Only in Laguna : From Cottages to Castles, Area’s Architecture Is Unique

Times Staff Writer

The roof sags and the floor has begun to buckle. Vines creep through half-inch gaps in the wood siding on the bathroom walls, and when children run through the living room, the entire house shakes.

Karen Wilson Turnbull jokingly calls it her “funny old beach house,” or the "$2,000 house on the $2-million lot.”

The rented 60-year-old beach cottage, Turnbull’s home for the last 12 years, is nestled in a grove of palms and pines atop a chaparral-covered cliff overlooking Paradise Cove in South Laguna.

“The house was poorly built to begin with, and everything is sort of leaning,” she said. “There isn’t anything at 90-degree angles anymore; you can’t even hang a picture straight.”


The 603-square-foot yellow clapboard house with the turquoise trim is the perfect abode for a woman whose words and drawings chronicle the colorful history of Laguna Beach architecture from the 1880s to 1940.

“The Cottages & Castles of Laguna,” self-published by Turnbull last May, is a 50-page, large-format book featuring 80 pen-and-ink renderings of homes in Laguna Beach and South Laguna where Turnbull, 37, grew up.

A fourth-generation South Lagunan whose grandparents, George and Grace Wilson, ran the Aliso View Grocery and campground at Aliso Beach in the ‘20s, Turnbull earned a master’s degree in California history from Cal State Fullerton and works part time for Heritage Orange County, a nonprofit historic organization in Santa Ana.

Thumbing through “The Cottages & Castles of Laguna” is like taking a Sunday drive through the art colony, whose neighborhoods are dotted with a diversity of architectural styles ranging from provincial and Tudor to Mediterranean and mission, from Art Deco and moderne to bungalow and beach cottage.


“You can,” said Turnbull, “find virtually everything here.”

Not all the homes in Laguna, however, are so easily categorized.

In a section called “Only in Laguna,” Turnbull writes of houses that “are found nowhere else on earth . . . one-of-a-kind, eclectic combinations of styles and shapes.”

Laguna’s most unusual home was built on Wave Street in the 1920s by Vernon Barker, a carpenter from Whittier who later became the chief architect for the UCLA Medical Center.

Locals call it the Witch’s House.

With its steep gables facing different directions--one is nearly 60 feet tall--and its irregular shingles, odd angles and oddly shaped doors and windows, the Witch’s House is “a masterpiece of hand-craftsmanship and imaginative architecture,” says Turnbull.

Many of Laguna’s picturesque homes date back to an era when a family could build its dream home unhindered by permits and regulations.

The beach cottage is the most obvious example of do-it-your-own-way architecture.


These “hastily built little boxes,” as Turnbull calls them, usually were built of single-wall construction with either clapboard or board and batten siding.

Visiting Turnbull’s beach cottage, which her Hollywood scenic artist husband, Steve, moved into in 1969 when he was still single, is like stepping into a page of her book--Page 11, to be exact.

Like most beach cottages, the five-room house was originally one room. But over the years two small bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom were added. In fact, one inside wall in every room is covered in exterior clapboard, said Turnbull.

Although their home is typical of the rapidly disappearing old summer beach houses, Turnbull included it in her book for more than sentimental reasons.

The home was custom built in 1927 for a singer named Nettie Pritchard, and everything in it--including doors and windows--was scaled down to her size, which was under five feet.

That means the 5-foot, 8-inch Turnbull must duck to get through the 5-foot, 6-inch front door. And the doorway into the kitchen is so narrow that when extra seating is required in the living room, a kitchen chair must be carried out the back door and brought in through the front.

When the 1.1-acre parcel on which the cottage and four other small houses sit was put up for sale two years ago, a building inspector for the prospective buyers had trouble keeping a straight face.

“The inspector had hysterics,” said Turnbull. “There was not one thing that resembled standard anything--the plumbing, the wiring, the size and heights of the doors and windows--I mean nothing is standard.”


Turnbull once discovered water mysteriously dripping from a bathroom shelf. She assumed it was a broken water pipe in the wall until a plumber moved the box-shaped shelf and discovered two old dripping faucets.

“It is,” she said, “an adventure living here.”

Despite the inconveniences, including increasingly cramped quarters now that the Turnbulls have two children, Turnbull said the disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages: “A fantastic view, a private beach and low rent. The rent really hasn’t gone up in 10 years.”

Turnbull’s interest in architecture began as a child watching her late father, architect Howard Wilson, who worked out of their Three Arch Bay house.

But it wasn’t until she saw a similar book while on a visit to Carmel that Turnbull got the idea for “The Cottages & Castles of Laguna.”

Working from old black-and-white photographs of the houses and from pictures she took herself while pregnant with her son Timmy, Turnbull sketched her pen-and-ink drawings at night for a year after her 4-year-old daughter Kelly went to bed.

Turnbull, who worked on the 1980 Laguna Beach historical survey that categorized all the houses built in the city before 1940, said she based her selection of houses for the book on using representative samples of each architectural style. She also chose houses that still look as much as possible like they did when originally built.

Twenty-five hundred copies of “The Cottages & Castles of Laguna” were printed and since it became available in Laguna bookstores and gift shops in May, Turnbull has sold 1,000 copies.

“I made back the printing costs, so it’s all profit from here on,” said Turnbull, who also recently produced her first “Old Laguna Calendar” featuring vintage photos and dates of local events.

If “The Cottages & Castles of Laguna,” sells steadily, Turnbull said, she may be inspired to do a sequel. She’s thinking of doing a book featuring modern, one-of-a-kind houses, or one on unusual houses in Laguna--such as the dwelling built out of an old water tank or one that used to be a Main Beach hot dog stand.

Turnbull is confident that Laguna will retain its architectural diversity, which she says grew out of the community’s early lack of city planning, its hilly coastal geography and the influx of “so many artistic, eccentric people over the years. I think Lagunans pride themselves on being individuals.”

But she is well aware that many of Laguna’s older homes will no longer be standing in 15 years. In fact, while she was working on the book, the seventh oldest house in Laguna, a Hawaiian Colonial built in 1906, was demolished.

“People love them and they’re charming, but old wooden houses were not built to last forever,” she said. “I’m all for saving the old houses but, to be fair, some of them aren’t savable at this point.”

That includes her own cottage and the four other old houses on the property. Within two years, she said, the property’s new owner will raze them all to make way for a new house.

When the bulldozers come, they will take with them another slice of Laguna history: the little red house down the cliff from the Turnbull cottage was once the weekend retreat of singer Rick Nelson, who owned the property briefly in the late ‘60s. Years earlier, locals had dubbed the board-and-batten house “the honeymoon cottage” after Hollywood stars Howard Duff and Ida Lupino spent their honeymoon there.

Turnbull said she is saddened by the fate that awaits her “funny old beach cottage.”

“But this is America and they have every right to do that,” she said. “I knew it was coming for years.”

The precarious future of many of Laguna’s old cottages and castles is part of the reason Turnbull captured them on paper.

In doing her book, she said, “I tried to create this for posterity.”