to 1536 La Playa.
A few years ago, Frances Kniffen Larkin told me the building was once a fancy restaurant known as Mendel's. As a child in the 1930s she peeked in the front door and saw fine tables and chandeliers. Frances wondered why she hadn't heard anyone talk of Mendel's in regards to the history of Ocean Beach.
Then a resident of 1536 La Playa (the city-designated address, although the building appears to be on Great Highway) emailed me in the summer of 2010. She said there was a grand ballroom, decorated with wall moldings of shells and seahorses, hidden away between floors. My friend David Gallagher and I went to take a look, our cameras in hand. Like its exterior, the building's common halls are beyond nondescript with white walls and industrial stain-resistant carpets. Through a small hatch in one ceiling we could see some 1940s-era wallpaper and a couple of old light fixtures in a crawlspace—odd, but hardly magical. Our tipster didn't have the key for a similar ceiling hatch on the floor below. We made vague plans about coming back to investigate, but never followed up.
Then, in early November 2012, an amazing old photograph was posted for auction on eBay. Some 75 motorcyclists lined up in front of a dramatic backdrop: a handsome building with a second-floor open balcony, mullioned windows, and inset bookend towers topped by tall flagpoles. I guessed the photograph, mounted on a large card, was taken in the early 1910s.
Although this handsome structure looked nothing like the current version of 1536 La Playa, I recognized it instantly. I knew through some previous research that the Mendel's that Frances Larkin remembered had previously been operated as the Crest, and before that as the Breakers roadhouse. Here in the photograph the name Breakers and the address were clearly visible. And if that wasn't enough, the one-story carriage house on the right side of the image was still easily recognizable as the apartment building at 1540 La Playa. A nested-gabled house in the left background also still stands today on 48th Avenue.
Too beautiful and fascinating a photograph to pass up, my friend Glenn Koch and I pooled our funds to fight off determined motorcycle memorabilia fans and win the prize. Perhaps it was time to take another look inside the walls of the big ugly building at the beach.
Our former tenant tipster had moved out of state, but she put me in contact with the building manager, Clayton White, and on Saturday, January 12, 2013, David and I once again showed up with flashlights and cameras. Clayton met us carrying his own camera and flashlight, a ladder, and, most importantly, the key for the hatch door. My hope was perhaps we'd at least find some older wallpaper to photograph.
Clayton set up the ladder, unlocked and opened the hatch, flipped a light switch installed beside it, and climbed into the small square. His feet dangled a few inches from the top of the ladder before disappearing. I went next, carefully navigating my balance on the ladder while holding my gear and narrowing my shoulders to squeeze through.
When I lifted my head from my effort getting in, I turned to the right and found a large fish goggling at me, a chain hanging out of its open mouth. Already I knew we had something better than old wallpaper.
The fish, created out of molded plaster and wire, had brothers that encircled what appeared to be a chandelier collar about three feet in diameter. Each fish extended out from the fixture, each had a lamp chain dangling from its lips, and a few still had old electrical cord and bulb sockets attached to their chains. On the form between the larger fish—I had decided they were carp—were ridges and undulations mimicking water and elaborated with smaller fish, seahorses, and vegetation.
We had a reasonably generous space to stand and walk hunched over. As David climbed in, I looked around to see cornice reliefs on the far wall, the tops of elaborate capitals poking between joists, and more chandelier collars matching the one beside the hatch. A beam extending the length of the building featured its own marine scenes. Amid more waves a turtle had his maw open, ready to catch some alarmed guppies. Starfish, coral, anemone, and crabs lined up beneath a course of sea horses and shells. Large rosettes punctuating the underside of the beam and ringing the capitals had their own light sockets.
Clayton explained that the building had experienced a number of fires over the years and the fire department had required retardant be sprayed through the crawlspace, making almost every molding and relief we saw a glossy gray. As we carefully made our way toward the back of the building, ducking beneath pipes, tiptoeing along narrow joists, stepping over boxes of rat poison, we noticed a couple of spots where the retardant missed. Along the south wall, where more large carp lined up disgorging their lamp chains, we could see the way these magnificent creatures were intended to be viewed. Instead of the industrial gray, here was a shocking gold and patches of iridescent bluish green with gilding.
We took what photos we could, our inadequate flashlights trying to illuminate what the flash on David's camera couldn't reach. Pieces of scenes had cracked and fallen off the wall. Some of the lamp fish looked as if a barracuda had taken a few bites out of them. The underwater world of plaster-and-wire marine life around us was a fragile one, surviving only due to the indifferent neglect of being barricaded away between floors, opened just occasionally over the decades to fix a pipe or run a new cable wire. Only a chance choice of renovation had preserved this magical space.
From 1904 to about 1940, the roadhouse known as the Breakers, the Crest, and, finally, Mendel's entertained guests who ate, drank, and danced underneath a fantastic fabric of garish, glimmering sea life. In the carriage house next door to the south, customers stabled their horses and parked their bicycles, motorcycles, and automobiles. The upper floors provided rooms for card games, beds to sleep one off, and according to some tales passed down, cribs for working girls to entertain.
More research remains, but World War II seems to have put an end to 1536 La Playa's roadhouse days. Some people have told me that the military took over the building for office space during the war, and likely did most of the work carving out what would become apartments. The family that currently owns the building bought it in the early 1960s, along with the two structures to the south and at least another apartment house facing 48th Avenue. The stucco facade was applied in the early 1970s as part of a shallow front extension.
Generations of surfers, artists, and others drawn to the ocean's side have passed through the big building, unaware that while they looked out their windows to watch the waves roll in, beneath their floorboards a beautiful, if wholly imaginary, frozen sea lived on.
Our great thanks to the building owners and Clayton White for allowing us to document the reliefs. Thanks also to Cassandra Clark, Wanda Mazur, and Frances Larkin.
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Page launched 23 January 2013.