Sunday, September 2, 2012

Laguna Beach: Surprises Around Every Corner

A solo August trip to Southern California afforded me time to do quite a bit of leisurely driving. In the early evening, I could be found departing a particular strip of beach, sporting a fresh coat of sand and sunscreen, south-bound on the Pacific Coast Highway en route to the seaside city of Laguna Beach. The desire to return nightly was due to the unique character of the town center immediately off of the PCH.

Heading Down the PCH Towards Laguna Beach
Image © and courtesy of Wikipedia

Ordinarily, the main highway facing the ocean on most beach enclaves boast commerce to meet the basic beach-going needs: counter service hamburgers and frozen yogurt, swim/surf wear shops, and endless marketplaces offering sunglasses, T-shirts and souvenirs. The shores of Laguna had these in great numbers, but included an eclectic sampling of high-end shops, galleries, a dedicated art museum, and strikingly varied architecture. Compelled by a light wallet, an ATM visit one block east of U.S. 1 further revealed a stylistically diverse, yet quaint and cozy thoroughfare. Upon parking, this single city block compounded the passing curiosities glanced from the highway tenfold.

 The Lumberyard Restaurant
Image © by Dan Cunningham

Strolling northeast, on 384 Forest Avenue you'll find the Lumberyard Restaurant: a folktale Norman-styled building with wide, rounded eaves and gables. This eatery is one of Laguna Beach's most important historical buildings, named in tribute to the business the structure originally housed: the Laguna Beach Lumber Company.

The Original Laguna Beach Lumberyard 
Image © and courtesy of Silver Images,
from Arcadia Publishing's Images of America: Laguna Beach, CA

From 1912-1975, the Lumberyard was a vital component in the growth of the village. Prior to the Lumber Company's establishment, residents had to travel inland as far as Santa Ana to acquire wood to construct their homes.

The Lumberyard Restaurant Today
Image © and courtesy of Google Maps

Adjacent to the Lumberyard restaurant lies a distinctive shopping plaza that meanders through small courtyards. Public tables, chairs and benches are thoughtfully shaded by umbrellas and handsome mature trees. The plaza and its immediate environs evokes notions of a charming European village—a contained, multi-level layout invites discovery and provides a refreshing contrast to the exhausting linear storefronts of modern shopping centers and commercial streets. Stretches of unconventional brickwork offer a distinctively hand-hewn look, resulting in delightful chaotic uniformity.

 Brickwork Won't Lay Down For Conformity
Image © by Dan Cunningham

Around the block from the Lumberyard, at 260 Ocean Avenue sits another treasure: the Laguna Beach branch of Wells Fargo Bank. This was originally the Home Office of Laguna Federal Savings and Loan Association, founded in 1935.

Vintage Postcard of Laguna Federal Savings and Loan Association
Image courtesy of eBay user 100fishhooks

This Federal-style building with front-facing balconies and detailed wrought-iron work looks as if it came directly out of a New Orleans set of blueprints. The bank certainly has its share of admirers—during my walks I often saw passersby stop to take photos.

The Building Today: Wells Fargo Laguna Beach Branch
Image courtesy of Flickr user michaelje0

The bank not only dutifully provides financial services and enhances the architectural landscape, it also regularly plays host to displays of public art on the 3rd floor.

Festival of Arts Gallery on the 3rd Floor of the Wells Fargo Building
Image © and courtesy of Sparkle Films

These buildings are just two examples of what I saw during short visits. The town is bursting with uncountable unique hand-crafted works, from homes and businesses, to fountains, signs and lampposts. The roots of its early 20th century artist colony are firmly planted in Laguna's character and culture.

At the immediate edge of town, at the mouth of Laguna Canyon sits the home of the Sawdust Art & Crafts Festival and the Festival of Arts open-air gallery—sprawling outdoor showcases of skilled artists with work on display and in production.

Open-Air Art Festivals Offer Something For Everyone
Image © and courtesy of Laguna Beach Independent

This area is also the location of the annual Pageant of the Masters—an exhibition featuring incredible re-creations of classical and contemporary art works, utilizing real people posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces.

A Live Subject is Prepped For The Annual Pageant of the Masters
Image © and courtesy of Madison's I'd Rather Be Eating blog

A return visit to experience these events is a gleeful certainty. When traveling, I've always subscribed to the axiom of "When seeking local flavor, the greatest resource is the locals themselves." One resource I've come to revisit often is Kate Buckley's Laguna Beach Blog. While Kate's blog is still fairly new to the 'net (just as we are here) she offers great detail and insight to the events, attractions and denizens of Laguna Beach. While the sand and surf are the main draw of Laguna Beach, there is much more to do and see directly off the coastline of this cultural cornerstone of Southern California.

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