Palisades Park, the Steady Sentinel on the Western Edge

How a park saves a city

Atlas would certainly make a great symbol for any story about Palisades Park. 


Atlas was a Titan whom Zeus sent to the western edge of Gaia (earth) to protect terrestrial life from the ravages of the sky.


Without Atlas holding the sky at bay, the rains would deluge the earth. Rivers would flow, endlessly ravaging the land. Oceans would swell and batter the terrestrial harbors and terraces. In short, the earth would erode into the ocean.  But Atlas dutifully saved the earth from the torrential rains.


Palisades Park truly is our sentinel by the sea.


For without Palisades Park the bluffs would erode and slide into the sea. The trees and plants and grasses of Palisades Park protect the bluffs form the erosive force of rain. Santa Monica's original urban planners had the foresight to build a natural and sustainable landscape whose vegetation and root systems would hold the bluffs together.


See: Soils and Geology 


From Barren Bluffs to Urban Forest: The Origins of Palisades Park

A Landscape Unfit for Residences

Circa 1900, after first planting of trees
Circa 1900, after first planting of trees

In 1892 when the founders of Santa Monica gifted the park property to the city, they didn’t think it was fit for residential use.* 


The bluffs were barren and wind swept, the soils thin and unstable. (see photo at left). Like all coastal bluffs in California it was a precarious landscape, prone to slides and erosion.  As the Coastal Commission says today, "bluffs and sea cliffs are a testament to the erosive power of waves, winter rainstorms, and wind." ** 


*As quoted by Fred E. Basten in "Palisades Park Panorama"


** California Coastal Commission Resource Guide                                                              See: SoilsGeology

The Wisdom of a Gift

The True Benefactors of Palisades Park

There is little known about the history of Palisades Park.


According to popular legend the park was gifted by the city founders, Colonel Robert Symington Baker, his wife, Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker (for whom there is a bust in the park's rose garden), and Senator John P. Jones (for whom there is a memorial in the park).


However, our knowledge of the circumstances and unique features of their gift remains murky.


According to Indersoll, one of the first historians in Los Angeles area, the land was actually donated to the city by the "Santa Monica Land and Water Co," a company formed by the founders to coordinate sales and development of their real estate venture.


Donating the park land may easily have been both a financially expedient and civic-minded gesture.


They would necessarily surrender ownership of land, a land that couldn't be sold ("not fit for residences" they were told) and thus bequeath it to the "public forever," a land that would become, in a matter of decades, one of the most spectacular parks in the world! 


The real heroes in this story of extraordinary gifts may not be our founders, but city employees, the park's first urban managers, the city's department of public works. For at the time the city's environmental engineers had a daunting task—how to stabilize ever-changing and always eroding bluffs and create a beautifully complex ecosystem that will thrive and sustain the city for centuries to come.  Unfortunately little is known of the city's first true heroes. 


*Ingersoll, Luther A., 1908. p. 186: Santa Monica Bay Cities... prefaced with a brief history of the state of California, a condensed history of Los Angeles County,1542-1908 


See: SoilsGeology




Historic Slideshow from Santa Monica Library's Image Archive, and also Calisphere