INSIDE PEEK: After $18M Acquisition, Investors to Turn Long Beach’s Historic Ocean Center Building into Residences (with a Museum)

Photos by Brian Addison.

Speculation over what to do with the fourteen stories of gorgeous Spanish Revival architecture sitting at 110 W. Ocean Blvd. has raged for years. The Ocean Center Building, standing 197 feet tall above DTLB, has gone through proposal after proposal, from residential proposal to empty to hoteliers seeking out the famed building.

Now, after an $18M acquisition, the group of investors at Pacific6—the crew behind the massive renovation of the Breakers Building just east of Ocean Center—have purchased the building in the hopes of creating 70 to 80 new residences, keeping in line with the 74 residential units designed by Los Angeles firm David Lawrence Gray Architects back in 2014, while also offering something beyond more food in the downtown area.

“To be honest, the lobby area is just not conducive for a restaurant,” said Pacific6 investor John Molina. “I remember when the Smithsonian was interested in creating a satellite gallery out here and I feel Ocean Center is perfect for that… I am hoping to work with Ron Nelson [of the Long Beach Museum of Art] to get something special going on in the lobby.”

Something special is refreshing to hear: with its terra cotta tiling on its roof and impeccable wood interiors, Ocean Center always represented “something special” after breaking ground in Long Beach on January 25, 1929 at a cost of $1.1M.

In this sense, the announcement offers a huge sigh of relief: after the initial proposal to turn the building into residences nearly four years ago, its tenants—small business owners and entrepreneurs—were given the boot and it has since sat empty.

Designed by Raymond M. Kennedy under the famed Meyer and Holler firm—responsible for Hollywood’s iconic Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theaters—the building is quite unusually shaped. Formed by an octagonal towern and surmounted by a pyramidal-roofed penthouse which contained the elevator and ventilation equipment, it was originally home to some 190 offices (with garage space for 160 cars underneath).

At the time of its opening, its north and east-facing facades were fronted on major streets, the southern overlooked the waterfront, and while the west face was bounded by the fifteen-foot Ocean Way tunnel, leading to the Pike amusement zone.

“For 15 years, Walter Lowrie Porterfield—known to most as W.L.—had been battling to get his high-rise built in downtown and had crossed swords with many of the powerful elite in the city,” said Long Beach historian Claudine Burnett. “A moneyed man himself, Porterfield sold his interests in the Home Telephone Company in 1906 for a reported $1M and he vowed to spend it all on developing something in Long Beach.”

The man was a busy man. Porterfield was involved in the building of the Hotel Virginia, bid against Henry Huntington and the Pacific Electric for the electric rail line franchise for Long Beach, was a partner in the First National Bank, and as a member of the school board was involved in a scandal related to a contract for school desks.

“In 1910, he began to push for a horseshoe-shaped pier on property he owned in Long Beach—or what would eventually become Rainbow Pier,” Burnett said. “He also owned extremely desirable property adjacent to the Pine Avenue Pier and the Pike—and it was here that he wanted to build his Porterfield Building.”

Come 1928, the Porterfield Building, later dubbed Ocean Center, finally came into fruition.

“There’s also a fun fact here after it had opened: in June 1930, the Ocean View miniature golf course opened in the Ocean Center Building,” Burnett said. “Occupying some 12,000 square feet, the course was ingeniously laid, complete with 18 holes. There were real sand hazards, water holes, unusual curves and angles… Fairways were covered with a type of woolen felt fabric—a precursor to today’s astro turf. Located on the Pine Avenue side of the building, the course had windows extending from floor to ceiling offering a three-sided view of the Pacific.”

Nearly sixty years after it was built, heavy with the wear and tear of human usage, the building was finally designated an historical landmark—and that is perhaps where its current purpose can best be used.

A few lamented over the “theme park-y” aspect of the Queen Mary development proposals—and to some extent, those concerns were respectable but there is something that I think is part of the equation when dealing with Long Beach history—and that is: don’t mess with it.

What the Queen Mary proposals do is something I feel Long Beachers want when it comes to something historic: preserve the feeling of it, harken to its historical significance; not surround it with incongruent contemporary structures.

This move toward creating residences at Ocean Center addresses that desire of maintaining our history—while also addressing the state’s housing crisis while also taking on what is easily one of the Long Beach’s largest adaptive reuse projects. 70 to 80 units is no easy feat. Creating a gallery space—with quality art—is no easy feat.

Doing all this in an historic building adds to the stresses.

Ocean Center was the gateway into an underbelly of cheap thrills, tattoos, eyebrow-raisers, and mental escape. It was, in a sense, a trophy space for the downtrodden, outcast, and deplorable.

Now, it can once again be a jewel for DTLB.

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.

Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.