The Beauty of Authenticity

Before we bulldoze great 1970s California modern design and turn Dana Point Harbor into a neo-New England fishing village, may we offer a dissenting opinion?


I like real things. I’ve spent my architecture career finding buildings of real value and doing my best to protect them for future generations. Take the Golden Arches. To some, the oldest remaining McDonald’s hamburger stand, built in Downey in 1953, may seem an unlikely landmark. To me, it’s a genuine time capsule. It’s got real neon trim, and captures what life was like in Southern California then, through the sheer simplicity of eating in your car. The National Register of Historic Places agreed, and qualified it as a landmark in 1983.

In the same way we’re used to thinking of California’s missions as historical—because of what they tell us about the late 18th and 19th centuries—this McDonald’s tells us about life and style in the 1950s. There’s beauty in authenticity.

That’s why I’m alarmed by the reconstruction plans for Dana Point Harbor, one of the best examples of authentic, 1970s California modern design on the Pacific Coast. Orange County doesn’t get the credit it deserves for its architecture, especially from our midcentury boom years. Dana Point Harbor is only one of the projects that made Orange County a leader in master-planned design. In 1971, when the harbor opened, the county already was home to Irvine, an entirely new, well-rounded, master-planned city where people both lived and worked. The harbor complex applied this same concept to a place where people played. Its macro-scale planning set the stage, for example, for all kinds of boating, from kayaking to yachting, while the micro-scale design of its buildings made everything approachable.

The proposed $140 million revitalization plan by OC Dana Point Harbor, the county department that oversees the harbor, would rip the heart out of the central commercial core, and disrupt the cohesiveness of the entire complex.

The Santa Ana-based architectural firm MVE Institutional has designed an oversized, ersatz neo-New England fishing village minimall—the opposite of the California coastal modern design. Twelve commercial buildings (out of 50)—including all of Mariners Village and Alley, 1,500 square feet of Dana Wharf, and two boater service buildings—would be demolished (noted in red on the map below). They’d be replaced by seven barnlike boxes, adding 33,000 square feet of commercial space for a total of 111,000 square feet. The county is poised to bulldoze the genuine article for something fake—and nowhere near as well-designed. In place of sunny California casual, the proposed design suggests a tight-lipped Yankee severity.

While it’s worth noting that city namesake Richard Henry Dana was from Massachusetts, he attended fiestas at local haciendas and camped on the beach when he visited in 1835. He lived like a Californian, not a Cambridge-born prig in a woolen coat and starched cravat.

We live in a throwaway society. I recognize this. We forget that old things have value, often greater value than something brand new. What the planners are forgetting, or ignoring, is that the harbor was designed and built according to a carefully calibrated master plan. Stretching from one end of the marina to the other, it integrated everything from picnic shelters to fancy restaurants to awesome engineering into one harmonious picture.

This unity of the design enhances our experience at the harbor. The buildings are at a comfortable human-scale, and don’t compete with the adjacent cliffs or the eucalyptus groves. The natural scenery, by noted Laguna Beach landscape architect Frederick Lang (responsible for the grounds design at UC Irvine), includes aloes and native plants suited to the Southern California architecture.

The harbor’s architects, Grillias, Savage, Alves & Associates of Santa Ana (also responsible for USC’s Heritage Hall and UC Irvine’s Mesa Court housing), created simple wood structures that soften the concrete and piles of boulders of the harbor’s engineering. These buildings aren’t the stark, steel-and-glass boxes that people often associate with modernism. They’re prime examples of this distinctive style, though, because they rely on wood frameworks for their structure, and to provide decorative touches. The architects made natural wood the connecting  fabric throughout the harbor, using it in many ways. This is why the original harbor is such a good design—it has enough variety to keep from becoming monotonous, but enough similarity to create unity.

The concrete bridge anchors the entire harbor design,  a symbol of the impressive feat of modern engineering that created the breakwater and marina—a feat that represents an important moment in the state’s history when anything seemed possible. California had the confidence and know-how to reshape nature to our pleasure (maybe also our hubris—the harbor eliminated Killer Dana, one of the coast’s best natural surfing beaches). We employed the same heroic technology in our freeways and our far-flung aqueducts, attempting to build our way to a rosy futuristic society.

Great cities have distinctive architecture that reflects their accomplishments and pride. Manhattan has the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, iconic skyscrapers that still inspire us as symbols of New York’s audacity. Forty years ago, Dana Point Harbor’s authentic modernism captured the delight and beauty of living beside the ocean. It can deliver that same carefree feeling and enjoyment for decades to come.

Back in 1971, county officials had a broad vision for Dana Point Harbor, hoping it would encapsulate the good life and buoyant optimism of our state for the benefit of the new population flooding in. The new harbor, with restaurants, shops, promenades, and 2,400 slips offered residents another way to use their seaside. It didn’t matter if you didn’t own a boat; you could still walk, dine, and relax beside the water. Of course, even the greatest designs need a few nips and tucks when they approach the 50-year mark. I have to admit that Dana Point Harbor’s once-shining vision has been allowed to get a bit tattered. We’ve taken its beauties for granted and not maintained it as well as we might have. Thick layers of paint over wood shingles, bad color choices, rotted beam ends, deferred maintenance, neglected landscaping, and misguided alterations, such as the metal greenhouse addition to the building that houses Harpoon Henry’s, have taken a toll.

But bulldozers? Really?

The revitalization plan already has been approved by the Dana Point planning commission and City Council; California Coastal Commission; and the Board of Supervisors. The next steps are to get development and building permits. If that happens, construction could begin as soon as the end of 2014, says Brad Gross, director of OC Dana Point Harbor.

There is little time left—but an urgent need—to reconsider this design. Go ahead and expand, but let’s build on the strengths of the original master plan and architecture, not undermine them. The former Beach House restaurant, which rambles like a California ranch house under a canopy of eucalyptus trees, was refurbished successfully not long ago, repeating the materials and lines of the original design and illustrating how it’s possible to expand the older buildings without disturbing the overall unity.

Let’s not forget the city’s previous attempts at New England fishing village architecture. One look at Lantern Bay Village shopping center, a few blocks from the harbor, and you can see it has not fared well. And these proposed flat-walled, overblown, fake-New England buildings lack the finesse—and fun—of the existing, authentic California coastal modern architecture.

Cities such as Pasadena, Palm Springs, and San Francisco know that historical architecture is irreplaceable. It enriches the present—and attracts visitors. Palm Springs has grown a thriving tourist industry around its midcentury modern architecture. The original buildings of Mariners Village and Dana Wharf are just as distinctive.

Like ’50s-modern architecture, ’70s-modern is on track for a return. Across the country, established historians and preservationists are starting to consider the era’s historical significance. It’s overdue. We should be honoring an excellent example such as Dana Point Harbor, one of the best, largest, and most intact examples of 1970s architecture in the state. Inexplicably, the project’s 2012 Environmental Impact Report ignored any mention of the significance of these structures.

When the county built Dana Point Harbor, it focused the might of our engineers, the skill of our architects, and the vision of our leaders on magnifying the pleasures of living here. They created a distinctive, casual California coastal style that captured what was special about Orange County: the ocean views, the sea air, the joy of boating, the relaxing lifestyle. They created something real. Let’s not lose this legacy before architecture, government, and planning professionals realize its value.

1. Start at the jetty and look around at the simple two-story yacht club buildings that hug the harbor’s edge. They’re ideal seaside adaptations of the California ranch house: modernist, unpretentious, and tied to their sites. Look closer at some of the details. Notice how the buildings’ exposed wood posts and beams, and the wide eaves accented by rafter ends, create rich patterns of shadow and light throughout the day. From the inside, the wood structures frame the view through the wrap-around glass walls of swaying masts and gliding seagulls. Wood balconies
offer an even better view.

2. Walk from the jetty back to the mainland across the elegant, concrete bridge. Notice how the bridge’s angled concrete walls and buttresses form the foundation of the harbor’s engineering. The bridge rises effortlessly in a gentle arc, soaring high enough to allow boats to pass beneath, then gracefully touching down on the jetty in a perfect three-point landing. Its crisply angled abutments are proportioned to make it almost a natural feature. The faceting of its three supporting pylons rising out of the water turn them into modern sculpture.

3. Along the landside promenade, you’ll notice  design elements that echo these engineering feats. The slanted concrete sea walls repeat the bridge’s angular shapes, as do the slanted steel railings. The handsome conical bollards anchoring the railings echo the motif. The two remaining promenade trellises (one already has been decapitated for the new plan) and their ingenious cruciform concrete posts, the hexagonal copper light standards—all of these shapes reinforce the harbor’s modernist spirit.

4. As we approach the central Mariners Village promenade, the buildings immediately threatened by the proposed renovation, we come to Harpoon Henry’s and El Torito. They’re built with exposed heavy-timber framing—larger versions of the post-and-beam structures we saw at the smaller yacht clubs. Walking up the steps next to Harpoon Henry’s, you can see the muscular floor joists bolted into the thick pilings. They look like pier pilings—think of Huntington Beach Pier—carrying on the theme of natural materials and nautical detailing.

5. At Dana Wharf, the architects dressed the buildings in a sheath of wood shingles. The origamilike geometries of these large slanting roofs were inspired by the Mendocino County vacation community of Sea Ranch, one of the most admired and imitated California projects of the 1960s. Sea Ranch architects Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull & Whitaker borrowed the simple shapes of historical coastal barns.  Dana Point’s architects transformed this look, creating broad, sloped roofs that emphasize the line of the horizon itself. The rustic shingles convey the harbor’s informal, comfortable feeling.

6. The steep shedlike roof of the Wind & Sea restaurant rises at the tip of Dana Wharf. It’s ruggedly masculine—especially the heavy timber trusses of its porte-cochere. This is another example of the master plan’s carefully composed views. A few larger restaurant buildings were positioned on prominent points so they would stand out like landmarks. At the other side of the marina, you can see the same effect in the upswept curves of the Dana Point Yacht Club’s roof, which are like those of a Japanese temple.

Photographs 1 and 6 by David Guettler; 2 and 5 by Alan Hess; 3 and 4 by Don Whitlow

Alan Hess is an O.C. architect, historian, lecturer, and author of 19 books on modern architecture. He has helped save landmarks such as Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake, and has been honored by the California Preservation Foundation. He’s working on a book on Irvine’s architecture and planning

Weigh In!
Contact Brad Gross of OC Dana Point Harbor at [email protected]
To be on the harbor’s email notification list, send your email address to his assistant at [email protected]


Top photograph by David Guettler

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue.

Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue. – See more at:

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  • April Salem

    What a wonderful article! I spend a lot of time at the harbor, it is quaint and there is history- back in the day many of those who used the harbor were allowed input of what they wanted…. to think of those buildings torn down has been disturbing to me. Many of the original tenants had input and the “charm” to build our Harbor- when they are gone it would be nice to allow some of their charm to remain.

    Wood! Now you have my attention! If even moderately maintained it lasts! And is a thing of beauty. There is enough concrete without removing the wood… I love the wooden buildings at the top of the docks. Though once meant for boaters use- as most marinas offer their customers- the wooden buildings still offer bathrooms and showers… they once had work out rooms or a lounge.

    The small cafes and shops all contribute to a small town feel and it is unique- not a mall- but an accessible place where one can walk and people watch. It forces one to slow down just a bit. I suppose one could put in big promenades and turn around car drop offs- maybe next a jogging lane- yeah so folks could move faster as they ignore the beauty while counting heart rate. Seems to me that is not why watching peaceful boats at rest appeals to so many.

    I own a wooden boat from 1934. I am thankful that previous owners did not try to “upgrade it”. My boat is a piece of history- yes she looked quite worn and perhaps even atrocious just three years ago- but now she is gorgeous, all wood – her original wood. She stands out from other boats in the harbor. I get many compliments and people appreciate that she has been restored.

    Thank you Alan Hess for pointing out the beauty of what we have now- perhaps others would appreciate restoration.

    • Alan Hess

      April– Excellent observations!

    • Stephen Meade

      As someone who was quite literally conceived in Dana Point harbor (my parents lived on a boat at the time), this article definitely pulled on my heart strings. In an era when our movies are all remakes or reboots, it’s sad to see the same trend extend towards architecture and urban design. The original buildings may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but their design *is* original — a real product of the people, location, and times. Faux New England is just that — faux — and 20 years from now we’ll view it with the same disdain we have for Chrysler PT Cruisers, aluminum siding, and just about everything else that is fashioned as a stylized, cartoon version of what once was. We’ll wonder how we let real creativity be bulldozed.

  • Linda

    An important point to be mentioned is that the building of Dana Point Harbor in 1966 totally killed (pun intended) the “Killer Dana” surf break and annihilated the ecosystem that was in existence at the time. What happens now is kind of a moot point…the damage is done.

  • JudyT

    I agree!! Keep Dana Point Harbor original. I’ll be less likely to visit it for dining, strolling, and shopping if it is artificially glitzed up.

  • Planetmann

    “They paved paradise… and put up a parking lot!” Joni Mitchell

    I was born at the beach… I surfed Killer Dana… I’ve raced sailboats in this harbor for years… seen the wonderful ambience attract the crowds… and now they want make it pseudo something else! Who are these opportunistic people? Phonys? Kooks? Is it county tax greed burying our heritage? Will this mean more loud music across the once pleasant, quiet waters? Are the locals going to be forced to allow it? Methinks Henry Dana ‘ll be rollin’ over in his grave… Alas mateys.. what would Hobie say?

  • Mark Howe

    I recall many years ago, when the county first started planning for the harbor refurbishment, they began in typical fashion by hiring a consulting “outreach” firm at great expense [they had money at the time]. Meetings were held to get ‘input’ on what we might like to see if we could have anything we wanted. They could not believe their senses when we said “We like it just the way it is, just repair it.!!” They have never been able to come to grips with that idea.