How well do you know Malaga Cove in Palos Verdes?

The Italian inspired development that went from commercial plaza to Peninsula icon.

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    Chris Ridges

This should get your attention: The first home sold in Palos Verdes Estates went for $6,000—including land, materials and construction. It was 1924, and that was a lot of money for a pad. There was no water, barely a tree and no noisy neighbors. Think “barren,” and you’ll have an idea.

As the community began to grow there became a need for a marketplace—someplace to buy food and socialize. Architects Walter Webber, Sumner Spaulding and William Staunton were brought in to design the multi-building Malaga Cove Plaza. Master-planned by renowned landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., locals found a place to renew, relax and recover from all the dust.

Frederick also drafted the protective restrictions that shaped Palos Verdes Estates, offering the highest standards, guidelines and principles still in practice today. His City Beautiful Movement influenced and determined the area’s development standards, enforced by their homes association and art jury.

The Palos Verdes Project was initiated to follow his Mediterranean revival style, his “open space” landscaping philosophy and concern for wildlife conservation. The homes were built in what is known as California style (not Mediterranean, Spanish, Moorish or mission but a combination of all).

Taking nearly 40 years to complete, each building showcased distinct variations of style. Look closely, and you’ll see the obvious differences. None of the buildings were designed specifically to replicate one another but still express a remarkable aesthetic-coordinated result.

The first structure finished in 1925 was called the Gardner Building (renamed La Casa Primera) and was Spanish Renaissance style. It contained a market, a drugstore, a restaurant and real estate offices for the project.

Up the street, La Venta Inn was completed a year earlier as a place for real estate agents to wine and dine prospective investors. Literally translated, La Venta means The Sale.

In 1930 the Alpha Syndicate Building (later renamed Casa del Portal) was completed. Located on the easternmost edge, it’s the one with the large archway—or sally port—which allows traffic to pass beneath its beautiful gateway even today.

In February of that same year the Plaza’s official guardian was installed: a 2/3-scale, 100-year-old replica of King Neptune—a marble statue originally set in northern Venice. The original bronze, sculpted by Gian Bologna in 1563, remains today a centerpiece in Bologna, Italy. This was a major achievement for the PV Project, representing the community’s strength, vision and stability.

An example of late-Renaissance/Baroque, the king of the sea with his three-pronged trident has had quite a controversial history since moving to the Peninsula. Surrounded by mermaids, seahorses and guardian spirits known as genii, the Roman god has suffered considerable damage at the hands of vandals. An easy target with his white marble smooth surface, the Sea King was often spray-painted with modern-day slogans, facial hair and breasts.

The removal by hammer of his most vulnerable appendage became an almost annual event and at great restoration expense. On one occasion the entire statue was stolen from its foundation only to be recovered headless.

The head was returned eventually, but both head and body had suffered enough damage to require a complete replacement in 1969 (alas, with fig leaf).

The Plaza’s third structure was built a full 20 years later in 1950. Mr. and Mrs. Berthold Starr from Manhattan Beach positioned it next to the archway of Casa del Portal.

In 1954 Walter Davis (the architect who created La Venta Inn, the Point Vicente Lighthouse and many of the first homes on the Peninsula) designed the building next to La Casa Primera, now known as Malaga Cove Ranch Market. In an effort to outdo himself, Walter also built the Plaza’s General Store in 1961—his are the two towered structures. Impressed with the architecture he had discovered while studying in Europe, Walter’s designs reflect and pay tribute to the Mediterranean’s structural beauty.

Between 1957 and 1963 the last three buildings were constructed. These include the (then) medical building, the building next to La Casa Primera (constructed by Howard Towle) and the Courtyard Building.

The Plaza began to show signs of deterioration and decay in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A Malaga Cove Plaza Beautification Project began in 1987 and finished just several years ago, breathing new life into the center.

King Neptune has been restored and repaired once again. Significant landscaping and tree planting was finished. New walkways and crosswalks have been installed. During this process, in 1995 the Malaga Cove Plaza was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.