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OUR LAGUNA: Heritage of home put to the test

Preserving the older homes and buildings that charm residents and visitors to Laguna is a labor of love for the city’s Heritage Committee.

It is the committee’s job to advise the Design Review Board, the Planning Commission and the City Council on the historical and architectural value of existing buildings or the merits of proposed changes. The committee also is responsible for recommending buildings for placement on the city’s Historical Register, which requires following the guidelines for rehabilitating the structures in return for significant construction and financial perks.

That advice is not always taken.

The council voted 4-0 — in the absence of Councilwoman Verna Rollinger, who is the liaison to the committee — at the April 7 meeting to overturn the committee denial of heritage status for a remodeled home on Hawthorne Road, upgraded from the inventory of historical homes conducted in 1980.


“It’s a nice remodel and the owners spent a lot of money on it — it’s a beautiful home, but it doesn’t look like the home that is on the inventory,” said committee Chairman Jon Madison. “There is a difference between restoration and preservation.”

Buildings were listed on the inventory without the owners’ participation, but a building must be approved for the Historical Register that qualifies it for reductions in permit fees, more lenient parking and development requirements and for approval of a Mills Act Agreement.

The Mills Act is a state program that can cut property taxes in half.

“Mills Act applications have been increasing,” Madison said. “More than half of the applicants don’t care about preservation; they are in it for the money. They don’t want any input and then they want the benefits.”


Madison knows the difficulties in preservation. He owns Madison Square Café and Garden on North Coast Highway, often touted for the quality of its preservation.

“The city put me through hoops,” Madison said. “I had to do a lot of things I didn’t want to do and it cost me as much or more than I paid for house.

“That’s one reason I got on this committee. We are not out to break anyone’s chops, but we want to keep Laguna, Laguna.”

The inventory includes photographs and descriptions of the homes and rated them from E for Exceptional, K for Key and C for Contributive.

E-rated structures are usually in excellent condition and “unique.” Some of them, such as the houses on Moss Point, Pyne Castle and Villa Rockledge are eligible for the National Register of Historical Homes.

Buildings with a K rating strongly maintain their original integrity and demonstrate a particular style or time period, according to the city’s Historic Resources Element in the General Plan.

Cs contribute to the overall character of a neighborhood, not distinctive, but still important to the street scape. The cottages on Third Street that were moved to make way for the Community/Senior Center are examples of C-rated homes

The home at 451 Hawthorne was K-rated on the inventory and the owners asked to have it approved for the registry and a Mills Act agreement — a request that was unanimously denied in June by the nine-member Heritage Committee.


The committee advised architect Marshall Innins that changes in materials from the inventoried description and photograph had seriously compromised the integrity of the house.

Built in 1924, the house was described in the inventory as a two-story Craftsman with shingled siding. “Exposed rafters, embellished bargeboard and elongated shingles complete the Craftsman statement,” according the listing.

The committee objected to alterations such as the addition of brick veneer, shingles replaced by siding, and changes in the railing design, the garage doors, roofing materials and color scheme on what used to be called the Mustard House.

Innins was advised to provide a historic analysis report prepared by a city-qualified expert on the historic integrity of the renovation.

Consultant Jeanette McKenna, who has 30 years’ experience in the field, was hired. She concluded the restoration was exemplary and the house now merited an E rating, based on federal guidelines, including Criterion C — “a unique and excellent example of a 1920s Craftsman residence reflecting much of its original design and materials.”

The committee was not swayed and the matter was taken to the council.

“This restoration was one of the best I have ever seen,” McKenna told the council. “It is an excellent example of a 1920s house that the city should be proud of and you would be hard-pressed to find a better restoration.”

McKenna said the committee based its decision on the city’s Historic Inventory, which she described as a “drive-by inspection.” “I am touched when people put their hearts into a home that has so much history and I am inclined to reward them,” Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson said.


Councilwoman Jane Egly said she was influenced by McKenna’s report, although she still had reservations.

“I am no an expert,” Egly said. “This is a very nice house, but I am concerned that just because you improve an old house doesn’t mean you have restored it. There is quite a bit of difference.”

Councilwoman Toni Iseman, who owns an older home, also expressed some reservations, but she and Egly eventually stilled their qualms and voted to approve the application.

Mayor Kelly Boyd, a fourth-generation Lagunan, could see little difference in the before and after examples.

While recognizing the committee role as advisory to officials elected to make decisions, committee member Bonnie Hano said the council’s verdict was disappointing, “to say the least.”

“We think we are appointed to preserve Laguna’s historical structures,” Hano said. The committee has turned down some requests for heritage status by prominent property owners who did not comply with the guidelines — at least at first.

“We need to make specific points clear to the council,” Madison said.

Furthermore, he is going to recommend that the city follow the procedure used for the renovation of the Old Pottery Place, formerly the Pottery Shack.

“The Pottery Shack was too big a project and too important to let the applicant pick a consultant,” Madison said. The consultant for 451 Hawthorne was hired by the applicant.

“We learned our lesson and we will take steps to rectify that loophole,” Madison said.

The city’s policies are even more strict than the state’s requirements for heritage status and the committee is proud of the job they do in providing guidance to applicants.

“We are nine people with different expertise, different viewpoints, but we all have the same goal: trying to keep Laguna’s charm,” Madison said.

The “we” also includes architects Linda Morgenlander, Jim Henry and Carl Ivorson; historian Anne Frank; Realtor Rick Gold; former city employee Tamara Campbell, who helped develop the city’s historic ordinance; Village preservation vigilante Hano; and Mollie Bing, whose family is rooted in Laguna’s history.

Visit the city’s for more information about the register and the Historical Resources Element.

For more information about the Mills Act, contact Heritage Committee staff liaison Nancy Csira at (494) 497-0322.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail