Magazine publisher E.G. Lewis bought three acres of land on a barren hilltop on the undeveloped Palos Verdes Peninsula in 1921. He intended to build a landmark structure on the lot, at 796 Via Del Monte, that would set the tone for the new development he was planning. He bought 16,000 acres from banker and landowner Frank Vanderlip in 1922.
In the summer of 1923, the iconic La Venta Inn, the first permanent building of the new project, was completed and opened, living up to what Lewis had envisioned.
Architect brothers Pierpont and Walter Swindell Davis designed the Spanish-style building, with the Olmstead brothers, the renowned landscape architects, laying out its grounds.
It originally was used as a place for real-estate sales people and visiting land buyers to stay. The hope was that the potential purchasers would be wooed by the beauty of the inn and its natural surroundings and be motivated to buy-in to the development.
Its earlier name, “Clubhouse 764,” was discarded in favor of La Venta, meaning “the sale” in Spanish, though it also is a common name for roadside inns in Spain.
Meanwhile, the plans set forth by Lewis, under the name the Palos Verdes Project, sparked controversy when his financing scheme began to collapse, and he withdrew from the project in early 1923. He declared bankruptcy the following year.
Frank Vanderlip returned from back east to regain control of the development, reorganizing it as The Palos Verdes Project. It consisted of bankers, real-estate men and developers who met feverishly at the Hotel Redondo to hatch their new plan, which they launched successfully in 1924.
The inn was an immediate success. It could only accommodate a few overnight guests at a time, but it became very well-known as an elegant dining experience. It was a popular stop from visitors throughout the Los Angeles area, especially more well-heeled ones.
One of inn’s most enduring businesses was staging weddings, with its first nuptials held there in early May 1924. It quickly turned into a desirable location for couples to tie the knot, and remains so to this day.
An additional dining room was built in 1925, allowing the inn to double its capacity for dinner guests. The inn’s first owner, Jay Lawyer, a Palos Verdes Project principal, and the restaurant’s first manager, Reba Willis, built its reputation; soon, visitors were arriving from foreign countries to see the picturesque, well-located structure.
Social events naturally gravitated toward La Venta Inn, at that time one of the only sites on the hill capable of hosting them. In addition to weddings, a variety of dances, parties, galas and other upper-crust events were held there.
Hollywood also took notice. Filmmakers first used the location for “The Girl From Montmartre,” a silent film based on the Anthony Pryde novel “Spanish Sunlight” and starring Lewis Stone and Barbara La Marr. It was filmed at the inn in 1925 and released in early 1926.
During the 1920s and 1930s, a long list of celebrities and movie stars frequented the inn, considered to be a high-class hideaway for the rich and famous. Visitors included aviator Charles Lindbergh, violinist Jascha Heifetz, and movie stars Greta Garbo, Tyrone Power, Cary Grant, Gloria Swanson, Myrna Loy, Errol Flynn, Betty Grable, Margaret Sullavan, Charlie Chaplin, Janet Gaynor and Bob Hope.
The inn became part of Palos Verdes Estates when that city voted to incorporate in 1939.
Jay Lawyer sold the property in 1941 to Broadway actor Frank Conroy after the Great Depression muted the Peninsula real estate boom he’d anticipated. World War II hurt business due to gas rationing restrictions, and Conroy eventually closed the inn to the public.
The inn’s location was used for military defense purposes after the war’s onset. On Christmas Day 1941, 18 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, a lookout stationed in its spire reported seeing a periscope offshore.
A Japanese submarine had torpedoed the lumber-carrying freighter Absaroka the night before. The artillery battery at Fort MacArthur opened fire just as some residents were sitting down to Christmas dinner, leading them to think they were under attack.
No trace of the Japanese sub was found. The periscope apparently was a black chimney that had blown off a ship during a recent storm.
Conroy sold the inn to Stanley and Margaret Schnetzler in 1945, and the Schnetzlers used it as their private residence for several years. Margaret Schnetzler became known for giving would-be customers a cup of tea while she gently explained that the business was closed.
The Schnetzlers reopened the inn in 1954, with Margaret taking over operations when Stanley died in 1955. In 1966, the Schentzlers leased the operation of the property to William Eskridge and his family, who ran it for 26 years.
In 1990, the La Venta Inn was designated a California Historic Resource by the state Office of Historic Preservation.
In 1992, the surviving Schnetzler family members opted to award the lease for La Venta to the New York Food Co., a Hermosa Beach company that still manages the facilities and events there.
The company took some heat in 1994 when nearby residents complained vociferously about the noisiness of weekend weddings at the inn. Management made some changes to control the noise, and the storm subsided.
Weddings and special events continue keeping La Venta Inn thriving as it nears its 100th anniversary in 2023.
Sources: Daily Breeze files; “The History of La Venta,” La Venta Inn website; Hollywood Riviera Tribune files; Los Angeles Times files; Palos Verdes Peninsula files; The Palos Verdes Story, by Delane Morgan, Review Books, 1982.