Even as Laguna Beach’s shoreline evokes images of hidden coves rather than buried treasures, a forgotten landmark was recently unearthed during restoration of an Ocean Avenue building, originally home to the now defunct Laguna Federal Savings and Loan Association.
The project team knew of a wall-size fountain turned off long ago when a courtyard receded from public view behind a building addition. But no one suspected the existence of a four-foot tiled pool at the fountain’s base, said construction superintendent Don Crowl of Irvine-based Miller Contracting, who is overseeing rehabilitation of 222 Ocean Ave. His workers unearthed the pool when they removed the concrete slab that had been poured over it.
“It sort of becomes an archeological site,” said project architect and local Todd Skenderian. “That’s what makes it fun.”
Heeding instructions from project historian Jan Ostashay to move slowly in case just such relics were uncovered, the architect and contractor must now salvage the pool and integrate it into the building, which will house a New York style pizza restaurant
Most recently home to Sirous & Sons Rug Gallery, and Big Dog Sportswear before that, the structure won its place on the city’s Historic Register because of the historical significance of its first occupant, representing the city’s early banking industry, as well as its original architecture, said principal planner Moncia Tuchscher.
Designed by Aubrey St. Clair, who also designed City Hall, the Laguna County Water District building and others in town, the Spanish Colonial Revival edifice was constructed for the bank in 1945. St. Clair also designed an addition in 1952. Another 1,149 square-foot expansion in 1956 fully enclosed the bank’s outdoor patio and decorative fountain. And three more remodels of the facade and storefront occurred over three decades, says Ostashay’s historical assessment.
Despite the disfiguring alterations, the Heritage Committee designated the building an E-rated (exceptional) structure in 2012 in anticipation of the promised historic restoration by the new owners, who sought its inclusion in the city’s historic register. That designation led to the project’s approval last April and a 75 percent reduction in normally required parking spaces.
The building is one of the first in the city to receive historic status based on restoration plans, Tuchscher noted. Those plans to rewind the clock to 1952 include restoring design, materials, windows, doors, tile work and roof features, as well as returning the patio and tile fountain to their original glory.
The lucky tenant of the restored structure will be Dom Demarco’s Pizzeria, named after Italian immigrant Domenico DeMarco, who opened the still-popular Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn in 1964. Armed with recipe rights from Di Fara, Dom Demarco’s owners opened their first location in Las Vegas in 2011. Laguna will be their second location.
Thanks to the parking incentive, the owners need only provide 13 parking spaces, instead of the 44 that would typically be required for a 126-seat restaurant. Two other spaces are also required for the second floor apartment.
Numerous challenges encountered since demolition and reconstruction of the building’s shell began in October failed to undermine the project’s enthusiastic team.
“You have to have a passion to do this,” said Crowl. Though the architect and structural engineer drew plans as accurate as possible, it’s impossible to anticipate what lies beneath the surface, he said.
Crowl faced the hurdle of modernizing the structural elements of the building’s first floor without disturbing the tenant-occupied second floor. Uncovering the original decorative columns that flanked the front windows in the 1952 facade meant not disturbing them, even as the contractor devised a way to replace the bottom portion of the facade and install a 30-inch half wall required in case of flooding.
A temporary barrier was erected around the fountain and tile mural to protect them from flying debris while walls were demolished around it to restore the patio. That’s when construction workers uncovered the ground-level pool that the fountain apparently flowed into.
Its discovery cuts into the new tenant’s planned table space on the patio, but Ostashay, who holds as much sway as the building inspectors, nevertheless insisted on its complete restoration.
Significantly, the tile fountain and mural evoke Laguna’s banking history as well as its artists’ colony heritage. The beautifully preserved mural that depicts scenes of a family applying for a home loan and a home under construction was created by Laguna Beach artist Boris Buzan.
“I’m surprised and thrilled that one of the last pieces of art that my dad did for this town is going to be around and preserved,” said Hedy Buzan, the artist’s daughter, herself a painter who occupies a Laguna Canyon Artists studio.
Buzan said she saw the mural at the construction site, but thought it would be demolished. Though her father had public artwork all over town at one point, including a tile mural of doctors he donated to raise money for the hospital, she believes the bank’s mural might be the only piece left. What’s more, she said, it’s a reminder of the fact that Laguna used to be home to a cottage industry for ceramic tiles in the years after WWII.
The building’s restoration also spotlights the legacy of the savings and loan and the culture created by its leader, Lorna Mills, who in 1957 became president of Laguna Federal Savings, then one of the first women in the country to lead a federally chartered lender. In 1991, Mills donated her significant art collection to the permanent collection of the Festival of Arts.
“Mills not only bet on land values in Laguna, she helped a large number of home builders in other parts of the county get started, making construction and mortgage loans on developments in Huntington Beach, Irvine, Garden Grove and Westminster when the county’s construction industry began booming in the late 1950s,” says a 1985 Los Angeles Times article.
The story quoted Norman Wilks, then president of the Laguna Beach Board of Realtors. “When land values here got so high in the 1970s,” Wilks said, “no one else would loan on homes in Laguna. But she did.”
While Crowl estimates finishing the shell in late spring, no architect or contractor has yet been tasked with the interior tenant improvements. Both he and Skenderian hope to continue what they began.
Despite the excitement of excavating the fountain pool and columns, Crowl said the job’s greatest surprise was the warm reception of city officials. “In my business, it’s probably well known that Laguna Beach is a tough city to build in,” he confessed. Instead, he’s encountered their full support. “It’s obvious that the city is excited about this project,” he said.
Maybe they’ve taken a page from Lorna Mills. Her entry in “American Women Managers and Administrators” includes a response to a question about her management style. “We have always welcomed growth, improvement, innovation; but we have held to the old verities of balance, stability and prudence. Let us remember them now.”
Here is a link to Andy Hedden’s history about Laguna Federal, including historical photos.
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