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Cal Living: Windansea Beach Shack Receives Historic Site Designation

SAN DIEGO (AP) - San Diego's newest historic site isn't a gingerbread Victorian overlooking Mission Bay or some obscure obelisk in the Gaslamp Quarter. It's a surf shack. More specifically, it's the Polynesian-style sideless hut first erected in 1947 by pioneer surfers at La Jolla's Windansea Beach. The shack may be the first surfing icon in California, perhaps the country, ever formally recognized for its contribution to American culture. "The timing is about right for there to be a boom in that genre because, generally, the sites have to be about 50 years old before they're eligible," said Jenan Saunders, a historian with the state Office of Historic Preservation in Sacramento. The surf shrine at Windansea has been rebuilt three times, said Vonn Marie May, a member of the San Diego Historic Site Board that voted in May to sanctify the shack. "Preserving history doesn't mean you save only rich people's houses or castles or federal courthouses," May said. "Part of the incubation of surf culture occurred at Windansea, and the shack stands as an emblem of that." Buoyed by their newfound momentum, the shack's supporters say their holy quest won't be satisfied until it is accepted by the National Register of Historic Places. La Jolla architect Tony Ciani, 55, who in his youth worked as a lifeguard at Windansea Beach, will oversee the complicated application process. Ciani has experience in such matters. He wrote the nomination papers that resulted in the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster in Mission Beach, getting a National Register nod. While the shack serves as a monument to the uniquely Southern Californian surf culture that evolved after World War II, Ciani considers the entire Windansea Beach historic. The wave-riding styles and Hollywood-influenced subculture that evolved on the beach at Malibu near Los Angeles make it one of the most influential of California's surf culture sites. While Malibu will always be surfing's Yankee Stadium, Windansea is considered the sport's Carnegie Hall. Known for the big waves that arise from its outermost reef, Windansea attracted some of the best surfers from California and Hawaii. In the late 1940s and early '50s, Windansea served as surfing's Kitty Hawk, a venue where those developing lighter, more maneuverable surfboards tested their designs. Among them was Robert Wilson Simmons, an occasional machinist and mathematician for Douglas Aircraft, who applied post-war technology to improve the era's clumsy redwood surfboards. He was the first to make a surfboard using Styrofoam and resin. On Sept. 24, 1954, Simmons disappeared while surfing a large swell at Windansea. A search party gathered at the shack to look for his body, which didn't surface for several days. He was 35. The reef break just north of Windansea was later named in Simmons' honor. The story of his untimely death is reverently retold to each new generation of La Jolla surfers. Cliff Robertson, the actor who played Big Kahuna to Sandra Dee's Gidget in the 1959 movie, was born in La Jolla and as a youth trapped lobsters near Windansea for extra spending money. The beach subculture that arose at Windansea intrigued New York author Tom Wolfe, who lurked around the area in his white suit long enough to ferret out a few of the secrets. The result was an amusing 1968 treatise on surf culture called "The Pump House Gang." "I honestly believe there's something magical about that place; you can still feel it some mornings," said 39-year-old Jim Neri, a surfer, landscape architect and member of Friends of Windansea. Windansea is known for its "heavy" wave that seems to catapult the surfer as the swells pitch steeply over the three offshore reefs. Although it wasn't intended as such, the shack now serves as a marker for surfers who wish to line up at the "peak," a most-sought-after spot from which to catch the waves. It was the idea of Don Okey to erect the shack at an angle in relation to the beach rather than parallel to the shore line. Okey, 76, now lives in the desert near Borrego Springs. He supervised the construction of the original shack and two subsequent reconstructions. "It was a thing of beauty in its simplicity," he said. The shack was oriented so that it would match the angle of the sandstone promontory on which it originally stood, he said. The jutting point has since eroded away. The first shack was assembled using eucalyptus timber from a local grove occupied today by the University of California. The roof consisted of palm fronds. The sides were left open, a design feature Okey incorporated to curry favor with local authorities. Similar beach shacks built in nearby Pacific Beach were torn down under police orders because of the drinking and carousing that went on behind the frond-thin walls. Despite its lack of walls, the "sugar shack" at Windansea has served as the rumble seat of countless romantic encounters. Okey again oversaw the rebuilding of the shack in 1953 after it burned, reportedly as an act of retaliation by a band of rival high school students. "I never gave too much thought about it being a historic thing until it started appearing on all these postcards of La Jolla," said Okey. While he's lived a multifaceted life as a shark fisherman, cannery owner and the Daniel Boone of local surfing, Okey knows his fate is as intertwined with the shack as its palm-thatched roof. "When I kick off, it will be my claim to glory," he said.

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