During the 1920s, roller coasters raced around the Pike, oil flowed from forests of derricks, and Pacific Electric Red Cars brought loads of visitors to the sunny shores of Long Beach.
In this time of prosperity and optimism, developer Lionel V. Mayell decided to build a beachfront residential tower.
Mayell selected Richard D. King, a local architect, to design an elegant, 20-floor high-rise. For decades after its 1929 opening, Villa Riviera was one of tallest buildings in Southern California, second only to LA’s City Hall. Despite its great height, the tower sustained little damage in the 1933 earthquake, thanks to bedrock-anchored footings and triple-riveted steel I-beam framing.
Last week, members of the Junior League of Long Beach traveled back in time with a historical tour of the venerable Villa Riviera. At the intersection of East Shoreline Drive and East Ocean Boulevard, the statuesque structure is visible for miles. In Gothic revival style, ornate walls rise to a distinctive gabled green roof made of oxidized copper and adorned by gargoyles.
Resident historian Peter Smay led the Junior League tour, answering questions and escorting the group through areas rarely seen by outsiders. He proudly explained the origins of the building, which was built to house 144 luxury stock co-operative units ranging from small studios to multi-story suites.
According to Smay, the Villa Riviera’s walls were originally covered in mahogany and its hallways were hung with custom tapestries. An automobile elevator carried cars between the floors of the garage. When economic hardship hit the country, Mayell’s cooperative was forced into foreclosure and parts of the building fell into disrepair as the building traded hands multiple times. Before and after being owned by silent film star Norma Talmadge, the Villa Riviera served as a hotel.
Over the past 90 years, many modifications have been made. At one point, a nightclub opened in the parking garage and a large neon sign was hung on the front of the building. Some of the larger units were fragmented into more hotel-sized spaces.
Tour members got to explore the five units that once comprised a 15th-floor penthouse. One of these, a charming, 270-square-foot studio owned by Lol Raasch, features a creative utilization of tiny, turret-like nooks. Raasch said he was so taken by the space that he eagerly sold his larger Villa Riviera condominium and moved into the little loft seven years ago.
Resident Cookie Braude and her partner did the opposite, merging two smaller units to create a 1,500-square-foot space with views of the Queen Mary, downtown Long Beach, and the Hollywood sign.
“It’s wonderful to have a beautiful, historic building in an exciting urban community,” Braude told the visitors. “We can watch the Grand Prix from our window.”
The Junior Leaguers moved slowly through the complex, lingering and admiring every detail. Smay was not surprised; he said he is still captivated by the building even though he has lived here for 21 years.
“The unique architecture is what first drew me in… Gothic revival is very rare on the West Coast,” Smay said. “But I also love the way the building was constructed, the resiliency of the steel and concrete. From there, my interest snowballed and I got caught up in the interior features: the flooring, the paint, the finishes.”
Smay explained that many Villa Riviera restoration projects have been recently completed and more are envisioned for the future.
“There is so much history here,” he said. “As residents, we want to continue to preserve that history wherever we can.”