Santa Monica's Camera Obscura in its original location on the boardwalk at the beach.

Summer is upon us and I’m well on the way to faking a vacation until a real one manifests. For locals the Camera Obscura in Santa Monica is a familiar haunt, and on a sunny beach afternoon, it makes a pleasant side trip.  For visitors to Southern California this is an off-the-path treat, located right on the beaten path.  It’s the one tourist attraction in the region that only takes a few minutes to experience. Odds are there will be no travelers other than you clamoring to get in.  There is no waiting line and no fee to pay.

In its original oceanside location amid an entire turn-of-the-century amusement complex that included a bowling alley and curio shops. The structures are all long gone.

Designed and donated to the city by Robert F. Jones, nephew of the founder of the City of Santa Monica in 1898, the Camera Obscura is located on the beautiful Palisades Park walkway on the bluff above the beach and Santa Monica Pier.  Antique pinhole cameras like this one were once popular at seaside tourist attractions in the years before motion pictures came into being and considering this is one of only two left in California, it’s a rare treat (The other is located at San Francisco’s Cliff House).

A vintage postcard.

Originally located on the boardwalk at the beach below, the city moved the Camera Obscura to its current location to escape the harsh effects of weather in the early 1900s.  In 1955 local architect Weldon J. Fulton designed the mid-century Senior Recreation Center which has housed the Camera Obscura ever since.  Fulton incorporated local stone for its façade and a hip diagonally mounted googie font and camera design that nearly outshines the actual camera obscura.

Welden J. Fulton, architect, circa 1955.

Enter here.

You may feel as if you’re intruding as you enter the Senior Center with its serious chess players and an assortment of elderly who just need some company and a view of the sea.  Rest assured you’re in the right place.  Just inside to the right, you’ll need to exchange your driver’s license at the office for a key to the Camera Obscura room.  Once inside the darkened upstairs chamber, visitors can rotate an old nautical wheel to operate the 360-degree revolving turret on the rooftop.  A mirror in the turret reflects the live scene outside through a convex lens onto the circular table in the middle of the chamber.  Voila!  You can watch bicyclers ride past on the street outside and sunbathers with umbrellas on the beach without the requisite sun block. There are no instructions but the table can be tilted to improve focus. While the trees outside have grown considerably over the years blocking part of the view, there are still clear vantage points in several directions and the clarity is surprisingly good on a bright day.

The Camera Obscura in action.

The ship's wheel in a fully lit chamber.

Victorian era magic in the darkened room.

From Central Park's camera obscura with a much better dressed crowd.

The mechanics that rotate the revolving turret.

That’s pretty much it.  It’s just a few steps to the pier which houses a vintage carousel, modern amusement park, seafood shacks and an aquarium operated by Heal the Bay.  Your photo-weary traveling companions won’t be too put-out by adding an old-fashioned look-see to your modern itinerary and you’re close enough to grab an ice cream and stroll on the beach.

1890s, Camera Obscura in the distance, left, with the original Santa Monica Pier.

The Camera Obscura is generally accessible Monday though Friday from 9am – 2pm and on Saturdays from 11am – 4pm.  1450 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, 310 458 8644

Faded but not forgotten.