Finding Meaning

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Remembering Howard G. Heisler

By Skip Hellewell

What person most shaped early Laguna? You could make a good argument for Howard G. Heisler. Next Wednesday marks the sesquicentennial of his birth, so it’s timely to note what his life meant to Laguna. Here are some notable Heisler contributions.

The land north of Broadway (Laguna Creek was the boundary) was part of the Irvine Ranch until 1905, when it was purchased for development by the Laguna Company. The Laguna Company included L. C. McKnight as president (remembered by McKnight Drive), Ferdinand and William Thum (sometimes referred to as the ‘Thumb’ brothers), and Howard G. Heisler. Heisler, 36 and recently married, had prior experience as a surveyor and creating north Laguna became his life work.

To appreciate how off-the-grid Laguna was in 1905, the 1900 Census listed just 11 families, totaling 41 people. The common occupation was farming, plus two fishermen. Nick Isch was the postmaster and grocer, Joe Ponder the liveryman. There were no artists; Norman St. Clair first came in 1903. The only access to Laguna was a dirt trail through the canyon (not paved until 1915). Developing north Laguna was a great idea, but it wouldn’t really get going until the ’20s when Coast Highway reached town.

Visionary city planners of that time spoke of “garden cities,” towns that balanced open space, farming, and industry with railways linking them through greenbelts to larger cities. Laguna Cliffs aspired to this vision. Choice coastal land was set aside for parkland (the 18.5 acres that became Heisler Park). To provide railway service, Heisler reserved a strip of land titled Electric Way to connect to an electric trolley that would come from Los Angeles via Newport Beach.

The Laguna Company filed a development plan in 1906 for the community they named Laguna Cliffs. This was 21 years before there was a city. To encourage building, Heisler offered $100 for the first completed home, and a family claimed the prize by assembling a kit home at 390 Magnolia in one 1907 weekend. The home still stands.

The use of education to grace the city was another innovation, and Heisler organized support and provided land for Pomona College to build a Marine Laboratory in 1913. The laboratory, located on Coast Highway between Broadway and Cliff Drive, was Laguna’s most notable building and hosted summer programs until 1943. A “tent city” was built adjacent to the laboratory and students enjoyed idyllic summers camping and earning college credits.

In 1918, the new Laguna Beach Art Association had ambitions to build a permanent, fire-proof gallery. Heisler provided the choice lot at half price that now hosts today’s Laguna Art Museum. The gallery became California’s first dedicated art museum. Finally, in 1933, he built the recently-restored Heisler Building on Coast Highway, one of Laguna’s three most architecturally attractive businesses.

The electric railway never came to Laguna, and Pomona College didn’t last, but on the 150th anniversary of Heisler’s birth, we should pause to remember all he did for our town. There’s meaning in that.

 

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]

 

Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 7 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, Sunday 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish). Saturday: 4 pm Reconciliation, 5:30 Mass.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.

 

 

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