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Laguna Beach

On Saturday, riders on the Laguna Artists’ Studio Trolley Tour took a step back in time


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

During Laguna’s month-long celebration of Heritage Month, which is sponsored by the Heritage Committee, one of the many festivities is the Laguna Artists’ Studio Trolley Tour. On a round-a-bout and ruckus ride in and out city streets, on Saturday, May 21, participants learned about Laguna’s founding artists, their homes/studios and other historic buildings – with a few urban myths thrown into the mix.

Laguna has a lot to offer in terms of history – its art, architecture and landscape are inextricably interwoven into the community. We saw examples of the diverse architecture in town – Romanesque, Victorian, Mission Revival, Art Deco, Modern and more. However, only a few Laguna structures are on the National Registry of Historic Places – Edward and America Griffith’s House and St. Francis by the Sea American Catholic Church as well as Crystal Cove.

on saturday bill, ann, clark

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(L-R) Bill Hoffy, Ann Cristoph and Clark Collins

Bill Hoffy of Hoffy Tours, Landscape Architect Ann Cristoph and designer/builder Clark Collins, who is vice chair of the Heritage Committee, were our expert guides as we traveled back in time. It was a relatively short journey (90+ minutes), but a long and fascinating one – historically.

As our adept driver Nick navigated a packed trolley through the narrow, winding streets, all participants seemed to have a wonderful time as we got the scoop on more than 30 landmarks and artists’ homes/studios. 

on saturday water district

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Built in 1927, the headquarters building was designed by Architect Aubrey St. Clair (who also designed City Hall) to house the then 2-year-old Laguna Beach County Water District. Until the early 1920s, the residents of Laguna Beach relied on privately owned shallow wells and intermittent rainfall for their water supply.

The first stop was the Laguna Beach Water District building. In 1925, pioneer leaders – Harold Reed, Joseph R. Jahraus and Thomas A. Cummings – pretending to be duck hunters, traveled north to Huntington Beach where they bought 120 acres to form a “Duck Hunting Club.” Arrangements were made to purchase the property from the Anaheim Sugar Company. The men divvied up the $1,000 deposit out of their own pockets, with the balance to be paid at $400 an acre. What they bought was Laguna’s future water supply.

Cristoph started out by telling us that Laguna was not part of the land grant territory, so residents would homestead by planting eucalyptus trees to claim an area. She further explained that Laguna was originally three separate villages: Laguna Beach, Arch Beach and Aliso, which is now South Laguna. 

on saturday white house

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Originally built in 1915, the White House Restaurant was the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Orange County. When it opened in 1918, it was the only building in Laguna Beach other than the Laguna Hotel. It will become Finney’s Crafthouse. 

“The Trolley Tour of Artists’ Homes was very illuminating,” said Sandy Smith, a member of the Laguna Beach Sister Cities Association and one of the caretakers of their garden in Heisler Park. “It was interesting to see the location of the various homes, as well as the various neighborhoods. The additional information provided by the guides added lots of flavor and some humor. We also received a colorful handout of the homes and buildings found on the route. I really enjoyed the experience and look forward to other trolley tours.”

on saturday william wendt

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A glimpse of the Wendt home/studio. William Wendt was president of the Laguna Beach Art Association. It’s said that he traded one of his paintings for the wood to build his home/studio. 

Several of the homes were those of Laguna’s early plein air painters, who first discovered Laguna Beach in the late 1880s. They prized the area for its clear light and natural beauty and wanted to capture it on canvas. Some of the early Laguna Beach plein air painters included Frank Cuprien, Edgar Payne and William Wendt. These artists together with others would ultimately become the founders of the California Impressionist Style. In 1918, these artists formed the Laguna Beach Art Association and the city soon became known as an artists’ colony. In 1929, the group opened a permanent gallery on the corner of Coast Highway and Cliff Drive. That gallery is known today as the Laguna Art Museum.

on saturday old art gallery

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Old Art Gallery was the first art gallery in Laguna and is now a residence 

Little known facts from our guides:

–Edgar Payne was the most well-traveled of the early artists.

–Anna Hills, prominent California landscape painter and a civic leader in Laguna Beach, designed one window of the Laguna Presbyterian Church.

–In 1913, during the building of the home and studio of Basil Engel, who was a friend of Wendt’s, sand and sea water was used to make concrete. (Probably not the best idea.)

–In 1938, Frank Cuprien, who believed everything should be artistic and was known as the Dean of Laguna Artists, gave President Franklin Delano Roosevelt a painting during a stop in Laguna. 

on saturday isaac Frazee

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Isaac Frazee’s historic home 

–Isaac Frazee was a painter who specialized in Indian subjects and also wrote books, short stories and poems. His sketches of Laguna Beach in 1875 are the earliest known depictions of this area, and he made his home here from 1926 until his death on July 23, 1942.  

on saturday captain's house

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“Captain’s House” was built in 1900 on a bluff near the Hotel Laguna. It was later moved to its present location and is in the process of being renovated.

Thanks to the Heritage Committee for sponsoring this unique look into the rich history of our community – and to Hoffy, Cristoph and Collins for their insights into the properties and artists.

Members of the Heritage Committee advise City Council and design review authority on matters pertaining to historic preservation in the city, including evaluation of alterations to historic structures, requests to place structures on the Historic Register and recommendations of properties for Mills Act contracts.

“What a delight to see and hear the storied past of our city’s historic homes and buildings,” said Paula Dumas, a member of the Heritage Committee. “It’s a rare legacy that few California cities share and something we should be proud of.”

For more information on the Heritage Committee, click here.


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