Through fires and festivals, psychedelic evangelism and mansionization, the putty-colored Craftsman on the hill has stood watch over Laguna Canyon — a sentinel whose face has changed over the decades, but whose mystical appeal hasn't.
"It was a magical house," said Lillian Kahan, 93, who called the rustic perch home for 42 years. "It sounds kind of dumb to say that, but it's true."
On a recent evening, Kahan and current owner Marie Voss reminisced about living on the 6-acre property, which stretches down a steep, cactus-dotted hill, a topography that challenges anyone with the $1.5-million asking price to expand the three-bedroom, one-bathroom home's 1,525 square feet.
But owners past and present explained that the home's asking price is not rooted in its relatively modest size but in what is not built around it — and its place in counterculture history.
The canyon house, they said, is a secluded refuge from nearby sprawl that draws friends, neighbors and relatives who want to get a little closer to nature.
"The right person's gotta go up there and love it," Kahan said of potential buyers.
An apricot tree that Kahan planted bears fruit in a small yard landscaped with succulents. A patio with just enough room for two lawn chairs looks out to a sliver of ocean in one direction and winding Laguna Canyon Road in the other. The babble of small fountains and the tinkling of wind chimes floats over a faux boulder retaining wall.
Kahan — whose accent exposes her Brooklyn roots even after nearly six decades on the West Coast — and her late husband, Harry, first passed through Laguna Beach on vacation. They decided they liked it.
Soon they managed to "acquire" the property, Kahan said with a coy smile, complete with a pot belly stove in the living room for chilly canyon nights. Property records say the house was built in 1930, though there's little information about who lived there before 1958, when the Kahans moved in.
They grew to love their adopted hometown, embedding themselves in the community of artists and outsiders. At the house, the retired couple hosted big parties, cooking up hot dogs on an early 1900s-era wood stove. When they marveled at deer, hawks and mountain lions, it seemed like the curiosity was mutual.
"I was a little Jewish girl from an apartment," Kahan said. "So it was a completely different life. We lived almost like we were camping."
By the time the late '60s rolled around, the couple learned to keep an eye on "Dodge City" down the hill. There, residents, including Timothy Leary, experimented with drugs and, well, dodged the authorities.
In the book "Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World," by Nicholas Schou (a copy of which Voss keeps on her coffee table), Kahan's husband is referred to as "an elderly man who lived in a house overlooking Woodland Drive, [who] let them conduct surveillance from his property."
But as the book recounts, the moment the man left town, the "hippies," in order to maintain their plants, tapped into the couple's water line.
Reading from the book elicited a cackle from Kahan, who remembered returning from a long trip only to find a then-whopping $70 water bill.
Kahan had a bit of a hippie streak herself. The amateur painter with a knack for kitschy trompe l'oeil made the house's old-fashioned kitchen her own by stripping the linoleum and painting on a rug. On the cabinets, she painted images of vegetables and household items.
When Voss moved in, she preserved the art with a clear coat.
"It's a piece of you," she told Kahan during a recent get-together in nearby Lake Forest.
Voss, 62, and her son, Jason Daly, bought the place and turned it into a kind of family project after an owner in the interim — listed in property records as a trust — left the house in poor condition.
Over the course of a few years, Voss said, she and her son, who did work in hardwood flooring, rebuilt much of the house themselves. Daly, now 44, swapped services for help from friends in plumbing and other trades. The house has oak floors and high-beamed ceilings crafted from pine, cedar and Douglas fir.
While Voss, who has lived in Laguna since 1986, kept her home in town, Daly lived at the hill house full-time until he moved to Nashville for work.
Selling was a tough decision. "I vacillate about it all the time," Voss said.
If she'd had a little more time, and maybe a few more resources, she said, she'd have cut trails down the hill so she could have dropped in at the nearby Sawdust Festival grounds, where a popular artists' fair draws summertime visitors.
Voss bought the home in 2005 for $1.2 million and has spent countless hours and dollars fixing it up — work she's enjoyed. But now she is worried about maintaining the place on her own.
She looked up at the $5-million and $6-million mansions on a ridge high above.
"I often wonder if they can look down and say, 'There's that crazy lady, doing her yard work,'" she said. "It's a different world up there."