Kevin Cody

Davis, Powelson helped shaped Redondo from opposite ends of social spectrum

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Portofino Hotel marina owner Mary Davis was one of the first  professional women race car drivers, paving the way for Danika Patrick, and the current generation of female race car drivers.

Portofino Hotel marina owner Mary Davis was one of the first professional women race car drivers, paving the way for Danika Patrick, and the current generation of female race car drivers.

Mary Davis and Chester Powelson, each influential Redondoans throughout the last half of the last century, died recently, within a week of one another.

The two occupied opposite ends of both the political and social spectrum. Davis owned the Portofino Marina in King Harbor for nearly three decades and was a forceful advocate of business interests. Powelson worked in the harbor for three decades as a city laborer and was an outspoken political watchdog.

Davis passed away at her La Quinta home on December 8 from heart failure at the age of 86. She is survived by her nieces, nephews.

Chester Powelson worked for the City of Redondo Beach for over three decades.

Chester Powelson worked for the City of Redondo Beach for over three decades.

Powelson passed away November 29 at his Redondo Beach home at the age of 81. He is survived by his wife of 62 years Anna, children Lorenza Smith and Joseph, Louis, Rene and Angela Powelson and by nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

Mary Davis with fellow King Harbor Lessee Les Guthrie in 2009, during King Harbor's 50th anniversary celebration. Photo by Mark McDermott

Mary Davis with fellow King Harbor Lessee Les Guthrie in 2009, during King Harbor’s 50th anniversary celebration. Photo by Mark McDermott

King Harbor Pioneer Mary Davis

by Mark McDermott

(Reprinted from Easy Reader, September 24, 2009.)

It was late in the evening at Seaside Lagoon when Les Guthrie and Mary Davis pulled their wheelchairs close together and recalled the beginnings of King Harbor. The occasion was King Harbor’s 50th Anniversary.

For eight decades, the citizens of Redondo Beach had longed for a harbor. The premise was always: if we build it, they will come. In the early 1950s, Congressman Cecil King convinced President Harry Truman to sign off on the $5 million needed to construct a breakwater. But that wasn’t nearly enough. Finally, in 1959, under the guidance of City Manager Frances Hopkins, a $9 million revenue bond was approved by voters that allowed the building of King Harbor to begin.

The fact that Mary Davis was one of the original four leaseholders is one of the more unlikely chapters in the long uphill story that is King Harbor. As Les Guthrie observed, there were very few female entrepreneurs in the 1960s.

“I encountered some, but they were not legal,” said Guthrie, who didn’t become a harbor leaseholder until later in the decade. “I met one in Chicago who said she was a hostess with complete satisfaction guaranteed. She even had a card.”

“See what I had to put up with?” Davis said.

Mary Davis' striking good looks didn't always work in her favor during an era when women business leaders were rare.

Mary Davis’ striking good looks didn’t always work in her favor during an era when women business leaders were rare.

Davis was only 28 years old when she arrived in the harbor, but she’d already lived a couple of lives. At the age of 15 she’d joined the Marine Corps. When her real age was discovered, she quickly moved on to another bold venture – at the age of 16, she became a race car driver. In 1957, she became a national celebrity when she won the cross-country Mobil Gas Economy Run. She was a tall, striking blonde with flashing eyes and a brash sense of humor; when she walked into a room, everyone knew she had arrived.

She originally bid on a harbor leasehold as a partner with one of her racing friends, Pearce Venable, whose mother, Bernice, had served on the Redondo City Council. But before the deal was completed, Venable died of a heart attack. Davis continued, however, and submitted a winning bid.

Redondo, like everywhere else in those days, was essentially a good old boys network. The business community didn’t exactly shun Davis, but she wasn’t taken very seriously.

“They all used to pat me on the head,” Davis said. “They figured, ‘Dumb broad. She’ll never make it…’ So I was determined to make it. They didn’t know me very well. I was fighting like hell to make it. I had a dream.”

Bud Mirassou, who was on the City Council at the time and also headed the Junior Chamber of Commerce, recalled when Davis attempted to join the Chamber.

“And of course there was no woman in Rotary or the Junior Chamber or anything,” he said. “So there were two reasons she couldn’t be in the Junior Chamber of Commerce. One was because she was too old…and second, she was a woman. So I figured I can’t say you can’t get in because you are too old. That would be a mistake. So I said, ‘You can’t get in because you are a woman.’ And that was a mistake too!”

Davis was generally undaunted. She opened her hotel, the Portofino, in January of 1965 – before any other leaseholder, and a year before the harbor itself was officially launched. “I thought I had to build everything right now,” she said. “According to the lease, I had to, so I went ahead and borrowed the money and hocked my soul and I started building. I was very determined.”

The road to her leasehold wasn’t even completed.

“I had to go out and drive my guests in,” she said. “Needless to say, I wasn’t too happy with my city, but I continued and kept going on and made a tremendous success of it.”

The $5 million Portofino, with 140 rooms, 22 apartments, 225 boats slips, and two bars and a restaurant, very quickly became a success. Celebrity race car drivers from around the world put the hotel on the map, and Davis’ hard-driving style – she used to ride around town on the back of Jeep putting signs up for her business – made it a local landmark. Even the frequent natural disasters, such as a huge 1963 storm that nearly wiped out her construction, barely gave her a pause.

“All I can remember saying is I am going to make this, I know I am going to do it,” Davis said. “I used to sit out on the rocks and dream. Everybody who would come by was afraid I was going to kill myself. But I was just plotting things.”

Chester Powelson fights on

by Harry Munns

(Reprinted from Easy Reader, August 20, 2009.)

Chester Powelson laughs hard at the suggestion people might call him a gadfly. Wikipedia defines gadfly as, “a term for people who upset the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant.” Spend five minutes with Powelson and you know that definition fits like the water in King Harbor fits around the pier pilings he once inspected and maintained.

His name shows up almost 100 times in a search of city records. That might not be unusual considering he began working for the city in 1951 and by his count, worked as a city employee for 35 years.

None of those documents are related to employment. Most of the hits in the record search come from City Council meeting transcripts and filings with city offices such as the City Clerk and City Attorney.

It isn’t unusual for Powelson to get up at a City Council meeting and simply declare the city has violated the state constitution or it needs younger politicians. He did both in 2008.

He feels his 35 years of service have earned him that right. “I first came to work down here as a janitor, sweeping the pier,” Powelson said. “I swept all of Harbor Drive. Then I went on to bigger things.” Among the many tasks Powelson recalled performing for the city included working on a garbage truck, pile driving, placing rocks on the breakwater and auditing for the state. He also helped survey the harbor and the Seaside Lagoon.

Much of the history of the South Bay and King Harbor has been chronicled in local newspapers, but a lot if it will be told as an oral history. Powelson’s one of a dying breed of guys who “knows where all the bodies are buried” in King Harbor, perhaps literally. He’s happy to tell you all about it.

If you have any doubt that the harbor/pier area might have had a lurid past, Powelson can clear that up in a hurry. He’ll tell you about the time the national news came to Redondo to report on storm damage. They inadvertently took TV and newspaper photos of a local brothel and displayed them for the world to see.

Powelson has demonstrated that there’s more to his work as a gadfly than simply declaring the city is at fault for any number of reasons. “I was watching (the council meeting) TV and heard they wanted to change the slips at the Portofino to all big boat slips. This harbor was created as a small boat harbor. I decided they couldn’t do that.” Powelson said.

To prove his point, Powelson put together an opposing opinion and presented it to the Coastal Commission in January of 2006. The package he sent consisted of hundreds of documents he requested from the city, state and other entities taking advantage of their freedom of information policies. “The documents weighed two pounds,” he said.

According to Powelson, he won the battle but the victory might not be as clear to other observers. The Portofino project reduced the number of slips from 232 to 179. However, the commission’s final judgment includes these words, “At least 66 slips would be less than thirty feet in length.” That verbiage did not appear in the application documents or the staff recommendations prior to the commission’s final disposition.

Some might see the history of King Harbor as a story about multi-million dollar deals, a rock breakwater and construction projects. You can’t tell the story without including the characters who participated in the making of that history. Powelson’s years in the harbor have earned him a place on that list of characters. ER

 

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