(Norm Johnson)
THROUGH THE years, Carmel has become a mecca of essentials and ephemera, a destination where shopping is as much an attraction as gallery tours, wine tasting, fine dining and the beach.

Consider Carmel Plaza, a city block that encompasses a specialized shopping center cresting the city by the sea. The city and its residents work hard to maintain the Old World architectural elegance and quaint charm of Carmel, an effort which eschews chain stores and their signature signage or style. Yet the Plaza brings in a blend of local boutiques and corporate stores whose merchandise complements the center and whose branding tucks in nicely with the community.

"We see ourselves as a community gathering place, not only a shopping and dining destination, but also a cultural and entertainment center," said Bryce Root, the center's marketing manager, who grew up visiting Grandpa in Carmel and playing at the Plaza.

"After listening to our loyal shoppers and guests, we have brought together an interesting mix of stores, both the larger stores like Tiffany and Anthropologie, and smaller, local stores, such as Homescapes Carmel and Khaki's of Carmel."

Carmel Plaza, a tri-level shopping center characterized by brick walkways, wrought-iron railings, custom wood brackets and cavettos under the eaves, tile and stone fountains and lush, flowering gardens, has seen plenty of change over the years, both architecturally and in the mix of restaurants and shops it houses.


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Yet it has long been considered by guests, an attractive enclave for shopping and dining, visiting and entertainment.

"In 2006," said Root," we completed a significant renovation that created a true European village atmosphere in keeping with the Carmel shopping district of which we are a part."

The property on which Carmel Plaza was built once housed the old movie theater, soda fountain and adjacent M.J. Murphy Lumber yard. In 1959, Carmel architect Olaf Dahlstrand was hired to design the Carmel Plaza, which would replace the beloved local hang-out with a contemporary shopping center in keeping with the character of Carmel.

"The movie theater and soda fountain had been there many years," said Dahlstrand, "making this a sentimental project for the city. It was kind of a pity to tear it all down, but it had deteriorated. There was no way to preserve it. Lesley and Marcella Fenton, who owned the property, hired me to design the frontage on Ocean Avenue, just the north third of the block."

Dahlstrand, a modernist who admires the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, appreciated the challenge of designing a large building in a small town. He opted for a low-key structure that wouldn't overwhelm the other storefronts.

"After four or five years," said Dahlstrand, "the Fentons tried various ways of developing the rest of the property, and even considered a posh hotel and a theater, but neither came to fruition. Eventually they sold the property to Stanford University, which owned it for a short time, until it was determined that the original deed from Leland Stanford did not allow the university to own commercial property. Eventually Gerson Baker, which built Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, bought the property and hired Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons to build out the rest of the block. Gerson Baker sold the Plaza about 10 years ago and, once again, the character of the place changed."

Today, in addition to shopping and dining, Carmel Plaza provides a full-service concierge to guide guests through the center or around town. It also hosts Concerts in Carmel, a summer concert series that showcases local talent on Friday evenings through September.

Every December, in tandem with the annual holiday tree lighting, the Plaza hosts a Holiday Open House and Winter Wonderland, complete with food, music and sometimes Santa; plus the chance to vote on favorite holiday store windows.