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Wilmington’s Pink Palace: The Matson Cruise Terminal, 1953 – 1985

December 17, 2013

by Nicholas Beyelia

matsonAn image of the Matson Terminal taken from a departing ship ca. 1955. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Community History Collection,  2012.29.04

Matson Inc. is a familiar entity here in the Harbor Area. The Matson Company, which now calls the Port of Long Beach its Southern California home, has been involved with the transport of commercial goods for well over 100 years.  While Matson’s business is currently related to container based transport of commercial goods, it was, at one point, known for luxurious passenger services that traveled to exotic destinations throughout the Pacific.  From 1953 through the late 1960s, Matson Navigation Inc. operated passenger services to Hawaii and the South Pacific at the Port of Los Angeles from Berth 195-198. The terminal’s Mediterranean-inspired aesthetic and vivid pink hue made it an object of fascination for both the public and the Harbor Department, which promoted it as “Matson Terminal – The World’s Finest.”

The Matson Company occupied a total of 48 acres along the East Basin in Wilmington; this area included the terminal, a 26 acre parking lot and an adjacent 200 ft. shed, just northeast of the terminal.  The terminal operated along a 1649 ft. wharf and was designed and constructed by the Los Angeles Harbor Department. The building’s style reflected elements of Mediterranean Revival that were common to Southern California architecture, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century.

The building itself had dual facades: a southwest entrance at Berth 195 and a northeast entrance at Berth 198. The Northeast corner of the structure housed administrative operations for the Matson Company; it was three stories high and had a large tower with clocks on both the north and east side of the tower.  The West façade of the terminal at Berth 195 served as the ‘main’ entrance and featured an imposing cupola that would greet visitors driving in from Wilmington. The building was painted a distinct shade of pink referred to in Harbor Department publications as “coral.”

0066-MMatson Terminal Entrance at Berth 198, June 30, 1953. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, 0066-M. 

0044-M Matson Terminal Entrance at Berth 195, June 9, 1953. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection,0044-M.

The mezzanine level of the terminal functioned as a waiting area that allowed both passengers and guests seeing them off to interact.  The main (interior) waiting area was decorated in a classic mid-century modern style replete with wall-to-wall terrazzo flooring.  The exterior waiting area was a 120-foot concourse that overlooked the East Channel of the harbor.

0121-MThe Main Waiting Room at the Mezzanine level on opening weekend, July 11, 1953.  Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, 0121-M.

On June 28, 1950, while still in the planning stages, the Matson Company made an inquiry with Los Angeles Harbor General Manager, Arthur Eldridge, to see if a helicopter landing pad was possible at the location site. The Matson Company cited Los Angeles Times reports that indicated helicopter taxi services were on the verge of booming, and constructing a landing pad “would be a step forward and in keeping with increased development in this type of service.”  The landing pad was included in the final design and was located in the parking lot just north of the terminal.

Opening weekend ceremonies took place July 11-13, 1953 and were initiated by the arrival of the S.S. Lurline, Matson’s premiere liner.  The Los Angeles Times reported that Miss Virginia Tibbetts of Hawaii acted as “official hostess” of the events and noted the ceremonies were “highlighted by a long distance address” from Vice President Richard M. Nixon to newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Norris Paulson via a “gold” telephone. Farrant L. Turner, Secretary of Hawaii, and Randolph Sevier, President of Matson Navigation Company, attended the ceremonies and sent letters to the Harbor Commission that indicated their gratitude for the festivities and their continued enthusiasm regarding future exchanges.

The terminal remained active throughout the 1950s and became an important fixture in Harbor Department publicity. The initial publicity campaign touted the terminal as the “World’s Finest” and expounded on its “modern” amenities including motor operated cargo ramps, acoustical tile ceilings, linoleum floors, venetian blinds and a kitchenette for Matson employees that was “fully equipped with electrical appliances for every need.”  The terminal would later be featured on the cover of the 1958-1959 Annual Report as well as more ephemeral items like postcards and matchbooks.

AR5859The 1958- 1959 Annual Report shows the southern side of the terminal that faced the East Basin.

Cruise line passenger services remain popular, however, passenger numbers have fallen dramatically since the first half of the twentieth century when they were at their peak; the Matson Terminal was, ultimately, a victim of this downturn.  By the start of the 1960s, air travel was proving to be both faster and increasingly affordable leading many to choose an airline rather than board a cruise liner.  Matson Inc., feeling this shift, began to focus on the expanding container shipping industry and, by 1970, they had withdrawn their last passenger ship from service.

The Cruise Terminal was repainted white in the 1970s and became a popular location for television and commercial film shoots. The Harbor Department actively sought new tenants for the facility but, unfortunately, it lay abandoned throughout much of the 1970s and early 1980s. Despite hopes for its return to operations, the Matson Terminal was demolished in 1985 to make way for active commercial ventures.  The site was eventually leased to WWL Vehicle Services Americas, Inc., a company responsible for the processing of and logistics associated with imported automobiles; WWL continues to make use of the property.

Nicholas Beyelia is a Student Professional Worker at The Port of Los Angeles Archives. He holds a M.A. in History from California State University, Los Angeles and is an M.L.I.S candidate at San Jose State University

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