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If you look for Santa Monica in a Los Angeles-area guidebook, Bergamot Station will probably top the list of the seaside city’s attractions. (Or it might be listed 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 a complex of gritty industrial warehouses clad in corrugated steel. And that’s exactly what it is.
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 piers all along the coast. With freight no longer coming 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. The City of Santa Monica bought the parcel 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 line to extend 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 and cost overruns. Light rail clearly would not be returning to Santa Monica in the foreseeable future. So City officials sought another use for the abandoned warehouses.
Gallery owner Wayne Blank had previously turned an unused hangar at Santa Monica Airport into artists’ studios. So he 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 that maintained and refined the site’s “industrial” appearance. Inside the warehouses are some 30 separate leased galleries dedicated to painting, sculpture, photography, and “functional art.”
The complex includes the Shoshana Blank Gallery (run by Wayne Blank’s wife, who is also an art dealer) and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The courtyard outside the Museum, of course, includes art on display. The featured installation is the “Junker Car Garden,” a Mercedes that has been gutted and planted with succulents. It symbolizes Santa Monica’s commitment to environmental sustainability.
The route map for Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus 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 has a Web site, intended for prospective tenants and Hollywood location scouts rather than for visitors. It describes The Water Garden as “a Class A trophy suburban office complex.” “Trophy” usually refers to 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 must be fortunate indeed. The complex seems particularly suited to the creative endeavors of entertainment and technology companies that are drawn to Santa Monica. 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 is very unusual for Santa Monica in providing ample free parking. But in keeping with the city’s emphasis on environmental sustainability, I would recommend using the Big Blue Bus for a visit to Bergamot Station or The Water Garden. 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 new 26th Street/Bergamot Metro Rail Station next to the art complex on the expanded Expo line opened on 20 May 2016, making it accessible by train from (or via) Downtown Los Angeles. Santa Monica is one of the few places in automobile-addled Southern California where it’s practical, and perhaps even preferable, to get around on mass transit.