By Suzanne Dunn, Special to the Independent
When my realtor told me three years ago that my $1 million plus home was a great Laguna Beach starter home, I nearly choked. I wasn’t insulted as you might suspect. I was dumbfounded. Starter home wasn’t in my lexicon 12 years ago when we bought our first house for $220,000. It was a traditional Cape Cod on a quarter-acre lot of 10,890 square feet in Virginia. It was exactly 18 miles from the White House and 2.5 miles from the home of our beloved first president, George Washington. We had 3000 square feet of living space, five bedrooms and no children.
Today, the land and living area in our Arch Beach Heights “starter home” is roughly half the size, with two bedrooms suitable for sleeping. My in-laws are embarrassed their three granddaughters must share one bedroom.
But like its appeal to those who first settled Arch Beach Heights, the neighborhood has not lost its charms. Most every home on the hill has a view. There is incredible open space on top of the hill. Moulton Meadows Park includes a soccer field, tennis and basketball courts and a playground that opens out to beautiful and accessible canyon trails, well-used by people and their dogs and, if you pay attention, a myriad of wildlife. I’ve spotted deer, coyotes, two types of snakes, lizards, cranes, hawks, and the fire-fighting herd of goats.
Many different stories, all apparently true, surround the establishment of Arch Beach Heights. In fact, the sellers of my house told me that the family who had originally owned it was the Kellogg family. My imagination getting the better of me, I jumped to the conclusion we were talking the Kelloggs of the cereal empire. Then I became skeptical.
Why would Old Lady Kellogg live in a tiny little house with a good but not exceptional view? Well, as it turns out, Hazel Kellogg wasn’t from a rich cereal family, but she had deep roots in the history of Laguna and she was extraordinarily rich in character. In 1990 she told her oral history to Susan Roehm, a Laguna Beach High School student, and it has since been published by Cal State Fullerton’s Oral History Project.
Hazel Kellogg started coming to Laguna in 1912 by horse and wagon. She became a resident of Laguna in 1925, two years prior to its incorporation. She met her husband Robert “Phil” Kellogg, who was acting in a play at the “Laguna Players,” the old community theater then located on Ocean Avenue and since relocated and known as Laguna Playhouse. Shortly after meeting, they were the first couple to marry in the Laguna Presbyterian Church. Phil founded a stagecoach operation that would later evolve into the Orange County Transit Authority. In addition to raising two boys and working for her husband’s business, Hazel was the first female letter carrier in Laguna, she volunteered with the women’s club, the Pageant of the Masters, Order of the Eastern Star, the VFW Auxiliary, the American Legion and she was a girl scout leader. Hazel received numerous local and regional awards, as well as the 1000 Points of Light award from President George Bush in 1990.
Hazel lived a long life. She died at the age of 97 on Jan. 26, 2006. City Hall records indicate that the Arch Beach Heights tract was subdivided in 1911 about the time Hazel started visiting Laguna as a child. The tract stood out as one of the highest and steepest hillsides in town with unusually narrow lots sometimes referred to as encyclopedia lots. The location and difficult access made the neighborhood undesirable, despite the sweeping view of the ocean and San Clemente and Catalina islands.
The lot’s unusual description, according to residents and realtors, came from an early Los Angeles Times’ promotion, where some buyers received lots along with the purchase of a set of Collier encyclopedias or a subscription to the paper. One woman even won a lot at a dance hall on Balboa Island as a door prize. People all over the United States purchased or won lots on Arch Beach Heights. James Law a resident of Laguna for more than 60 years was at first a renter in Arch Beach Heights in the mid to late 1940s and eventually bought several lots in the early 1950s.
In a February interview, Law provided detailed stories of how the neighborhood came into being. His personal experiences and his friendship with Bruce Countryman, the major landowner of Arch Beach Heights at mid-century is captured below. In the 1920s and ‘30s, people interested in purchasing 2,500 square foot lots could expect to pay $10 for the lot of their choice. Horse drawn caravans would depart Bluebird Canyon and take four hours to climb the trails leading to the top of Arch Beach Heights. The prospective buyers were given a map with the outline of the divided lots and expected, future roads. Sandwiches were provided and were necessary considering the total round trip without touring the low lying scrubland was approximately eight hours. Following property selection, an investor would go to Ye Arch Beach Tavern to register their purchase. A local paper, “Laguna Life,” would list registrants weekly as well as the weekly dinner menu at the tavern.
During the week of April 21, 1916, customers could choose from the following menu: Consume en Tasse Clam Chowder Rockaway Potatoes Duchesse Dill Pickles, Olives, Crisp Celery Boiled Ox Tongue, Spinach Banana Fritters, Wine Sauce Macaroni au Gratin Loin of Pork with Apple Sauce and Savory Dressing Mashed Potatoes and Lima Beans Peach Pie and Cocoanut Cream Pie Fruitcake Ye Arch Beach Tavern, a Victorian resort hotel, was the first hotel in north or south Laguna. Built at what is now Diamond and Coast Highway, it was opened by Hubbard Goff in 1889 during the land boom of the 1880s, according to Karen Turnbull’s “The Cottages and Castles of Laguna: Historic Architecture 1883-1940.” It also served as the first post office.
By 1890, the boom subsided and Hub went back to farming. After a slow start, Laguna began to grow with the opening of the lumberyard in 1912, Turnbull’s book said. During the 1910s and 1920s, Arch Beach lots, though, were considered unsuitable for building. There were no roads of any kind, but investors were still expected to pay taxes, approximately 50 cents per year.
Many decided that the cost of taxation for a useless piece of land was not worth their time. Eventually, the County of Orange reclaimed these lots for failure to pay taxes. Countryman, Law’s friend, was a very savvy businessman. He went to the county and purchased 450 lots for the price of back taxes.
From the 1940s-1960s, Countryman controlled the hill, known at one time as Laguna Highlands, Laguna Estates, Countryman Estates and finally reverting back to its original designation, Arch Beach Heights. Countryman created Countryman Drive, a simple bulldozed path, now known as Summit Drive, as a private drive.
He would not let anyone other than owners who purchased lots from him access to this road. In one instance, a property owner wanted to build out his lot, but there were no public roads. Countryman agreed to let the owner use Countryman Drive for a fee of $1,200. Remember, this was the 1940s. The owner tried to ignore Countryman, but ended up having to pay double the proposed fee when he found out that the local police would not allow his workers to travel the private road. In May of 1950, Law, a World War II veteran, agreed to buy several adjoining properties from Countryman for $400 a piece.
After making a verbal agreement, Law was sent back into action during the Korean war. He sent Countryman his $50 a month combat pay for two years. Upon Law’s return to civilian life, Countryman stuck to his word and transferred the property. When Law purchased the Summit Drive property almost 60 years ago, he remembered it resembling the undeveloped area currently between Arch Beach Heights and Top of the World, steep, vacant scrubland. The 1960s and 1970s saw the largest growth of home building in Arch Beach Heights.
During that time, only La Mirada and Del Mar streets were paved. This is when Hazel Kellogg made her home in Arch Beach Heights. Her two sons built the house to meet her needs and it largely remains today as it was built in 1962, with the exception of new windows and garage doors.
In more recent times mid 1980s –present, Arch Beach Heights has been home to a portion of Laguna’s gay community. Warmly referred to by a bartender at Bounce on Coast Highway as the “Swish Alps,” Arch Beach Heights is a beautiful refuge in a conservative county. With the emergence in Southern California of other gay enclaves and the escalation of property values, the gay population in Arch Beach Heights and elsewhere in Laguna appears to be diminishing.
Laguna is as interesting as it is diverse, which also includes housing of all shapes, sizes and designs. I am glad to have made my journey here and to call home Laguna Beach’s starter neighborhood, Arch Beach Heights. I still don’t know whether to laugh or cry.