The day they found the Peninsula

Winter Light: A very cold winter day. The shadows of the cliff are almost black. The brightly lit sky seemed almost ethereal. Drawing by Rick Humphrey

The way we were, and the way we are

In a new exhibition, Rick Humphrey merges art and local history

by Bondo Wyszpolski

In the early 1920s, a grand vision for the Palos Verdes Peninsula began taking shape, promoted by its founding fathers. But by the end of that same decade something nasty came along to snuff it out, the Great Depression.

However, a few things did get in under the wire — Malaga Cove Plaza is the best example, along with Malaga Cove School and the Malaga Cove Library — but several did not: Valmonte Plaza and Lunada Bay Plaza in particular.

Other reminders of that original vision exist as well, having weathered a century of city planning and growth. The “founding” of the Peninsula began 100 years ago, dated (accurately or otherwise) June 17, 1923, when a real estate car rally took place on the site of what became Malaga Cove School. It was on that day that the public was invited to view the new plans and to purchase property in Palos Verdes Estates. After that, the development of the Peninsula was off to the races.

About a year ago, Rick Humphrey, a longtime resident of the Hill (his family moved to Lunada Bay in 1959), was in the history room of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Library talking with Monique Sugimoto, the P.V. Library District’s archivist and local history librarian. On that day, Sugimoto mentioned that they’d be celebrating the centennial of the founding when June 17th rolled around again.

Rick Humphrey at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Library. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“I would love to get involved,” Humphrey told her. He and I are sitting in that same room, surrounded by shelves filled with books, bound issues of newspapers and magazines, that document all historical aspects of the Hill. Humphrey and I even find our old yearbooks from Palos Verdes High School and share memories about the same people, places, and events: when a scene from “Cleopatra” was filmed by the cliffs, we were there; when the Dominator sailed onto the rocks of Lunada Bay, we were there also.

“I said to Monique,” he continues, “what would be fun is if we did something on that same day at the Malaga Cove School” — and on the same spot where a photo was taken on the day of the real estate rally.

“Then she came up with this idea of having a car rally where people could get passports and, I said, we could go to all the historical places on the Hill, like La Venta Inn, the Neighborhood Church; all these places that have a real history to them and are very iconic to the Peninsula. People could get their passports stamped and stuff like that.”

Since that time, as Elka Worner reveals in this issue’s cover feature, Sugimoto has put together quite an itinerary for the occasion, with many people and organizations taking part. Details are on the PVP Library website:

As their conversation progressed, Humphrey suggested having an art exhibit of works by the Portuguese Bend Artist Colony, of which he’s a member. Their paintings, although similar to the plein air California Impressionist style that bloomed into prominence in the 1920s and ‘30s, mostly depict the hillsides and the shorelines of the Peninsula without people or vehicles — the way it was and, sporadically, still is.

He then reasoned that there could be a liability issue with so many valuable paintings coupled with so little security, and decided on a poster exhibit instead. Humphrey then came up with three themes — the early years and founding of the Peninsula, the culture of the Peninsula, and lastly but perhaps foremost the beauty of the Peninsula.

Night Traveler: December 22, 1999. The moon is the brightest it has been in more than 130 years. The air is cold and dry and the night sky is very clear. Shadows in the ravine and on the trail are jet black. Painting by Rick Humphrey

Poster art on view

In 2009, when he was involved in an art exhibit at the Malaga Cove Library Art Gallery, Humphrey and fellow art colonist Dan Pinkham discovered a trove of artist renderings for the proposed development of Lunada Bay Plaza and Valmonte Plaza, neither of which was actualized.

They’d been hidden away in the storage room, Humphrey says, “and they were in horrible condition. They were torn and ripped and water-stained. Dan and I took them out of there because we knew that they were going to be destroyed.”

At Pinkham’s home Humphrey photographed the illustrations and later digitally repaired them. Reproductions of the drawings will be on view when the exhibit opens on June 24.

After his meeting with Sugimoto, Humphrey began pouring over materials related to the early years of the Peninsula. He was impressed by the original visions for the land, which from the start was focused more on preserving an aesthetic look and feel in lieu of handing over the reins to commercial developers.

“Then I started writing and developing posters for each of the three sections that I wanted to flesh out. It took me about nine months to do it.” Told somewhat chronologically, the first posters acknowledge the original inhabitants, the Tongva, who lived in several villages on the Hill, later giving way to the cattle ranchers and sheep farmers and thereafter the Japanese-American farmers who grew and harvested fruits and vegetables. In 1913, New Yorker Frank A. Vanderlip purchased the whole kit and caboodle, all 16,000 acres of the Peninsula, with certain grand visions of his own.

What Humphrey has adroitly assembled over the course of 22 posters, not counting eight more devoted to the Portuguese Bend Art Colony, is a general overview, with words and pictures in a graphic format pleasing to the eye. The section devoted to culture or cultural attractions, which includes Romayne Martin’s key role in establishing both the first public school and library on the Hill, seems to embrace leisure and recreation in that he also spotlights the Palos Verdes Golf Club, the Palos Verdes Bathhouse and Beach Club, as well as the extensive equestrian community that’s to this day a calling-card feature of Rolling Hills Estates. As closely connected as they are, all four cities on the Peninsula — Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills Estates, Rolling Hills and Rancho Palos Verdes — have their own character.

The last of the three sections or themes, devoted to the physical beauty of the Peninsula, is represented by images from each of the seven members of the Portuguese Bend Artist Colony, which include Dan and Vicki Pinkham, Stephen Mirich, Tom Redfield, Amy Sidrane, Kevin Prince, and Humphrey himself. Fine work, although somewhat repetitious when clustered together; it could have been rounded out, for example, with the equestrian art of Peggy Zask or Susan Whiting, or the surf culture imagery of Rick Griffin and John Van Hammersveld. Humphrey realizes this, but also saw the need to be selective and concise.

A Summer Day in the Vineyard: The shade of the eucalyptus trees offers a refreshing coolness on a warm day. Painting by Rick Humphrey

Preserving the vision

The founding fathers, Humphrey emphasizes, have given the Peninsula’s current residents a great gift. “The vision that they established was stated early on in the pamphlets they distributed to help sell real estate up here, [showing] that they valued artistic beauty over mere commercialism. Everything that they were doing was done with that as their ultimate goal.” That meant large open green spaces and a coastline left free of clutter. To this day, there isn’t a single traffic light in Palos Verdes Estates (although the road through Malaga Cove Plaza gets pretty iffy during rush hour).

Newer residents, Humphrey says, may not be aware of the careful planning devoted to the Peninsula during its earliest years. “They just know that this is a really beautiful area, but they don’t know what the original precepts were.

“So, I told Monique, the whole purpose of us doing the show is to have something that not only will be on exhibit for two weeks but hopefully will find a permanent exhibit [space] on the Hill where schoolkids can be taken to learn about the history, the culture, and the beauty of the Peninsula, and that we can start to influence the next 100 years of residents in the community, to say, you’ve been given something really special; make sure that you maintain it. Make sure that you elect people to the city councils that will carry forth that same vision so that we don’t lose it — because it will be real easy for people with a lot of money who have commercial interests to put people on those councils to change the zoning laws. Then all of a sudden you start to lose everything that we’ve been gifted.”

The poster art exhibition, which opens on Saturday, June 24, and runs for two weeks in the Malaga Cove Library Art Gallery, not only surveys the Peninsula’s history but quietly salutes those who first saw fit to treat the land with dignity, and to applaud as well those individuals who are currently striving to preserve its natural beauty for future generations. PEN


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