A pier gift
The unveiling of the new Roundhouse Aquarium
by Mark McDermott
Thirteen hundred and eight days since the passing of his 19-year-old son Harrison, Michael Greenberg on Tuesday stood before a podium at the end of the Manhattan Beach pier and looked out into the crowd.
“The skies opened up for us today,” said Greenberg.
Behind him, light spilled from the Roundhouse Aquarium as the sun lowered over the Pacific near the end of a sky blue day. Several hundred people were gathered for the reopening of the Aquarium, but this was no ribbon cutting.
Greenberg, the president of Skechers, was here to mark the culmination of a 42-month long journey that began with the death of his eldest son in an accident abroad. Harrison Greenberg’s years were marked by an exuberant curiosity and a wide sense of adventure, qualities that found fullest expression in the Pacific Ocean. The Aquarium had helped foster this sense of wonder. As a little boy, Harrison scampered across the concrete platform his father now stood upon dozens of times on his way to visit the Roundhouse.
And so only days after losing him, Michael and Wendy Greenberg had decided to honor their son by spearheading the renovation of the deteriorating facility. The Greenbergs led a drive that raised $4 million — including $2 million of their own contributions — and resulted in the transformation of the 2,200 square foot aquarium from a homely if functional Ocean Teaching Station into a dazzling, state-of-the-art marine science teaching center.
Manhattan Beach Mayor Steve Napolitano, before bringing Greenberg to the podium, called the occasion bittersweet.
“It pains me to say that there is nothing we can do to make up for the loss of your son,” Napolitano said, his voice catching. “Few people will remember the words said here today. But there is not a doubt in my soul that through your generosity in creating this tribute, he will live on in the enchantment and awe on the faces of thousands upon thousands of children who will pass through these doors. May God bless you and your family.”
Greenberg promised to keep the occasion “more sweet than bitter.” But as he recalled his son, he took a long pause to rein in his emotions.
“He taught me so much in the 19 years he was alive,” Greenberg said, looking up from the podium. “And because of that, I wanted to do something special.”
The enchanted village
The Greenbergs arrived in Manhattan Beach 28 years ago when Michael became enthralled with the town he came to think of as “this enchanted village.” They came in Boston, where Michael’s grandfather, Harry, had established the first family business, a green grocery. He and his father, Robert, built the shoe company LA Gear, and then Skechers out of its ashes. Robert would continue to call Skechers “a family business” even as it grew to become a multi-billion dollar global company. And Micheal, against all common sense, would insist on keeping the company in four square miles of Manhattan Beach even as it became the second largest shoe company in the country. When he first arrived in town, his office was on the 200 block of Manhattan Beach Boulevard, where his view was of the Roundhouse at the end of the pier. Over subsequent decades, the family’s connection to the community deepened. The kids went to public schools and the company founded the Pier to Pier Friendship Walk, which supported local education and particularly special education students.
Twenty months ago, the Harrison Greenberg Foundation’s plan to comprehensively renovate the Roundhouse Aquarium came into sharper focus as architects responded to a request for proposals. One of those firms was a somewhat unlikely respondent, not because of its lack of experience but the opposite. CambridgeSeven were among the premier architects of aquariums in the world; their projects the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the New England Aquarium, the Acquario di Genova in Italy and the Ring of Fire Aquarium in Osaka, Japan. The Roundhouse Aquarium was a fraction of the size of these projects.
Yet the moment Greenberg sat down at a table with CambridgeSeven lead architect Peter Sollogub, at their initial meeting at the Manhattan Beach Police and Fire Department facility’s conference room, he was deeply struck. Sollogub, who looks a bit like a more puckish version of Pablo Picasso, reminded him of his grandfather, Harry, for whom his son Harrison was named.
“I think from up above somebody was moving the pieces around and connecting the dots,” Greenberg said Monday, by way of introducing the architect.
The other thing that struck him at that first meeting is that he and the architect had already come to the same conclusion — that the aquarium should be reconfigured so the entrance would be east-facing, thus allowing visitors to enter a widening corridor that opens up to the Pacific and the entire building itself to become a window to the ocean blue. They both knew this wasn’t going to be a popular change; it meant getting rid of the coffee shop at the front the Roundhouse.
But as CambridgeSeven signed on to the project and Greenberg shepherded it, another remarkable thing happened. The new design needed to win approval from six different governmental bodies, including the U.S. Army Army Corps of Engineers and the California Coastal Commission. The latter which is tasked with protecting public access to the coast and might have had an issue with the coffee shop. But every agency signed off, with almost astonishing quickness; one coastal commissioner actually cried as he voted for the project.
“This is the first time in 100 years where you can look west, down the pier, through the Roundhouse, and see the largest aquarium in the world, the Pacific Ocean,” Greenberg said as he stood before the new entrance Monday. “The vision was just incredible.”
Sollogub told the gathering that the design had been both bold and simple. Technically, it was accomplished by splitting the aquarium’s marine life support apparatus and its pumps in half, in order to create an east-west corridor. But very non-technically, Sollogub said, the larger endeavor itself seemed to come to fruition through a providence beyond any such concrete imaginings.
“We have done many, many projects,” Sollogub said. “The National Aquarium, the New England Aquarium…All of these aquariums, they all have thousands of square feet, they have scores of animals — there are animals that would block out the views here, whalesharks that can’t even fit in this building. They have thousands and thousands and thousands of gallons of water, some of them, millions of gallons. They are funded by many millions of dollars, some hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We hear it; I hear it: people say to me, ‘This is the smallest aquarium that we ever designed.’ But we say, ‘No. It’s the largest.’ The square feet, the creatures, gallons of water, dollars — those are measured by metrics. But you can’t measure heart, and this project has by far the largest heart. The heart drives soul and it drives spirit. And it’s been a privilege to work on this project, because our very best work comes from our hearts.”
In his final remarks Monday, Greenberg made a suggestion to those gathered.
“Everybody is going to see the aquarium, and we’ll be in there together in close quarters,” Greenberg said, his eyes watery. “But I would implore you to come back at a later time and see it with a few people and take it all in. Because it is so spectacular.”
A transformation had occurred, somehow turning a small space into something seemingly limitless. Like a father’s love for his son.
Into the blue
The first thing you feel when you walk into the blue and shimmering light inside the new Roundhouse Aquarium is that the building seems to be breathing. It’s a feeling of submersion, and it’s not entirely an illusion.
Every inch has been considered for its possibility to induce wonder. On the right, a small shark glides by in one tank, while kelp sways in another, dozens of small fish darting between the fronds. On the left, a new and much improved touch tank — the most popular feature in the old aquarium — awaits a new generation of kids eager to actually put their hands on marine life, such as sea stars. Large video displays hang above, alive with more aquatic life, and so wherever you walk there is a soothing sense of movement in your peripheral vision, an effect amplified by a sound system playing the low underwater gurgle and the long deep breaths of whales. Even above, on the ceiling, animals seem to be drifting — a mural showing sharks and rays and silhouettes of fish disappearing into other ocean depths. The floor has outlines of sharks and whales and other species.
“Look down, and the floor is an education piece in itself,” said Valerie Hill, the co-director of the Oceanographic Teaching Station. “It has real life sized animals in it. I’m excited about incorporating that into educational programs, so a kid can stand on a whale and see how big they are versus a shark and a sea star.”
The aquarium is organized into four different galleries featuring 14 marine life tanks and 75 species native to California, as well as a handful from other parts of the world. Exhibits include a seahorse tank and an octopus tank.
“The new design will allow us to be more experiential, more interactive – it really opens up a world of opportunities,” said John Roberts, board president of O.T.S.
Aquarium co-director Eric Martin said the redesign reaches even the most fundamental aspect of facility — the water.
“The water is clear, and I can actually keep it clear,” he said. “We have the equipment here to keep these aquariums in a very high profile, like when you go the Monterey Aquarium. That was hard to do with what we had before; now we have UV lights, and each tank has its own skimmer pumps.”
“I went to Peter one time, and I said, ‘This is going to be the best small aquarium in the United States,” Martin said. “Since Peter was affiliated with the New England Aquarium, he told me, ‘It’s going to be the most incredible, smallest, advanced aquarium in the world.’ And having it right here in Manhattan Beach, to educate kids…. There really are no words.”
Hill brought her own two kids for a sneak preview last weekend and their reaction was beyond what she’d hoped for.
“Just the look of awe in their eyes running in,” she said. “They’ve been here a million times before but never like this. Just how excited they were about the new touch tank — that’s going to be key for all the kids who come in and visit. Perfect height, perfect opportunity to touch all the animals and look at everything closer and really get that personalized experience of the ocean. We are going to be able to reach a lot of kids.”
When the doors opened, the kids present ran straight for the touch tanks. Councilperson David Lesser said that many kids who arrive at the Roundhouse are coming from less advantaged communities. The aquarium has always offered free admission, and will continue to do so.
“Just seeing little kids touch the animals in the fish tank — it totally reminded me of being with my own kids when they were literally touching starfish,” he said. “It strikes me as sort of the heart and soul of this, the first experience of engaging with the ocean, for people of all economic strata.”
The City of Manhattan Beach renovated the exterior of the Roundhouse, staying true to its 98-year-old original design. Photographer Bo Bridges took note of the new tile roof.
“I love the new roof, because I’m always shooting from up above,” Bridges said. “And I’ve heard they have pigeon control devices on it now, to keep it clean. Because before it was always white, like a big white poop platform on top. I’m excited about that because that’s a lot of retouches.”
But Bridges, with his photographer’s sensitivity to light, also took note of how the new design will impact its surroundings.
“I think the coolest thing about it is the fact it is hollow now; before, you come up to it and you just stopped,” he said. “You couldn’t see through it. And now as you approach you see through it. And you are going to have sunsets — for about 20 days of the season, each time the sun goes down towards the southern hemisphere and then back to the north, it’s going to blitz right through here. And from the beach and up on the street you are actually going to have a beam of light flying through here now.”
“It’s going to change all these dynamics that everyone has seen for so long.”
Hill, who is a plankton specialist, was perhaps most excited by one of the smallest features: a new microscope in the upstairs kids discovery center that connects to a big television in order to show kids plankton.
“It’s hard to teach people about plankton. Now we have this great equipment so we can show people every day,” she said.
Co-director Martin is more of a whale guy. The aquarium represents the balance required for both species to thrive.
“You can’t have one without the other,” Hill said. “The whale poop fertilizes the plankton. The plankton gives whales oxygen to breath and food to eat. That’s what we always try to teach kids: it’s all connected.”
The boy on the coin
Jon Hirshberg, a local entrepreneur and founder of Tour De Pier, was among those who spoke Monday. He is a friend of the Greenberg family and among the project’s first donors, giving $250,000.
“I’ll never forget that afternoon at Michael’s house when our kids got together and talked about this project, looked at the plan, and voted on participating,” Hirshberg said. “And then Scotty, our youngest, a little shy in the delivery, looked at Michael in the eyes, shook his hand, and said, ‘The Hirshberg’s are in.’ It was a lifetime memory.”
Hirshberg recalled a conversation he’d had with Councilperson Amy Howorth in which she talked about the importance of the places and events that congregate community and increase its happiness and health.
“The DNA of this community — the Friendship Walk, the Tour de Pier, the Pumpkin Races, the fireworks, the schools and libraries, the Hometown Fair, farmer’s market, the list goes on and on, what this community has to offer,” he said… And now we add the new aquarium to the list of places that will bring happiness to this community.”
“This is a dear project to the city,” Sollogub remarked afterward. “It’s like the Eiffel Tower to Paris.”
Greenberg had mused at the outset of his remarks about how many people he’d come to know because of the project, so many that his speech felt more like an address to extended family and not a public gathering.
“I’ve added a lot of people to my family,” he said.
He had, in other words, enlarged his own sense of community. It was, perhaps, the gift he and his family received for the gift they’d given the community.
“Skechers has done a lot for the community but I think going through this in a very public way and working so hard to do something for the community made him feel a part of the community more than he had ever felt before,” Howorth said. “What I’d said to Jonathan Hirshberg was that providing places where the community can come together, creating happiness, has a tangible effect. I think you can never get over the pain of losing a child, but going through that experience and then having this incredible project come to fruition has got to be very gratifying. It’s a huge gift.”
“You know, people say time heals,” Hirshberg said. “I can’t say I agree completely. I think time helps. But memories last a lifetime.”
Out on the other side of the Aquarium Monday afternoon, leaning over the rails looking out at the Pacific, the two people who in some ways knew Harrison Greenberg the best were thinking about what he would have liked most about the new aquarium and the day’s event. His 16-year-old little sister Mackenna had no doubt what it would be — Harrison’s likeness, emblazoned upon a large medallion just inside the aquarium entrance. Small replicates were made as commemorative coins.
“He was not a self-centered person, but he was a self-centered person,” Mackenna said, laughing. “I think he looks really great on that medallion; I think his bone structure looks great. Maybe a little more to the left but other than that, stunning. And he’d love that. I honestly think that would be his favorite part.”
“Oh, it totally would be,” said Savannah Sartini, Harrison’s girlfriend. “He wouldn’t let people walk on it.”
More seriously, they both agreed that the aquarium fit Harrison’s sense of wonder for the world. Sartini said the see-through aspect reminded her of one of his favorite places, Two Harbors on Catalina Island, where you can stand atop a ridge and see the Pacific reaching both east to the mainland and west to forever.
“He loved the ocean so much,” Sartini said. “This is just totally the epitome of Harrison.”
“Harrison really was, as my dad said, a pain in the ass,” Mackenna said. “But he really was so caring and so giving and he would love this. He loved to teach everyone everything, even things he didn’t know about. He used to give my brother and me these lessons, and he’d print out worksheets for us to do. So he would love this. He would love to teach kids.
“I think everything about this, he’d be like, ‘I made it.’ He’s made it.”
In addition to the Hirshberg Family, founding supporters of the Roundhouse Aquarium renovation are the Ted Schwartz Family Foundation, Warren Lichtenstein, the McGovern Family, and Kinecta Federal Credit Union.