Catalina Island Historical Sites : Catalina Express

Catalina Island Historical Sites

View of Avalon Harbor and the Casino

Catalina Island – Avalon specifically – has been in the tourism business since 1887 when the first pier and hotel were constructed by George Shatto. Though the Island and Avalon have changed over the years and there have been numerous upgrades to what is offered to visitors, it still boasts multiple historic sites and landmarks. In fact, when I set out to write this blog and made a quick list, it was clear that there were too many to include here!

Let’s start out with a couple of the more recognizable buildings. As you arrive on the Catalina Express, you will immediately notice the Casino, William Wrigley Jr.’s 1929 Art Deco movie palace and ballroom. The building marked the completion of 10 years of improvements and development by Wrigley after he purchased controlling interest of the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919. It’s Avalon Theatre was the first movie theatre built for talking pictures, still has its original Page pipe organ (built in 1928) and was studied by the engineers of Radio City Music Hall in New York because of its amazing acoustics. When it opened, the Casino Ballroom was home to the world’s largest uninterrupted dancefloor. It once held 6,000 dancers during a performance by Kay Kyser and His Orchestra and has hosted some of the nation's most talented musicians – from Big Bands to Kenny Loggins to today’s hottest smooth jazz artists. During the Big Band era, it was the site of nightly CBS radio broadcasts across the nation of its featured bands. The announcer could be heard saying “From the beautiful Casino Ballroom, overlooking Avalon Bay at Catalina Island, we bring you the music of….”

Directly across Avalon Bay from the Casino, on the hillside you will notice a unique home with a cone-shaped cupola. It is known as the Holly Hill House, however, its original owner named the house Lookout Cottage. It stands today as the second oldest house in Avalon. It was constructed by Peter Gano, a civil engineer from Pasadena and a skilled woodworker. He used his horse, Mercury, and a pulley system to build on the steep hillside. According to island lore, he built the home for his soon-to-be bride but she did not intend on moving to the island as he had hoped. Heartbroken, he put up a “no women allowed” sign at its entrance for many years. This privately-owned home recently underwent a restoration to its original charm inside and out. 

Further up that hillside, above the Holly Hill House, sits Mt. Ada. White with green trim perched at the top of the hill, this was the home of Ada and William Wrigley Jr. They selected this location as it offers sweeping views of the ocean, Avalon and the hillsides around Avalon. It also captures the first and last sunlight of the day. The Wrigley’s typically spent February and March on the Island while the Chicago Cubs were here for Spring Training. After Mr. Wrigley passed away in 1932, Ada spent a lot more time on the island and enjoyed the tranquility of their island home. Mt. Ada is now a 6-room inn that is run by the Catalina Island Company. 

There are numerous other sites/buildings around Avalon that would be considered historic: The Tuna Club of Avalon, Catalina Island Yacht Club, Wrigley Memorial, Glenmore Hotel, Bird Park, Chimes Tower, Zane Grey Hotel and even the Green Pleasure Pier, just to name a few. However, I also wanted to share a historical building and site at the other end of the Island in Two Harbors. 

The building that is now the Isthmus Yacht Club was actually originally built as a barracks for Union soldiers of the Civil War! Those stationed on the Island were responsible for recording the number of ranchers, cattle and sheep. That building was also utilized during World War II when the Island was closed to visitors and used for military training. The Coast Guard used Two Harbors to train their recruits and this building was an integral part of that. 

To learn more about the rich and varied history of Santa Catalina Island, be sure to visit the Catalina Island Museum during your next visit. The Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday to explore the outdoor and sales galleries. 

By guest blogger Gail Fornasiere
Director of Marketing and Public Relations, Catalina Island Museum


* To get the latest details on what's open and other travel advisories, visit Love Catalina Island.

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