Voting to demolish one of the first homes ever built in South Laguna, the city council Tuesday night sided with the earlier decision of the city’s Design Review Board to hasten the bluff-top cottage’s demise.
More than a dozen residents, including architectural historian and author Alan Hess, had presented a book’s worth of research to keep the 80-plus-year-old cottage known as Stonehenge at 31381 S. Coast Highway from being bulldozed.
“The design of the house was a step above an average beach house,” said Hess, who’s authored 18 books on neglected mid-century, commercial strip, suburban and modern architecture. “They chose sophisticated architectural styles of the times. These elements are important because they are what have given Laguna Beach its character that we appreciate today. It’s easy to pick off individual houses one at a time.”
Despite reports that the house was in good condition until 2007, the council decreed that the structure had little remaining historical integrity to keep it intact due to a patchwork of changes, many unapproved, by an admittedly blurry list of previous owners.
“The Stonehenge house is an old lady who’s been undressed,” alluded councilwoman Verna Rollinger, who opposed the demolition. “As an old lady who looks in the mirror from time to time, that can be kind of a scary proposition. I do think the old lady can be re-clothed in period garb, and should be.”
Rollinger felt the council’s action could set a dangerous precedent of sellers surreptitiously stripping historical properties of significant features so that the city will allow new construction. “If we start down that street,” she said, “we’re not going to be able to protect our heritage structures and we’ll lose them one at a time.”
Councilmember Elizabeth Pearson asked city attorney Phil Kohn if the council should vote on the house’s current condition or before the unapproved stripping of materials was done. Kohn said the decision should be based on current conditions. “I admire people in this room who…continue to try and retain some of these old houses,” said Pearson, “but this old house doesn’t look anything like what it used to. I think, legally, the Design Review Board did their job.” In its 3-1 vote (Iseman abstaining), the council sustained the DRB’s decision.
Ann Christoph from Village Laguna and the South Laguna Civic Assn. pointed out that the house, which displays such historic features as gables, a cabana and cupola, street-side octagonal sunroom and San Onofre Breccia exterior stonework, had undergone illegal demolitions both inside and out.
“Sadly, this is a project that went terribly wrong,” she said, urging the council to replace what was destroyed. “The remedy for illegal demolition is not more demolition. This appeal is necessary because the city process went awry.”
Stepping off the dais, councilmember Toni Iseman supported the appeal to keep the house, which she placed on the council’s agenda. “We’re lucky we have the eccentricities that we have because it’s an unplanned community,” she told the council. “We’re erasing things that are part of our soul.”
Iseman quoted from the city’s land-use element document where it encourages “long-term preservation of historically significant buildings” and suggests that “destruction and alteration of historic significance…should be avoided whenever possible.”
One contention was that the house’s original owners, brothers Joe and Guy Skidmore, were historically significant Laguna Beach residents as early developers of Coast Royal, South Laguna’s first tract of houses, in 1924. The brothers were also the stepsons of Nate Brooks, whom they affectionately referred to as the father of Laguna Beach and for whom Brooks Street was named.
“Despite someone significant living on the property,” said Jan Ostashay, the city’s historic structures consultant, “you’ve got to have that historical integrity, and that’s what we’re missing at this stage today. There’s no walls, there’s hardly any windows left or flooring, the roof has changed.”
John Meehan, owner, said his plans to build an environmentally designed home with native landscaping were based on city committee decisions that the house would be demolished. “This process is expensive, exhausting. (I’ve) spent a lot of time and energy on it,” he said, asking the council to support his permit to raze the structure.
“What we should look at is not how to rehab this house,” said resident Clay Daniels, “but how to renew it. We have respect for the past but we’re not stuck in it. Rather than thinking that that property’s best days are behind us, maybe with what he’s (Meehan) trying to do, the best days are still to come.”