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The Real Thing Embodies Local History

By Ann Christoph

By Ann Christoph

The Guy Skidmore house known as Stonehenge at 31381 S. Coast Highway was demolished last year after the Coastal Commission denied an appeal by local residents.

Nevertheless, this sad and unfortunate loss led us to more discoveries about the 1920s and ‘30s in Laguna. Because of the articles in the Indy about the history of Guy’s house members of the Skidmore family contacted us. We learned about Guy’s brother Joe, sisters Lee and Anita, memorialized with the naming of Anita Street, and the founding of Coast Royal by the brothers and their mother Catherine Brooks. Brooks Street was named for Catherine and her husband Nate Brooks.

Among the family’s possessions are works of art by Joane Cromwell, Joe’s second wife and an acclaimed artist. Photographs of the South Laguna coastline were discovered, complete with notes pointing out Guy and Joe’s houses, the first ones built in Coast Royal.

That got us history buffs wondering if the Joe Skidmore house is still here. Indeed it is…and a discovery of a nearly 90-year-old painting has produced even more clues.

Laguna Beach historian Jane Janz found a Joane Cromwell painting on Ebay, described as being of Crystal Cove. But Jane recognized its subject as Goff Island and knew that the painting must have depicted Aliso Beach in the mid-ground. In the foreground the artist captured a red-tile roofed house with a small tower, just like the image in the early photograph of Joe’s house. Joane had done a painting of the house that, tragically, her husband would lose in the depression.

Soon the painting arrived from a collector in Minnesota.

The house was listed on the historic inventory in 1981 without Joe’s name attached. Now a consultant for the city is evaluating the list of historical buildings again. Are they E (excellent), K (key) or C (contributive)?

The Joe Skidmore house was originally rated C ( the lowest category), but now the city’s consultant is recommending that it be considered ineligible for any local historic listing. Armed with our new-found research we will be asking that the building’s historic significance be recognized.

This re-rating process will affect hundreds of houses on the Historic Resources Inventory. Long overdue, the project involves the consultant revisiting all of the buildings that were photographed and documented over 30 years ago and checking to see what has happened to them. Some have been put on the city’s Historic Register and for those the consultant does no further evaluation. Of the remaining buildings some have been restored, others demolished, some remodeled. The consultant has made preliminary rating recommendations, and suggestions on how our standards may be made to correspond with those of the State Office of Historic Preservation.

Many of the town’s oldest buildings and those most characteristic of the early days are lightly built beach cottages, not the more substantial kinds of buildings covered by the statewide standards that apply to cities like Pasadena or San Francisco. The Heritage Committee has often referred to “Laguna standards” that they apply here to protect these most vulnerable buildings.

It is much easier for these cottages to appear to lose “integrity” when siding, roofs or windows are replaced or when foundations settle. When these operations are in progress it can look like the building isn’t worth saving. That is what happened in the case of the Guy Skidmore house.

A complete definition of “Laguna standards” is imperative and we members of the public should check the listings to see if we know history about the buildings on the list that will affect their significance and their rating.

In touring the town for this work, the consultant has observed that there are many buildings that deserve to be on the Inventory that were either missed or are now more than 40 years old and qualify to be recognized. Funding to document these buildings needs to be provided so that the Historic Resources Inventory can be complete. The Heritage Committee will be considering the status of the inventory and the city’s historical preservation program in the coming months. Their next meeting will be March 16.

Finding that two Skidmore houses still exist made the story of the founding of Laguna Beach by Joe and Guy’s stepfather Nate Brooks, and the creation of Coast Royal in 1924, come alive in ways a book or a plaque cannot match. Imagine Joane Cromwell painting as she stood amidst the wild shrubbery above Aliso Beach and Camel Point. She saw only one house in the foreground, yet her more distant views—of Goff Island and the distant peninsulas, the water and the purple haze–look much as they do today. Layer upon layer of human decisions and construction have gone on since, yet our beautiful landscape and seascape setting remain.

Without the tie to reality that the actual buildings provide, that perspective and appreciation for Laguna’s history as the source of the cherished Laguna character will fade and become lost in time. These buildings don’t just represent interesting bits of history, but connect us to in a meaningful continuum to a community with a message of insight and sensitivity.

 

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