A Family’s History Reveals Laguna’s Own

Archival images of the Coast Inn.
Archival images of the Coast Inn.

As a psychotherapist, Carolyn Smith for years listened as clients unspooled their anxieties, doubts and fears by the hour.

Now, the Laguna Beach resident redirects her professional training as an avocation, collecting anecdotal stories about her family and its role in building the historic Coast Inn just as the art colony came of age.

She learned, for instance, a comic tidbit about her father, Richard Smith, from Dick Metz, the founder of the Surfing Heritage & Cultural Center in San Clemente who owned Hobie surf shops in Hawaii.

Metz recalled being enthralled by Smith’s routine that he observed as an 8-year-old hanging around his parents’ Broiler restaurant on Ocean Avenue. Smith would roll out a cement stop sign to Coast Highway and return to a cup of five-cent coffee and a window seat in the restaurant. When a car ran the stop, the Laguna Beach police officer would leap for his motorcycle and go after the offender, Smith said in retelling the tale.

This week, she took the wraps off CoastInnHistory.com, documenting the hotel’s evolution over the nine decades since her grandfather, John “Pappy” Smith, built it for $20,000. The year was 1929, three years after Coast Boulevard connected Laguna to Newport Beach. It features a chronological timeline, clippings and ads from the long defunct South Coast News, a trove of postcards and photos, documents from city files, memorabilia unearthed by longtime residents and stories from a few longtime residents. The hotel’s well-known Boom Boom Room nightclub, a hub of gay nightlife that closed in 2007, is lightly annotated.

Johanna Ellis, a member of the Laguna Beach Historical Society, praised Smith for creating a diligently researched site focused solely on one of the town’s landmark properties. “I think it’s the first of its kind in Laguna,” she said.

Local historian Jane Janz complemented Smith for seeking out first-hand accounts and pointed out the significance of her grandfather’s prescience. The hotel’s location on Mountain Avenue was in the neighboring and distinct town of Arch Beach, later absorbed in Laguna Beach, which incorporated in 1927. “They knew the highway was going through. He was far-sighted in that he realized there would be growth involved,” Janz said.

The Historical Society will provide a link to the Coast Inn site on its website soon, said Ellis, who for the last year toiled to compile a “wikiverse” database of citywide local history that should be added to the website by spring.

“I’d like the public to read my Coast Inn history,” said Smith, in explaining her motivation for distilling her family’s legacy. The project gained momentum when Smith more recently began capturing the anecdotal snippets of former classmates spilling stories at high school reunions and of members of the Laguna Natives Facebook page.

Her father and his brother, Karl, who lived in the Coast Inn as boys and operated the property as adults, sold the family holdings in 1978. It has changed hands six times since and is currently owned by Chris Dornin, a local resident.

Smith said the website’s completion is not intended as advocacy, though Dornin’s development plan for the historic structure is scheduled to be heard by the City Council on Jan. 23. The Planning Commission turned it down last October.

Besides the Coast Inn, two other Coast Highway ocean-view establishments, Casa del Camino and Hotel Laguna, opened within years of each other, also built in the same Spanish revival style. “I would love to play a part in keeping these historic,” said Smith, who envisions a possible book about the three historic hotels.

“They were the centers, landmarks in their own right,” said Linda S. Morgenlander, chair of the city’s Heritage Committee, a principle of Acme Architects and Interior Design. “Each one is an opportunity to bring it anew and to respect the old.”


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