With its wide, sandy beaches, historic pier, and a century-long history as a seaside destination, Santa Monica has become renowned as the epitome of refined beach resort towns. And within its small cadre of trend-setting establishments, no hotel embodies the spirit of beach chic as Shutters on the Beach, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year.
Over the course of its first two decades, the hotel’s reputation for style has been honed through strategic partnerships with world-famous designers and luxury brands, such as Kate Spade’s retro beach bicycles and the reinvention of the guest rooms by Michael S. Smith, who also happens to be the White House decorator. Most roomies have balconies to drink in the ocean views, and the beach-house ambiance feels as if the whole building had been transplanted from Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons, which was the intent of original developer Sam Stein. That timely yet timeless architecture is but one of the reasons that Shutters, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, regularly makes best-of and must-visit lists from such travel authorities as Travel+Leisure and Frommer’s.
But all of that impeccable taste might never have transpired had Santa Monica history taken a different turn way back at the end of the 19th century, when the local powers-that-be decided that the town should be the de facto port for the city of Los Angeles, not a family-friendly vacation mecca. Santa Monica founder John P. Jones was among the leaders of this initiative, even going so far as to become a partner in the building of a mile-long wharf that allowed trains to carry freight to and from ships docked in the Pacific Ocean. But San Pedro ultimately won out over Santa Monica, which changed the seaside community’s destiny.
Jones was also responsible for the community’s first resort development, the Santa Monica Bath House, which was located on the beach at the foot of Utah Avenue (now Broadway). Over the next few decades, a slew of bathhouses sprang up for the beach-loving public. Then, in the 1920s, the more affluent began to rub bronzed elbows at members-only beach clubs, which dominated the oceanfront scene. Dues were roughly $10-$12 a month and provided members with access to high-class amenities such as lounges and on-sand dining establishments. One of the most upscale and exclusive of the beach clubs was the Deauville, which boasted French-style turrets and even a private glassed-in beach; its dining room could accommodate an outstanding 1,200. The Edgewater club stood on what is now the site of Shutters on the Beach and was one of the more popular oceanfront destinations during its time.
The beach clubs were responsible for creating not only a new culture for the upper class but also for bringing several sports to the mainstream populace. Beach volleyball was developed and later refined right on Santa Monica’s fine sands by none other than Duke Kahanamoku, who is also credited with helping to spread the sport of surfing and for whom the chain of Duke’s restaurants is named. When the Duke, as he was called, came to the mainland from Hawaii to act as the athletic director for the Santa Monica Beach Club, he transformed the sport of beach volleyball from a leisurely pastime to a competitive and rugged activity.
The golden age of Santa Monica’s beach clubs, however, enjoyed only a short-lived history before the Great Depression brought property prices crashing like tidal waves. Today, little remains of the elaborate buildings that were home to Santa Monica’s famed beach houses, and the Deauville itself was torn down in the 1960s after suffering a devastating fire. After serving as a shooting location for director Ida Lupino’s Never Fear (1949), the Edgewater itself became a hospital, the Kabat-Kaiser Institute, which some patients report also was home to a radio station before the building was eventually demolished in the 1960s.
But even with the passing of the first gilded age of beach culture, the shore still packed in the crowds. In the 1930s and 1940s, Santa Monica Pier was home to several boarding clubs, which helped introduce the sport of paddleboarding to the mainland. Paddleboarding soon gave rise to surfing, and by the 1950s, a new Southern California craze and the culture it spawned had gone national.
Since the 1990s – and, perhaps not coincidentally, the opening of Shutters – Santa Monica’s star has again been on the rise. The beachfront is once more a destination for guests from around the world, whether they’re visiting for a film festival, doing business as part of the burgeoning Silicon Beach scene, or simply kicking up their heels in a beach chair and waiting to be pampered. But no matter what they come for, you can rest assured they’ll be doing it in style at this luxury hotel in Santa Monica.