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If you look for Santa Monica in a Los Angeles-area guidebook, Bergamot Station will be near the top the list of the seaside city’s attractions, probably right after the Santa Monica Pier. The very popular collection of art galleries is a must-see for anyone interested in the visual arts. But it’s unlike any museum or art gallery you’ve ever seen. It looks like an industrial park, with gritty warehouses clad in corrugated steel. And that’s exactly the intent.
Bergamot Station was once an actual train station, named for the wild bergamot flowers that still grow in the area. It opened in 1875, as a stop on the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad that carried freight from the wharf at Santa Monica to Downtown Los Angeles and shuttled passengers to the beach. Southern Pacific took over the railroad two years later.
When the new Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro opened in 1909, it put an end to commercial cargo operations at local wharfs and piers all along the coast. With freight no longer coming in from Santa Monica, Southern Pacific leased the right of way to what became the Pacific Electric Railway. The Pacific Electric “Red Cars” were Southern California’s extensive mass transit system that paved the way for today’s urban sprawl, until automobiles and freeway pavement displaced them.
When the Red Cars stopped running in 1953, Southern Pacific demolished the station and leased the land to various companies for manufacturing and warehouses. (But you can still see a ghostly section of track partially buried in the concrete parking lot on the northwest side of the current Bergamot Station complex.) The City of Santa Monica bought the land and warehouses in 1987, with the intention of restoring it as a station on the Metro Rail light rail system that was beginning its construction. They expected a “subway to the sea” extending to Santa Monica within a decade.
The last warehouse tenant moved out in 1993. By then, the Metro Rail project had established a track record of delays, cost overruns, and NIMBY litigation. City officials reluctantly concluded that trains would not be returning to Santa Monica in the foreseeable future, and sought other uses for the abandoned warehouses.
Gallery owner Wayne Blank had previously turned an unused hangar at Santa Monica Airport into artists’ studios. He thus seemed a natural choice to convert Bergamot Station into an artistic and cultural venue. Along with Los Angeles architect Lawrence Scarpa, he refurbished the warehouses into a campus with space for over 30 separate leased galleries and studios dedicated to painting, sculpture, photography, theatre, and “functional art.”
On the outside, Blank and Scarpa retained the original “industrial” appearance, though somewhat “refined” with brightly-colored paint. Along with a distinctive look, it provides numerous opportunities for anyone with an observant eye and a camera to make their own art.
Wayne Blank is represented by the Shoshana Wayne Gallery run by his wife, who is also an art dealer. And from 1998 through 2015, the Santa Monica Museum of Art was one of Bergamot Station’s prominent attractions. The Museum had no collection of its own, but specialized in organizing exhibitions of up-and-coming contemporary artists. It also ran an educational outreach program for children and exhibited the resulting art projects.
The Santa Monica Museum of Art sponsored installation art projects for the courtyard outside its building. One of them was the “Junker Car Garden,” a Mercedes that was gutted and planted with succulents to symbolize Santa Monica’s commitment to environmental sustainability.
The Museum moved out in 2015, after Wayne Blank significantly raised the rent amid controversy over proposed redevelopment plans for Bergamot Station. It has since changed its name to Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in anticipation of a 2017 reopening in Downtown Los Angeles.
The William Turner Gallery occupies the largest space at Bergamot Station. It’s an appropriate setting for modern painting and sculpture. A highly polished but imperfect black stone floor contributes distorted reflections that synergistically enhance the works on display. Like Bergamot Station itself, the floor can even serve as a medium for creating new art.
“Contemporary abstract artist” Amber Goldhammer has a working studio and gallery at Bergamot Station. When I was there on a summer weekend, she invited visitors to use her materials to “paint love,” as part of her current series exploring the myriad ways of saying “I love you.”
The route map for Santa Monica’s “Big Blue Bus” transit system shows something enigmatically labeled The Water Garden near the stop for Bergamot Station, at Olympic Boulevard and 26th Street. Despite being directly across the street from a very popular attraction, The Water Garden is not mentioned in any guidebook I’ve seen.
A Google search didn’t turn up any visitor-oriented information. But a short blurb on the Big Blue Bus Web site calls it “one of the most beautiful office complexes in Southern California.” The complex does have a Web site, but it’s clearly intended for prospective tenants and Hollywood location scouts rather than for visitors. It touts The Water Garden as “a Class A trophy suburban office complex.”
“Trophy” is real-estate-speak for a prestigious landmark address, such as the Library Tower in Downtown Los Angeles. “Class A” is a category defined by the Building Owners and Managers Association International, essentially synonymous with “high rent.” That might explain why the owners apparently prefer to keep it off the radar screens of tourists.
Developed in two phases between 1990 and 2000, the 6.9-hectare site includes eight five- and six-story office buildings, surrounding an artificial lake landscaped with fountains, terraces, tiny waterfalls, and planted islands. The meandering “promenades” along the lake include bridges and gazebos, with observation points and shaded tables that seem to invite workers to take their laptops and Blackberries out of their offices and cubicles. A team of falconers and their birds scare away annoying seagulls and pigeons, but not the lake’s resident ducks.
People who work in The Water Garden may be fortunate indeed. The complex seems particularly suited to the creative endeavors of entertainment and technology companies that are drawn to Santa Monica’s “Silicon Beach.” I don’t know how many such companies are tenants, but there’s a prominent Microsoft sign on Olympic Boulevard outside what is presumably one of their offices.
A stroll around The Water Garden makes an excellent side trip before or after a visit to Bergamot Station. The tranquility, the continually-changing views and reflections, and the architectural artistry complement the artistic adventure across the street. It surely qualifies as one of Southern California’s hidden gems.
Bergamot Station offers something rather unusual for Santa Monica: Ample free parking. But in keeping with the city’s emphasis on environmental sustainability, I would recommend using public transportation for a visit to Bergamot Station or The Water Garden. Big Blue Bus Route 5 begins near the popular Third Street Promenade, and conveniently stops across the street (Olympic Boulevard at 26th Street). And after many delays, the 26th Street/Bergamot Metro Rail station on the northwest side of the art complex opened in 2016, making Bergamot Station accessible by train from (or via) Downtown Los Angeles on the Expo Line. Santa Monica is one of the few places in automobile-addled Southern California where mass transit is not only practical and convenient, but genuinely preferable to stressful traffic and costly parking.