Does the Wet Suit You


Character Builders

By J.J. Gasparotti

There is a movement in town with a stated mission to preserve and protect the village character. This is confusing to folks who think, when they talk about the village character, they’re referring to a real person. They’re not. There isn’t one village character. What the folks seeking to preserve the village character are really doing is imposing their vision, of what constitutes this amorphous idea, onto the rest of us.

Laguna has had a number of village characters. The Irvine family has generously contributed to this collection of characters. Joan Irvine Smith, who recently died at the age of 86, was perhaps the last of these folks. It is the contributions of characters like the Irvine family that helped build the village we call home.

Back in the 1920s, Laguna ran out of water. The village well was polluted with salt and silt as a result of overusing the supply. Without a reliable water supply, Laguna’s character was due to have all the tendencies of a corpse. Some local businessmen purchased a plot of land in Huntington Beach that was necessary for a new well site. James Irvine, acting on a handshake deal, constructed the pipeline to convey this water down to Laguna.

Joan Irvine Smith. Photo courtesy of UCI

It wasn’t until after Laguna formed a water district and floated a bond that James Irvine was repaid the money he spent on the pipeline. In later years, the Irvine family was instrumental in creating the Festival of Arts grounds and Irvine Bowl, site of the world famous Pageant of the Masters. They also had a hand in building our local hospital.

Joan became involved with the family foundation after her grandfather, James, died. At one time, it controlled about a third of the land in Orange County. She worked hard at preventing the family ranch from being developed in a rapid and disorderly fashion and was key in the University of California establishing a branch on 1,000 acres of Irvine ranch land donated for that purpose.

The opening of the University of California at Irvine changed the the character of the region forever. What would Laguna Beach be without all the intellectuals who found employment at UCI and housing in the village?

Joan worked at assuring our heritage was preserved by the formation of Crystal Cove State Park, and by amassing a fine collection of California impressionistic art in the Irvine museum. Without her forceful efforts, the cottages at Crystal Cove would be a Montage. Thank you, Joan Irvine Smith, and all your family for the character you showed helping build Laguna.


J.J. Gasparotti moved to Laguna Beach with his family when he was 11 years old. He has loved it ever since.

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