The Fight Before Christmas
How a tenuous, nail-biting Christmas Eve vote moved Hermosa Beach toward official incorporation.
- Written byAmber Klinck
On December 24, 1906, at a makeshift polling place inside the bowling alley located on The Strand and 10th Street, the incorporation of Hermosa Beach was on the ballot—with voters on both sides in bitter opposition.
Open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., the lone polling station drew a mere 48 voters from the roughly 500 Hermosa Beach residents of the time. All of the voters were men, as suffrage for women did not exist in the state of California until 1911.
Those in favor of incorporating were looking for “more localized control of the city,” says Christopher O. Uebelhor, curator and manager of the Hermosa Beach Historical Society.
Those opposed were worried that greater localized control would translate into higher taxes for Hermosa Beach residents.
The results were neck and neck—with 24 in favor, 23 opposed and one vote that was either lost or voided. On December 31, 1906, the Los Angeles Board examined the results, and on January 14, 1907, Hermosa Beach was officially incorporated, making it the 19th city in Los Angeles County. Neighboring city Redondo Beach incorporated in 1892 and Manhattan Beach in 1912.
Our little beach community has come a long way since that contentious vote: from early land speculation to promoting itself as a clean and moral haven for families and teetotalers alike, through industrial growth and eventually as the thriving coastal city we know and love today. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In fact, let’s start by taking a look at Hermosa before and after that crucial Christmas Eve election.
“You can’t really separate the history of Hermosa Beach from the history of the Beach Cities in general,” explains Christopher. Initially part of the 10-mile stretch of Rancho Sausal Redondo, early development of Hermosa Beach consisted mostly of sheep and cattle ranches. It wouldn’t be until the turn of the 20th century that the area would start to develop and the population would begin to grow.
Land speculators were some of the first to take advantage of the sparsely inhabited coast—advertising $200 cash down for an oceanfront property. Pamphlets were printed and distributed boasting the high cost of Hermosa living and featuring homes that sold for as much as $4,500 and with nothing available for less than $700.
Adding to the perception of exclusivity was Shakespeare Beach, one of Hermosa’s first housing developments located near the water along the border of Manhattan Beach. The development was initially intended to be an artist colony, with street names inspired by famous poets such as Longfellow and Tennyson.
By 1915 the population of Hermosa had grown from 500 residents in 1906 to 3,000. As the population continued to grow, the city itself began to evolve.
The first Hermosa Beach pier, all 500 feet of it—built entirely of wood in 1904, was replaced with a 1,000-foot concrete pier lined with pagodas, built in 1914. The Strand, built in 1908, was initially constructed and reconstructed after numerous winter storms using wooden planks, until it too was built with concrete.
Largely behind this evolution was Hermosa’s Board of Trustees, later known as the City Council. Composed primarily of the same proponents who voted in favor of incorporating Hermosa Beach, the city’s initial founders were eager to accomplish what was needed to get Hermosa on the right trajectory.
Some of these early duties included the installation of sidewalks, street lighting and the development of El Camino Real, now known as the Pacific Coast Highway. But there was also the task of creating a safe and orderly environment—not just for the community’s residents but for the waves of inlanders who poured in on the weekends.
“People were coming down for recreational purposes and to escape the heat,” Christopher says, “just like they do today.”
There were larger trains with tracks that went through what we now call the Hermosa Valley Greenbelt, but it was the smaller Pacific Electric Red Car traveling from South Pasadena to Redondo Beach that people typically relied on. That is, of course, until the “almighty automobile took over,” Christopher notes.
For those traveling on four wheels, Hermosa Beach boasted 30 miles of newly paved roads—with Hermosa Avenue as the first. Soon the beach city began promoting itself as a safe but rapidly growing coastal community, while additionally staking its claim as “a clean and moral sanctuary,” Christopher explains.
“It was a dry city, even before Prohibition,” he says. That did end, however, with the national repeal of Prohibition in 1933. And while the Roaring Twenties may have filled the sand with eager beach-goers, that same puritan philosophy that made Hermosa Beach “dry” before its time extended into a zero-tolerance for overexposed bathers.
Not only were there posted signs stating the current laws for acceptable swimwear, but bathers who failed to oblige were subject to arrest. This was an important detail to keep in mind for visitors to the trendy, beachfront Surf and Sand Club—later known as the Biltmore Hotel. “It was the place to be,” Christopher says. “It had a saltwater plunge and was there until 1969.”
Not everyone in Hermosa could be found sunbathing in front of the Biltmore, however. “By the 1920s there was a lot of industry in the area,” Christopher explains. “This is also when we see a lot of oil derricks popping up in the South Bay region.”
Early industry included glass and tile manufacturing, the Hermosa Silk Spinning Company and even a chemical plant. Still the city was more often than not portrayed in print as the place “where people spend their idle hours.”
And it was that portrayal—leisure, recreation and exclusivity—that Hermosa Beach nurtured. “Catering to the needs of weekenders, the city had an urban walkability, with The Strand serving as the main artery of foot traffic,” Christopher says.
A charming pavilion built at the base of the pier housed the public library as well as the Chamber of Commerce, while pagodas lined the remainder of the structure, offering shade to visitors. With Pier Avenue and Hermosa Avenue as the main roadways, the hustle and bustle remained centrally located—keeping the action in the center of town.
The Metropolitan Theatre, with its whopping $200,000 price tag, was built in 1923—providing its patrons 1,200 seats to enjoy. The building still stands today on the corner of 13th Street and Hermosa Avenue. If you live in the area, there’s a good chance you’ve popped in for a coffee or maybe even a fitness class.
While there are additional landmarks from the community’s early days, pictures from the era are hardly comparable to our present-day Hermosa Beach. It really isn’t until the late 1940s/early ‘50s that aerial views start to look familiar.
And the landscape isn’t the only variable. Transitioning from ranch country to a city of puritans, growing industry, beatnik vibes, heavy surf culture and even an influential source of punk, Hermosa Beach has worn many cultural hats.
With more than 100 years of independence, it’s hard to say whether or not Hermosa Beach would have experienced all of its one-of-a-kind transformations if the vote to incorporate had gone the other way. Unattached from its neighboring cities, Hermosa is unapologetically unique—not quite LA and more than just South Bay. It’s a little bit of everything, with even more years of evolution ahead.
Meet Hermosa’s new “historian-in-chief,” Christopher Uebelhor, curator and manager
of the Hermosa Beach Historical Society.
What does a curator do?
A curator is responsible for anything having to do with the collections of the museum—taking care of it and making sure it’s interpreted correctly. The curator decides what goes on display and how often to rotate available or borrowed materials. I am also responsible for the collections management, cataloguing and keeping up a database, making sure everything is organized and easily accessible to research.
What do you find special about Hermosa’s museum?
Smaller museums and smaller communities offer a more personal touch. It is easier for local folks to get involved without feeling intimidated like they would at the Smithsonian or another larger institution. I also like working with a smaller staff and having viewpoints heard in all aspects of museum.
How can locals get involved?
They can be docents and give tours, help with fundraising and work the front desk. Also we need help cataloging and identifying old photos.
Tell us about some of your favorite exhibitions?
The museum hosts a reception and exhibition for the Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, and in the spring for the Surfer’s Walk of Fame. We are also planning to do a then-and-now exhibition, pairing pictures from the early 20th century to today.
How do you find new materials to exhibit?
Usually they are donated or willed. Sometimes important items are brought to the attention of the museum but are for sale, and we have to find an underwriter for the cost. For example, I recently found a poster from The Insomniac, a former beatnik hangout on the pier. We now need to find someone to buy the poster and offer it as a gift. Also I’m always keeping an eye out for records recorded at the lighthouse.
When is the museum open?
Saturday and Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m., Wednesday 10 a.m. to 5 pm., and always by appointment, as I am in the office most days.
I heard a rumor there are some issues of Southbay in your archive?
There are; we have every issue going back at least five years, as well as other local periodicals such as The Hermosa Beach Review, going back as early as 1916-1918.
Hermosa Beach Historical Society, 710 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach, 310-318-9412, hermosabeachhistoricalsociety.org