Opinion: Finding Meaning


Beautiful Heisler Park at 101 

By Skip Hellewell

We missed the centennial of Heisler Park last year, so I made a note to cover next week’s 101st anniversary. Doing a little research, I came across this social page item from the 1928 Santa Ana Register, “Miss Anna Hills had as guest this week, Mrs. Lucia Fox Edwards of South Pasadena.” It wasn’t just a social visit. Anna Hills (1882-1930), you’ll recall, was an early Laguna artist, a founder of today’s Laguna Presbyterian Church, and a force in building the Laguna Art Museum. But, what was she up to when she invited Edwards—who owned a lot on Goff Street but apparently hadn’t built yet—down to Laguna? 

First, the back story. In 1905, Howard G. Heisler (1870-1941) and partners got James Irvine to sell them some ranch land and filed a plat to subdivide “Laguna Cliffs.” The plans included an 18.5-acre park winding along the bluff. It was a visionary plan, as this was 22 years before the city was incorporated. Just five years before, the 1900 Census for Laguna listed only 11 families and 44 year-around residents. There wasn’t a decent road to Laguna, but the plans envisioned an electric railway to bring visitors.  

The park wasn’t developed immediately, and Heisler made motions to divert the land to ocean-view lots. Elmer Jahraus, founder of Laguna Beach Lumber, took Heisler to court to save the park. The new Laguna Beach Art Association had ambitions to build a permanent, fire-proof art gallery and museum, and in 1918, Heisler offered the current site at half price. (It was an audacious project for a town with just 260 year-round residents). Anna Hills, president of the Art Association, must have dreamed of a finished park to grace the museum when she invited Lucia to visit. What did Lucia have that Laguna needed? 

Lucia Fox Edwards (1892-1973) grew up in Madison, Wisc., the daughter of an industrialist. After attending the University of Wisconsin, she toured Europe studying the parks and gardens. Newspaper accounts later note her slide show presentations of Europe’s famous gardens, describing her as “an artist and landscape architect.” In 1921, Lucia married M. Guy Edwards, a fellow student and geologist working in Peru for a famous silver and copper mine. After a stint in the Andes, they moved to Los Angeles, where he joined Shell Oil when oil was discovered in the Los Angeles basin.  

The year after Lucia visits Anna, the Santa Ana Register announced, “City Improves Beach Park in Laguna Beach.” The improvement of the 3000-foot strip along the ocean and Cliff Drive was starting, though with a modest budget. The County donated $2,500, and Laguna Beach City, just two years old, scraped up $12,000 over several years. A bond for additional funds was proposed but rejected by the voters. One thing helped keep costs down—Mrs. Lucia Fox Edwards donated her services. Laguna got a design inspired by the best European parks for free. Anna Hills knew what she was doing and you have to marvel how much Laguna’s boosters got for their money when they developed Heisler Park for just $250,000 in 2023 dollars.  

Laguna threw a big party when the park was completed. The Los Angeles Times announced on May 1, 1932, “Laguna Beach Will Dedicate Heisler Park,” noting a three-day celebration, with a two-day tournament on the new bowling green. The Laguna Woman’s Chorus and Glee Club contributed musical numbers to the dedication ceremony. City leaders spoke, and the park was named, at Heisler’s request, for his wife, Lou Jane Heisler.   

And that’s how Laguna got one of its most remarkable features—two blocks of beautifully landscaped parkland with walking paths along the bluff overlooking the ocean. What other city has such a beautiful park, done at such a modest cost? There’s meaning in that.   

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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