Regular travelers on the Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Monica and Malibu will notice that the entrance to Will Rogers State Beach bears a small replica lighthouse. What observers may not know is that the replica references an actual lighthouse that stood on that spot for over four decades, complementing the famously picturesque Pacific Palisades coastline. Lesser known still is the story of how that lighthouse nearly became a permanent fixture on Pepperdine University’s Malibu campus in an effort to save it from demolition.
As handsome as it was, to say that the structure was an “actual lighthouse” is a bit of an exaggeration. Following the destruction of the Pacific Palisades Bath House in 1926 during a fierce winter storm, the proprietors decided to rebuild the bathhouse with a lighthouse theme. The new building went up quickly on a jetty of granite boulders that marked the former location of the historic Long Wharf, which had proudly stretched nearly a mile into the bay at the turn of the century. After San Pedro won the bid to become the Port of Los Angeles, the Long Wharf was gradually dismantled, leaving only a small footprint that the bathhouse used as its foundation.
“The Lighthouse” restaurant and bathhouse opened for business on Memorial Day, 1927. Built by the Pacific Palisades Association and designed by architect Thomas P. Barber, the bathhouse featured a second floor dining room, a wrap-around Venetian colonnade, and was large enough to accommodate 500 patrons. Its most distinctive feature was the 50-foot tall lighthouse tower with a functioning beacon powered by eight 500-watt lamps. The Lighthouse was a popular destination and become an iconic landmark as the Roosevelt Highway (later the PCH) opened up through Malibu in 1929, connecting all of California along a single coast highway.
Although it was not a true lighthouse, the picturesque building was commonly featured in promotional photographs and materials advertising Southern California. It was also an important visual point of reference for boats navigating into Santa Monica Bay. However, over the decades, as the popularity of bathhouses faded, the patronage of the Lighthouse diminished. Eventually, the building was taken over by the Will Rogers State Beach lifeguard, serving as a part of the lifeguard headquarters. By 1972, the Lighthouse structure was determined to be unsuitable for habitation and was slated for demolition.
In November of that year, Malibu resident Jay Fiodella was driving to work in Santa Monica and noticed that a work crew was in the early stages of demolishing the Lighthouse building. Fiodella, an amateur balloonist, sailor, and owner of the Chez Jay restaurant in Santa Monica, immediately launched an effort to save the iconic structure. His goal was to finance the relocation of the lighthouse, but where could it go? He offered it to the city of Santa Monica, but the city could not accept the gift. Fiodella then approached administrators at Pepperdine University, which had just opened its brand new campus in Malibu. Pepperdine agreed to find a place for the lighthouse portion of the building on its new campus, and Fiodella agreed to pay for its relocation and renovation.
Fiodella hired a crew with a crane and a flatbed truck to lift the lighthouse off its foundation and move it up the PCH to Pepperdine. Unfortunately, as the crane lifted the lighthouse tower onto the flatbed, the 45 year-old structure broke into multiple segments. The pieces were, nonetheless, delivered to Pepperdine. A photograph in the June 8, 1973 edition of the Graphic—the Pepperdine student newspaper—shows the damaged lighthouse resting on its side at the edge of a campus parking lot. The accompanying text suggests that the expense to fix the ruptured lighthouse exceeded the project budget. The lighthouse, at that point, dims from history.
Although the lighthouse never became part of the Pepperdine landscape, it lives on in our archives and digital collections. All of the images below come from the Eric Wienberg Collection of Malibu Matchbooks, Postcards, and Collectables, and the Graphic student newspaper, back issues of which can be accessed in our University Archives.