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Hotel Laguna: Old Stardust to Undergo a Refurbishing

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

It has been a long time since Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall graced the veranda at the Pier Nine Bar.

Those were the days for the Hotel Laguna. Movie stars were frequent guests, and film makers shot beach scenes on the strand below the three-story, mission-style building.

Beside Bogart and Bacall, Rosalind Russell, Errol Flynn, Joan Fontaine and Charles A. Lindbergh also were frequent guests. “That was back in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” said manager David McNeil. “They used to come up after going to the race track at Del Mar. Instead of driving all the way back to Los Angeles, which was a long way in those days, they’d spend the night here.”

The Laguna has slipped a little since its heyday. Much of the 70-room hotel, including the lone elevator, hasn’t changed since its opening on Aug. 19, 1930. There are holes in the carpet, the paint is chipped and rain-streaked, and the green awnings are faded and ripped.

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All that will change soon, says Claes Andersen, of Beverly Hills, who recently bought the Laguna from Borge Nielsen, owner for the last 18 years. The hotel was closed Thursday night, for the first time since its opening, in preparation for a face lift, which Andersen hopes to have completed in April.

Many of the hotel’s 85 employees won’t be back, said front desk clerk Muriel Woolley, who has been with the Laguna for 12 years. “He’s got a whole new front office staff coming in, and everything will be computerized,” she said. “So I don’t think I’ll be switching to computers, not now.”

Receptionist Demetra Foglesong holds out a little more hope of being kept on, after three years at the hotel. “We’ve all got our applications in, but none of us knows anything yet,” she said. “It’s a sad day for all of us.”

Laguna Beach people cherish the hotel almost as much as they did Eiler Larson, the city’s “official greeter,” whose photo hangs in a window near the entrance. It’s still the place to stay for events such as the Festival of Arts or the Laguna Beach 10K Run, said McNeil.

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Although Andersen wouldn’t disclose details of his plans, he said the Laguna won’t be radically altered.

“I want to be very careful about leaving the charm and character of the hotel intact,” he said. “I don’t want to lose that, but we want to bring it up to 1985.”

Andersen emphasized that the attraction of the hotel isn’t the building, but its location. “We have the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool a few steps away, and it’s heated in the summer,” he said.

McNeil, who says he will retire after 15 years, said the hotel itself is a major attraction.

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“I think the age of the hotel is attractive to some people, and it’s a great location if they don’t want to drive all over town,” he said. “They have the beach, the festival and all the shopping, right here.”

Nielsen downplayed the hotel’s state of disrepair. “There isn’t a hotel in the world that doesn’t constantly need repairs. Even I don’t look so great after 50 years,” he joked.

The first Hotel Laguna was a frame structure, built in the 1880s, with a wide veranda and a cigar store on the bottom floor. Its original site was about five miles south of where it now stands. It was later moved, then was razed in 1928, to make way for the present building.

After 18 months of poor business during the Depression, new owners Lloyd and Gerta Seilset took over (Nielsen says they bought the hotel for $45,000) and began a promotional campaign aimed at the motion picture industry.

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According to a report made for the city’s Historic Resources Inventory, “the price of lodging was so low compared to other film locations and the Laguna terrain was so varied and adaptable to movie-making, that the filmmakers arrived in droves and the hotel was in the black again in no time.”

Orange County historian Don Meadows said the Laguna played a major part in the development of the city.

“Laguna Beach didn’t really blossom until just before World War II at about the same time the new hotel was opened,” he said. “That’s when it started to boom. That and when they paved the road from El Toro down through Laguna Canyon. It was a beautiful, pristine, rocky coast that really appealed to artists.”

A customer at the Pier Nine Thursday said she hated to see a favorite place close temporarily but admitted it needed a facelift.

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“As long as he doesn’t change this spot,” said Sarah Stearns, as a wave broke below the sun-swept veranda, “I have no objections.”


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