On Board

Santa Monica Landmarks the Birthplace of Modern Skateboarding.

The surf shop part of the 1922 building is now a city landmark.

Credit: Chattel Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Inc.

During a six-month debate in Santa Monica, Calif., the one thing everyone has agreed on is that the one-story cement structure at the corner of Main and Bay Streets in Santa Monica is no Taj Mahal.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and from dawn to dusk, a steady stream of pilgrims makes its way to the Horizons West Surf Shop to pay homage to skateboarding idols.

"Tourists come here from all over the world to see the shop," says Ryan Titilah, shop manager. "It's like they're walking into the Sistine Chapel. It's the Sistine Chapel of skateboarding."

For much of the 1970s, the store was known as the Zephyr Surf Shop. The 2002 documentary "Dogtown and Z-boys" chronicled the achievements of a rag-tag group of teenagers who collected at the shop when the surfing was bad and went on to reinvent the sport of skateboarding as members of the Zephyr team, or Z-boys.

"[Our families] really didn't care where we went. Where we ended up was this building," says former Z-boy Paul Hoffman. "This was our home. This was where we hung out. Skip Engblom and Jeff Ho were our dads."

Shop owners Ho, Engblom, and Craig Stycek gave the boys odd jobs and helped them build skateboards. New polyurethane wheels allowed the boys to adapt their surfing moves to the cement, and the partners encouraged them to practice and to invent new moves. In 1975 they sponsored a team of 11 boys and one girl to compete in the Del Mar Nationals, where the Z-boys blew away the competition with their aggressive surf-skate style.

In May, the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission officially landmarked the portion of the 1922 building that houses the surf shop based on its cultural, rather than architectural, significance. The commission first reviewed the building in October after the owner filed for a demolition permit as part of a plan to build a "green" 14-unit apartment building with underground parking and retail space. 

Horizons West Surf Shop

Credit: Chattel Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Inc.

Developer Juli Doar, whose family has owned the approximately half-acre lot since the early 60s, withdrew the demolition permit request soon after the October meeting and held a series of community-outreach meetings, hoping to find a way to commemorate the Z-boys and Santa Monica's skater culture in her new project.

However, the threat to what many consider the birthplace of modern skateboarding mobilized an unusual group of preservationists. Local bands inspired by skater culture held petition-signing parties, and community activist Jacob Samuel started an online petition that collected nearly 6,000 signatures from around the world, mostly skateboarding aficionados. "People call me," says Jeff Ho, who still drops by the shop to hang out and sign autographs. "Everybody that's heard about it wanted to save it."

In spite of the public outpouring, Doar told the council in February that while she appreciated the building's history, she didn't feel that preserving the building was a feasible option. She pointed out that landmarking could not ensure that the building would always be a surf shop, and she said she felt that a statue or art installation would more effectively commemorate the Z-boys' achievements.

Doar, who declined to comment for this article, also objected to what she saw as the use of landmarking to stop development. "They were using the wrong tool," she told the commission.

But Samuel, who also collected more than 600 signatures within the community, disagrees. "Even if there wasn't a surf shop there, I would still be for saving the building," he says. "The essential charm of Santa Monica and Ocean Park that really has a neighborhood feel is being eroded by development."

While Hoffman agrees with Doar that the building would lose much of its significance if it were to cease its function as a surf shop, he still think that it tells an important part of the Z-boy story. "It's not about the surf shop. Surf shops are a dime a dozen out here. It has to do with how things looked for us," he says. "That's why we go to the Alamo or we go to anything of historical significance. We want to see what it looked like to them."

Once called the "Coney Island of the West," Ocean Park went bust in the '60s. As amusement parks closed and resorts were abandoned, it became a haven for hippies and working class families who for a modest price could afford bungalows with an ocean view.

A recent wave of redevelopment has changed the character of the seaside neighborhood drastically. "Now the whole area is yuppies and people driving Range Rovers," says Hoffman, who now lives in Orange County. "There's nothing that's older than 20 years here … It's like you can never go home."

Surf Shop

Credit: Chattel Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Inc.)

Jay Platt, preservation advocate at the Los Angeles Conservancy, urged the commission to save the building, even though it lacks architectural merit. "[The building] actually does tell a story, and it is pretty important," he says. He points out that other unremarkable buildings, such as the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, have been preserved because they tell an important story. "We don't think that a bronze plaque or a statues of a skateboarder will do the same thing."

There is a dark side to the Z-boy story. Part of what the Z-boys brought to skateboarding was aggressive individualism and an anti-establishment attitude. (Some skateboarders are so resistant to becoming mainstream that there is currently a raging debate within their community about whether or not it should be an Olympic sport.) The Z-boys also brought along a culture of drug abuse and misogyny that many still see in skateboarding today.

"It was a street environment," says Chris Dawson, a former member of the team. "I think it's something that Santa Monica is not looking forward to owning up to." He adds that the culture of skateboarding is changing, becoming more family-friendly as it spreads in popularity, making it important that this piece of its history is preserved. "There's interest in recognizing some of the things that Santa Monica has brought the world."

While landmarking the shop could be a sign that the city may be ready to embrace its skateboarding heritage, it is still a bit of a hard sell. Some residents attending the landmark commission's meetings called the shop called an eyesore standing in the way of progress, and one resident even told the council that he "didn't want Santa Monica called Dogtown," anymore.

The landmarking does not definitively protect the building from demolition, but revised plans for the project must get the landmark commission's stamp of approval. Doar has not yet completed new plans for the site, but they will involve a partial demolition of the un-landmarked portions of the building. The surf shop will be incorporated into the design, and it will also be seismically retrofitted and brought up to code.

Samuel says that he will watch the process carefully to make sure that the shop is not compromised by the new green construction, which Doar touts as Santa Monica's first private LEED-certified apartment complex. "Down the road a few years, every building is going to be a LEED building," he says. "What's special is what's here."  

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