A family is pictured near a real estate sign at the Salton Sea in this historic photo.
(Photo: Photo courtesy of Salton Sea History Museum)
Story by Desert Sun – Denise Golsby – "
Director struggles to reopen Salton Sea History Museum
Denise Goolsby, The Desert Sun 11:56 p.m. PDT August 1, 2014
The history of the Salton Sea is packed away in boxes stacked floor to ceiling in the corner of an enclosed patio at Steve and Jennie Kelly’s North Shore home.
Their garage and living room are crammed with more boxes — filled with newspapers and photos from the sea’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s and archives chronicling the life of the sea, created by a Colorado River flood in 1905.
Miles away, many other sea articles and artifacts are stowed away in a storage space at an office building in Oasis.
These historic materials were at one time on public display at the thriving Salton Sea History Museum, established at the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club in May 2010.
The museum moved into the yacht club following a $3.5 million renovation of the Albert Frey-designed building — a 6,500-square-foot, two-story facility built by the renowned architect in 1959.
When the museum lost its place at the yacht club in June 2011, due to a dispute about the organization’s nonprofit status, it reopened in February 2012 at a bungalow at the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians Wetlands property near the sea.
The Kellys and other volunteers spent months renovating the old bungalow — donating hours of their own labor — and supplementing some of the cost with their own money — only to be asked to leave a year later. Jennie Kelly said it was because they were told they used too much electricity.
The tribe could not be reached for comment.
Now the fate of the museum, much like that of the sea itself, is up in the air.
"It’s sometimes very depressing that we have all of this here, and it’s a shame because it should be shared with the public — they should be able to see it," Steve Kelly said. Behind him, a large Salton Sea History Museum sign and other museum memorabilia filled the space in front of the fireplace.
"We’d like to have a permanent place in the yacht club where everybody could enjoy and learn all about the sea."
Jennie Kelly has lived in North Shore, just blocks from the Salton Sea, for 30 years. The museum’s director, she’s spent years carefully collecting material and creating an extensive archive relating to the history of the Salton Sea.
Former Riverside County 4th District Supervisor Roy Wilson, who died on Aug. 26, 2009, encouraged her to establish a museum.
"Roy gave us the space in the yacht club for the purpose of serving the public and the people of Riverside County," she said. "Of course, we had no idea that we were going to be serving people from around the world, too, who all wanted to know about the Salton Sea."
The North Shore yacht club is pictured in this historic aerial photo.
She said 17,000 people visited the museum during its first year in operation.
"Now, of course, they want to know about the future of the Salton Sea and what it’s going to mean to the county and to the residents and for peoples’ health," she said.
The Salton Sea was created in its current form starting in 1905 when an irrigation channel off the Colorado River was breached and water flooded into the basin. The water kept flowing until 1907, when engineers were finally able to stop it.
Since then, the lake has been sustained largely by plentiful runoff from Imperial Valley farms. But that runoff has been decreasing and is set to decline dramatically after 2017, when more water will be transferred to San Diego and cities in the Coachella Valley under the nation’s largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer.
The receding water levels will leave more of the lake bed exposed to winds that can kick up dust, which could increase air pollution and affect the health of people living in the surrounding areas. A drying sea can also negatively affect the health of migratory birds who stop to rest at this vital habitat situated along the Pacific Flyway.
"The interest is growing by leaps and bounds and the history is absolutely intriguing, people have no idea. Everybody knows about the heyday, but there’s so much more to it than that, and sharing the past, present and the future — whatever it might hold — is something the public needs to have daily access to and Roy foresaw that and gave us a home there."
A short run
Despite its success, 13 months after opening, the museum and its volunteer staff had to leave on June 3, 2011.
"On June 3, the museum staff was told they were being locked out of the building, and in fact all of the locks on the building were changed so we could not access the museum property," Jennie Kelly wrote The Desert Sun. "To avoid having access withheld to our property by the county, all artwork, exhibits, sales items and other property was moved out of the building for safekeeping."
County officials said at the time the museum needed federal nonprofit status to stay open.
In a letter dated July 24, 2011, the museum was granted the designation by the Internal Revenue Service. The "effective date," according to IRS documents, was April 16, 2010.
Tom Freeman, spokesman for the Riverside County Economic Development Agency, which manages the yacht club, said the museum never presented documentation of the nonprofit status by the deadline requested.
He said he museum voluntarily vacated the building on June 3, 2011.
"The county was professional and offered reasonable assistance to help the museum stay open in the building, so long as the museum provided documentation showing that it was an official nonprofit organization," Freeman said in an email to The Desert Sun. "Without this documentation, the county could not finalize a lease with them that would have been substantially subsidized with public funds. To do so would have constituted a gift of public funds … a violation of the law."
The county bought the yacht club property from Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment, known as DACE, with the goal of restoring the rundown building.
In the 1960s, it was a social center for those enjoying fishing and boating at the sea and where prominent entertainment figures, including the Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers, docked their boats.
The county signed an agreement with DACE to operate the center, which, according to Freeman, cost the organization $4,000 per month to operate, maintain and clean.
The museum was asked to pay rent, about $1,300 per month, which was an excessive amount for a fledgling organization, Kelly said.
In a written statement regarding the history of the county’s relationship with the museum, Supervisor John Benoit said that in the early 2000s, Wilson was resolved to purchase the property and "restore it to its original glory."
"There was a great need for senior and community services and an interest in a local museum," Benoit said in the statement. "The board of supervisors approved a $3.5 million historic rehabilitation of the Yacht Club structure as a project that will provide a community center to serve seniors and low-income individuals and a venue for public meetings."
Freeman said the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club has become a thriving community center.
"Since our partnership with the Desert Recreation District, the community center has continued to get more use by more people than ever," Freeman said.
In the past week, more than 50 children and teens have been participating in morning and afternoon sessions of the North Shore Summer Arts Program in the multipurpose room, Freeman said. Fifteen more children are enrolled in Desert Recreation District’s summer camp, Summer by the Shore, in the computer room. An average of 20-25 adults visit the cooling center in the lobby. Throughout July, the center has been serving breakfast and lunch, free of charge, to about 50 children, ages 18 and younger.
"During the school year, there are after-school programs, fitness and exercise programs and English as a Second Language classes. Throughout the year, the community center holds Zumba classes on weeknights and food distribution to needy families on Friday mornings," he said.
The building also is rented out for private events, including weddings and bridal showers, and is often used for community events and meetings of the Salton Sea Authority, North Shore Community Council and other organizations that meet monthly with residents.
Kelly said she’s been working to get a community center in North Shore since she moved to the area and worked at the yacht club during the construction phase to make sure it met the needs of the museum and the community.
There’s plenty of room for the museum to return to its home, she said.
Upstairs is a large space known as the Compass Room, which is completely empty. Freeman said the museum moved its archives into the space, without permission, and was asked to vacate the room because another public program was planned for it.
However, the room can’t be used for public programs.
It’s not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities act because it’s a registered Historic Site.
Alterations, such as adding an elevator, would "negatively impact the historic, character-defining features of the Yacht Club," the Palm Springs Modern Committee wrote in a memo, dated May 6, 2011, to the Economic Development Agency.
On a visit to the yacht club in July, a couple dozen teens participating in a summer program took up a small fraction of the sprawling, lightly furnished building.
Linda Beal, a local historian and museum volunteer, hopes the situation will soon change.
It’s a special place, and the yacht club was the perfect location for the museum, she said.
People from all over the world stopped by to talk about and learn about the sea. Some shared stories and even donated memorabilia.
"We were gathering, daily, all kinds of artifacts and information on the sea and the yacht club," she said. "Everyone was so excited. Right before they closed us down, we had 150 people that weekend."
Beal said people requested tours of the area, asked questions about local agriculture and real estate.
"I had people come in filming from France and Germany and Japan," she said.
Others were interested in finding a particular location for photo shoots.
"So I’d get out the map and say this is right where you need to go," she said. "Everybody is missing out now. That place is so special, it’s accessible. Why should something like that be taken away from the public?"
Jennie Kelly hopes the county and the museum can work together to bring the resource back to the sea.
"Even though we’ve been closed now for a year, I get calls every day from people driving around trying to find the museum, and say, ‘Isn’t there some place I can see some exhibits. Isn’t there some place where I can find out about what’s happening with the sea and what’s going to happen down the road?’ "
"And I say, ‘I’m sorry, there just isn’t right now.’ "
Desert Sun reporter Ian James contributed.
For more information about the homeless Salton Sea History Museum, visit their website at saltonseamuseum.org or call (760) 574-5471.
About this series
Saturday: The Salton Sea History Museum and its countless archival photos of boat races, birds and visitors remains without a home.
Sunday: The once-bustling Salton Sea that drew stars and tourists is still a spot of beauty that has drawn residents to its shore