Santa Monica City Hall: Macdonald-Wright Murals – Santa Monica CA

Project type: Art Works, Murals
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Two large murals by Stanton Macdonald-Wright flank the entrance of the Santa Monica City Hall.  Each one is two-stories high and wraps around the corner of the lobby.  They are elegant works by a major regional artist of the 1930s. MacDonald-Wright pioneered a method called Petrachrome, painting murals with a liquid mixture of materials including crushed tile, marble and granite, then letting the work dry before polishing it.  

The murals would have been paid for by the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, since MacDonald-Wright was the director of the FAP for the western U.S.

The mural on the south side is entitled “Recreation in Santa Monica” and was meant to represent popular spectator sports of the time, such as tennis, golf, polo, car racing, model airplanes and sailing. It was very much meant as publicity for a city on the make and to reinforce the idea of Southern California as a land of sunshine and leisure.  The area was a major center of racing and aviation in the early 20th century.

The mural on the north side of the entrance is titled “History of the Santa Monica Bay Region.” The mural depicts the arrival of the Portola Expedition at the Kuruvungna Springs, site of a Tongva village. This encounter was friendly; the natives were hospitable and offered food, water and gifts. Father Crespi’s journals of Portola’s expedition record his admiration for the indigenous people and culture. The Kuruvungna Springs still exist today on the campus of University High School in West L.A., set aside as a historic site and restored to celebrate the Tongva tribal community past and present. 

Here is further explanation of the symbolism:

“Saint Monica, known as the ‘weeping saint,’ was said to have shed tears every night over her son [Saint] Augustine’s hedonistic lifestyle. Father Juan Crespi was reminded of her eyes when he first saw a pair of sacred springs, named Kuruvungna by the native Tongva tribe, at what is now the border of Santa Monica and West Los Angeles on the campus of University High School…While the Spanish missionaries associated the watery tears with Saint Monica’s motherly frustration, Tongva elder and cultural consultant Julia Bogany [tells] the story of The Crying Rock, which references the painful memory of lives taken during Spanish colonization. The story is one of grief but also of Tongva mercy and resilience.”  (Art-Metro)

The two city hall murals have generated controversy recently, criticized as unrepresentative of the city of Santa Monica and possibly racist.

The Recreation mural shows only White and prosperous-looking people, while today’s diverse populace of Southern California is a far cry from that.  The LA area in the 1930s would, in fact, have been overwhelmingly Euro-American, making the mural somewhat closer to reality.  Yet, in the 1930s Santa Monica had a substantial industrial belt, working class residential areas and Mexicanos living on the south side of the city.  Ironically, recent gentrification has made Santa Monica’s racial and class make-up more like that depicted in the mural!

The History mural has been criticized for showing the Portola group standing and on horseback, while the Tongva people are on the ground in what looks like a supplicant position.  This was probably not the artist’s intent, given the story of the  moving encounter at the Kuruvunga Spring, which he apparently took from Warren (1934).  Of course, that peaceful moment passed quickly and the Spanish Mission system brought servitude, cultural eradication and mass death from European diseases to California’s indigenous peoples. Undoubtedly, that subsequent history is why many viewers today find the idyllic scene troubling.
Nevertheless, the Macdonald-Wright murals are significant pieces of art by a major Southern California artist and an integral part of the lobby as originally conceived. Of course, the murals’ themes are anachronistic by today’s standards, but that is almost always the case for artworks of the past. One hopes that a compromise can be reached through appropriate signage,  continuing opportunity for public comment, and space for a Tongva history display in the lobby.





Source notes

Nina Fresco, local historian

Charles S. Warren, The History of the Santa Monica Bay Region, 1934

Project originally submitted by Richard Walker on May 9, 2023.

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Location Info

1685 Main St
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Coordinates: 34.01173, -118.4915

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