Laguna Begins its Ninth Decade


By Charlie Warner, Special to the Independent

The city of Laguna Beach will mark its 90th year as an incorporated city on Tuesday, June 27, with a reception and historical presentation in Council Chambers at 5:30 p.m.

Candidate Richard Nixon campaigns in Laguna Beach.Photos from the Indy archives.
Candidate Richard Nixon campaigns in Laguna Beach.Photos from the Indy archives.

That presentation will recount some the town’s colorful history, beginning with the year of its incorporation in 1927 as the first incorporated city in South Orange County.

“Since Laguna became incorporated in the ‘20s, we are doing a great Gatsby themed party,” said the city’s recreation supervisor Adam Gufarotti. “There will be old photos and old plans of the town as well.” And of course a birthday cake.

The same year the town incorporated, famed female aviator Florence Pancho Barnes built a private airstrip between Coast Highway and the bluff top along what is now McKnight Drive, according to information compiled by the Laguna Beach Historical Society. At the time, there was also an airstrip in Upper Three Arch Bay. The very next year, the Presbyterian Church was built. A year after that, Aubrey St. Clair designed the downtown Fire Station.

Then in 1932, the Festival of Arts was conceived. The Festival was initially designed to attract crowds from the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. The event was held next to the Hotel Laguna, and featured the tableaux vivants that the Pageant of the Masters is now known for. The society says Laguna Beach also developed an Olympic Village of sorts that year, as several two room cottages were transported from the actual Olympic Village in Los Angeles to Bluebird Canyon. The streets where the cottages resided were appropriately named after U.S. medal winners of that year.


President Roosevelt visits the The White House in Laguna Beach.
President Roosevelt visits the The White House in Laguna Beach.

In 1934, Laguna Beach High School was established. A year later an elementary school was built where the pool is located today. The next year John Steinbeck wrote “Tortilla Flats.” Steinbeck rented a home here, but it is not known if he wrote the book in Laguna.

In 1938, Eiler Larsen arrived in Laguna Beach, becoming the first official Greeter because of a City Council designation. A statue of him outside the Greeter’s Corner restaurant marks the spot where he used to stand, as well as his footprints, at the south end of Main Beach on Coast Highway. Larsen was cast as Judas in the Pageant of the Masters for two years.

In 1939, a tropical storm destroyed Laguna’s pier, which was on Heisler Park and Bird Rock. Laguna has seen many strong storms and floods over the years, as well as landslides and even an inch of snow in 1949.

In 1950, Hobie Alter started his surfboard business, bringing surfing to Laguna Beach. The Brooks Street Classic was established shortly thereafter in 1955. The Beach Boys even mention Laguna in a song. In 1953, City Hall is built.

By 1960, the population was only 9,268. Even so, the city had already seen two presidents; Roosevelt drove his motorcade through town in 1938, and Nixon gave a speech by City Hall, campaigning as vice president for Eisenhower in 1952, according to the Historical Society accounts.

Despite the small population, Laguna also had its own college in 1962 with the founding of what would become the Laguna College of Art and Design. In 1967, the Sawdust Festival and Laguna Art-A-Fair held their first shows as well. That same year, counter-culturist Timothy Leary moved to Laguna Beach. He was arrested in Laguna a year later.

The population grew; by 1980 the population was 17,858. In 1982, the first openly gay public official elected in Southern California, Robert Gentry, became the city’s mayor.

The city experienced a population spurt from 1980 to 1990 due to the annexation of South Laguna in 1987. In 1991, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park became protected largely due to the advocacy of local Jim Dilley.

In 1993, Laguna Beach hired 600 goats to aid in vegetation management in reaction to an arson-set fire that destroyed more than 300 homes.

As of a 2016 estimate, Laguna Beach currently has a population 23,190.

Residents are invited by the Historical Society to learn more about how Laguna Beach became what it is today at the upcoming anniversary celebration.

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  1. Hi All,
    Having reached ninety years as an incorporated city we are ending the ninth decade and beginning the tenth decade…”Just saying”. 🙂


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