Who was Nina Koshetz? This world-famous Russian opera singer performed leading operatic roles in Russia and throughout Europe, and gave concerts accompanied by Rachmaninoff, her lover for a time. Her dramatic escape from Russia included hiding jewels in her daughter’s diapers. In the United States in 1920 she built a new career that included performances at Carnegie Hall and the White House. She came to California in 1934, and by 1942 had opened an “elegant music salon” in Laguna Beach.
This larger than life character was the subject of a photo feature in Life magazine in 1949 as she entertained with her daughter Marina in her South Laguna home. Hedda Hopper was a guest, and at this later stage of her life Koshetz was a well-sought-after voice teacher for actors such as Marlene Dietrich, Ann Blythe, and Claudette Colbert. A prominent figure in town and undeterred by “what people might think,” she once sang at the Festival of Arts flanked by her ex and present husbands, one a tenor and the other a baritone.
She lived just down the street, and notwithstanding her 300 pound physique, was often seen swimming at the beach below, then called Third Street beach, now known as Totuava.
Subsequent to Koshetz death in 1965, Nancy Galloway lived in the house. She often showed a copy of the Life magazine she had saved, pointing out how the patio was still the same as the photograph and how the wood stair railing is assembled to make the letters G and L, for Koshetz’s second husband Gabriel Leonoff.
The house is not architecturally remarkable, but is clearly of the late 1930s, ‘40s era. Most important it comes with quite a story. To Nancy that history made the house special indeed. Now the house is being remodeled. Modern windows, shutters removed, beige and brown color scheme; the hints of history are neutralized. Will anyone ask if there is a story?
In north Laguna, at 445 Linden Street, is a turn of the century beach cottage. Looking at its weathered siding, its tiny rooms, the porches, one can start to read the story of the house, and how it probably started out as an even smaller house. Summer projects pushed out little additions here and there. We can feel how those beach vacationers must have enjoyed their summers in a low-key relaxed way, pulling into the dirt driveway in their 1920s cars loaded up with all provisions they would need for several weeks of sun, sand and casual living.
Several years ago an applicant came to the Heritage Committee with a request to tear down the dilapidated beach cottage. It did indeed look terribly neglected. Windows were boarded up. The roof was compromised. The entry porch was sagging. Still it had the unmistakably quality of a building with the integrity of its origins. It had not been updated and remodeled, a rare find in Laguna Beach where “fixing up” is our local pastime. The Heritage Committee said, “no” to the demolition.
Years passed, code enforcement was invoked because the house was left unsecured. Unauthorized visitors spent the night and left their detritus. The fear was there would be a fire, and that would be the end of this rare cottage.
Then a new application came forward—to restore the house, completely and correctly. Someone had heard the story of the house and appreciated it. Now the work is underway. The porches no longer sag. The roof has been replaced. The windows look out again on a south coast view.
It’s all a matter of matching people with an appreciation for being part of history, with a house that needs them to help it keep telling the story of our town and our culture.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph lives in South Laguna.