Opinion: Finding Meaning

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A Home by the Beach

There’s always something to discover in Laguna’s history. Wanting to know more about our early schools, I’ve been on the watch for an old book, “100 Years of Public Schools in Orange County,” by Merton E. Hill. Last week I was excited to discover that Hill was an early Laguna resident with homes on the beach at Oak Street, and that his namesake grandson still lives here. The first Hill had an influential position in the ‘30s—Director of Admission for the University of California. He commuted by train between Berkeley and the southern branch in Los Angeles (now UCLA) and in the process found a way to live at the beach.

That discovery led to a meeting with Merton E. Hill III and wife Annlia Paganini-Hill, an epidemiologist and student of healthy aging. (Yes, she’s aging quite well and I promise a future column on her secrets.) Three generations of Hills were blessed to live by the beach and the visit left me thinking about the ways a Laguna Beach home shapes a family. These families in turn shaped Laguna by the homes they left behind.

I’m a fan of Karen Wilson Turnbull, daughter of another early Laguna family (remembered by Wilson Street) who back in 1987 documented our most picturesque homes in “The Cottages and Castles of Laguna: Historic Architecture 1883-1940.” We have some amazingly unique homes in Laguna, like the whimsical Witch’s House on Wave Street, or Jean Egasse’s boat-like Ark at Moss Point. Is there an architectural school that didn’t inspire some Laguna creation?

My favorite is the Proctor home at the south end of Three Arch Bay. The legend is that a General Proctor from WWI bought one of the first Three Arch Bay bluff lots and recreated the French chateau he had lived in during the war. The home is built of used brick gathered from the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake. It’s a great story so I did a little research to fill in the details. It turns out there was no “General Proctor.”

Hudson Milton Proctor (1895-1988) was in France during WWI but as a soldier. He studied at Stanford University in 1919 and in 1922 opened a restaurant, Proctor’s Tavern in Arcadia. The tavern was boosted by proximity to Santa Anita Park when it opened for thoroughbred racing in 1934. In 1938, perhaps to fund his chateau, he sold the restaurant to jockey George Woolf and partner. That was the year Woolf, as a stand-in rider in one of the 20th century’s great horse races, famously rode Seabiscuit to a record-breaking victory over War Admiral. That victory was a likely source for Woolf’s payment. (The restaurant, renamed The Derby, still exists.)

Proctor married Miss Virginia M. Jones, daughter of Sierra Madre’s first mayor, in 1932. The marriage was front page news in the “Arcadia Tribune.” His Laguna chateau wasn’t finished, that would take another ten years, but the prospect of life at the beach in an incredible home surely helped him win her hand. Living by the beach, 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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