By Andy Hedden
You can find their creations from one end of town to the other, both hill and dale. From iconic architecture to elaborate wood carvings to fine art and jewelry, the Abel family has been a major part of Laguna history for over 74 years.
Firmly at the helm of the Abel clan today is Gregg Abel, who has designed and built some of the finest homes in Laguna, but has also turned family historian and recently hosted a party/restrospective that shared his family’s local legacy with guests.
Gregg began his career at the age of 14, working in his father’s firm learning design and construction. After 10 years behind a desk, he shifted his focus to construction so he could work in the field and understand how homes are built. Over a period of time, his design and construction business has become known for flawless execution in the Craftsman style. He is also no stranger to commercial endeavors, including the recent Lumberyard restaurant renovation. Gregg shares in the family’s passion for woodcarving as well as jewelry design.
The patriarch of the Abel legacy was Carl “Pop” Abel, who moved to Laguna from Denmark in 1937. A well-known figure in his homeland, Carl ran an air circus and designed one of the first commuter-friendly folding wing airplanes in 1929. In an ironic twist, just before his patent was to be approved, his financial backer died in a plane crash. He pulled up roots, moved to Laguna, and became an antiques dealer and occasional architectural designer. He ultimately built four homes in Laguna, all of which are still standing.
Arguably his best-known design is the Bridge House on Oak Street, built in 1940. As the story goes, Carl had been wandering the streets of Laguna looking at empty lots because “he was in a mood to build.” At length he arrived on Oak Street and set his sights on two lots. Only one problem: a deep and wide ravine ran through the middle of the properties. Undaunted, he was determined to build on the seemingly impassable parcel, and came up with the idea of a bridge spanning the two lots. Carl’s many other design gifts didn’t stop there; he embellished the home with unique features such as hand-hewn beams, a Danish windmill on the bank of the creek and charming wood carvings.
Wood carving is what Carl Abel is most known for. He prolifically crafted works for private patrons, as well as many establishments in Laguna, including the Jolly Roger and Royal Hawaiian restaurants and the Laguna Beach County Water District. In 1956, his talent was recognized by Norman Rockwell, who authorized Carl to carve wood reproductions of his illustrations, according to correspondence kept by the family. Carl also received thank you letters from Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon for carvings he made for them. One of his largest and most venerable carvings is the potter on the front of the Pottery Shack, which is a self portrait.
Two sons followed in Carl’s footsteps, Mogens (pronounced Mo-ens) and Chris. Mogens was an accomplished wood carver and a significant fixture at the Festival of Arts for over 30 years. During his tenure, he exhibited as an artist at the festival and served as grounds manager. Mogens’s association with the festival took center stage as well; for at least 20 years he was the model for Judas in the famous Last Supper scene. Chris, Gregg’s father, got his start as a draftsman and was originally based in San Clemente. He received his architect’s license 1n 1962 and moved his business and family to Laguna in 1968. His design and construction firm flourished, resulting in many fine homes in Laguna. He too, was a skilled woodcarver and jewelry designer.
Which brings us to the fourth generation of Abels. Gregg’s daughter Lea, a graduate of the Laguna College of Art and Design, is a recognized plein air painter. Son Tristan works in the family business as a construction leader, wood carver and hardscape designer. He is an accomplished artist as well, working primarily in large abstract oils.
Filling out the family tree is Gregg’s wife, Kathleen, owner of a highly successful interior design firm, and sister Lark, creator of exquisite glass carvings. Gregg’s other sister, Chandra owns a special events floral business. She carries the torch lighted by Carl’s brother, Leonard, who was the royal florist to the King of Denmark.
The Abel family shares a proud but unassuming part in Laguna history, something Gregg Abel never takes for granted. “In all the work we do together, I always stress the importance of respecting the tastes and needs of our clients. We are not here to make a monument to ourselves. I am very proud to embrace my legacy and very thankful that my family follows in the footsteps of all those who came before them.”