It was not a dark and stormy night, but it was night and I was here on my sofa with my laptop in May of 2012 and an unexpected message came up on my email, “Hello Ann, I read one of your articles recently, regarding Stonehenge in Laguna Beach. My family and I were shocked that its destruction was allowed to occur. And saddened. It has always made our family extremely proud that so much of Laguna Beach’s history has been left intact. Let me explain. My grandmother is the granddaughter of Catherine and Nathan Brooks. Her name is Joyce Lowell, she is kind of the matriarch of the family, and our last link to our family’s rich history in Laguna… This may all be in vain, but I hope to hear from you! Great great granddaughter of Catherine and Nathan Brooks, Kathryn Lowell”
It wasn’t on parchment folded within the pages of a dusty book, but Kathryn’s note made me feel like I was part of a mystery story.
After years of working on South Laguna history, we found no leads to answer some basic questions, like what had happened to the Brooks and Skidmore family that had laid the groundwork for what would become South Laguna? What were they like? And what about photographs? Neither the Historical Society nor previously published books had photos of Joe or Guy Skidmore.
Now the prospect of answers had fallen into my laptop.
There are moments like this in historical research, ones that make all that meticulous slogging through old documents worthwhile. Yet it’s not like discovering gold because only the researcher knows the value of the just-found link, and emphatic attempts to explain the huge importance of what has been revealed fall flat. The best I usually got was sort of a “That’s nice, dear,” response with an uncertain smile.
I can sense that you might be thinking the same thing, or you might be less polite and think, “So what!”
Well, just as George Washington was father of our country, Nate and Catherine Brooks, are considered the “Father and Mother of Laguna.”
Nate homesteaded land in Arch Beach beginning in 1879. In 1900 he married Catherine, a widow. She joined him in Laguna, bringing her four children Lee, Joe, Anita and Guy Skidmore. After Nate died in 1914, Catherine, Joe and Guy managed the Brooks properties. Coast Royal was one of those properties, subdivided in 1924, two years before Coast Boulevard was completed.
At a time when many ocean front developments emphasized private beaches, the Skidmores dedicated the beach, roads, accessways and parks to the public. They also donated land for the art gallery (now the art museum), part of the land at the high school, and the early Laguna Beach water system. There are two Brooks streets, as well as Anita Street named after family members.
So here, as a result of our efforts to save the historic “Stonehenge” house from demolition, came a voice that could give meaning and personality to the meager facts we had about the family. And there were pictures!
I met Kathryn and her mother Diane at a Costa Mesa restaurant, hearing the first edition of family stories.
I told them about how Guy Skidmore’s Stonehenge house on Coast Highway had twice been partially demolished without permits, how we valued Laguna’s history, and how we were working to have the house restored.
Then came the interview with Kathryn’s grandmother Joyce, 92. She knew Grandmother Catherine, Uncle Joe and Uncle Guy, and Anita was her mother. The family owned 600 acres of land in Laguna in the 1920s, and lost it all with the Great Depression. “How can I put this,” Joyce explained sadly. “We were very rich. And then we were very poor.” They had given so much to Laguna, and yet when the economic tide shifted the family was left with very little.
Two weeks ago when we went to the Coastal Commission hearing to urge them to save Guy Skidmore’s house, I thought of all we had learned and the contacts that had been revealed as a result of standing up for our history. I hoped that our thorough research and the value of the evidence of Laguna’s history would convince the Commission to prevent its demolition. Fourteen supporters from Laguna testified, urging rehabilitation of the house.
Kathryn eloquently and fervently pleaded for the house to be saved, holding up her photographs of handsome Uncle Guy in his World War I uniform.
But no, the Commission believed the attorney and the lobbyist hired by the property owner who wants to build a contemporary “dream home” on the property instead. Nearly all the commissioners had met with these men privately before the meeting. We had telephoned commissioners and never got a return call.
Kathryn said good-bye. “I’m going to see Grandma, I don’t know what to tell her.” Another loss piled on top of many, both for her and for Laguna. It was a sad group that drove back to Laguna that afternoon.
PS. A few days later in a conversation with a local architect, I learned he had proposed to restore and do a compatible addition to the Stonehenge house. “It wasn’t what the owner wanted to hear, but it would have been a great project. The house should have been saved.” It’s still there; maybe someone can still think of a way to bring about a happy ending.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former City Council member.