I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see Villa Rockledge last week, and joined an open house “preview” of this fabled oceanfront property in South Laguna.
After 35 years in the same hands, this storied residence is now on the market. Asking price is $34.9 million — which includes one of the only private beaches in Laguna.
That may seem like a lot of money, especially in this market. But Villa Rockledge is not just another run-of-the-mill sumptuous homestead for the rich and famous. It’s on the National Registry of Historic Places and has a pedigree that includes old California and old Hollywood. And it simply reeks of Laguna character.
According to lore, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Errol Flynn and a host of other stars of the golden age of movies spent time at Villa Rockledge. That’s a fun fact, but the actual place is even more impressive.
The home is built on a steep cliff overlooking a sandy cove, and it’s said that you can’t appreciate it fully unless you see it from the ocean — so of course I soon found a route to the beach to get that view.
The sound of crashing waves thunders through the place, and yet it has a secluded charm, with winding stone steps leading from outbuildings to the main house, and, of course, that precipitous walk to the beach.
According to historical sources, it was built in 1918 (completed in 1922) by the early California developer and art collector Frank A. Miller — who developed the landmark Mission Inn in Riverside — as a beach home for his wife; hence the original name, “Mariona.”
Miller and his architect, Arthur Benton, were evidently smitten by Mission and Spanish-influenced architecture, which they used to create places of historic grandeur — and concretized a “California” style of architecture.
Miller’s “twin” projects — Mariona on the ocean and the Mission Inn inland — evolved over the many years that he built, developed and lived in them, adding rooms and buildings, and perfecting their designs.
What is now known as Villa Rockledge has a dashing, yet dreamlike quality, as if one has just stepped into an Errol Flynn movie.
Many of its rooms have fireplaces, a necessity on winter mornings near the sea, but this is no refurbished board-and-batten shotgun bungalow. It was built to last, and despite being perched at the edge of a cliff, it is solid and surprisingly homey. No wonder, with its solid mahogany floors and castle-like structure.
I was enchanted by the sea-weathered turret that overlooks the ocean, and the little details that remain: a brine-crusted rope railing that keeps you from falling as you navigate the beach steps; the slightly decrepit bridge over a tidepool; the sheltered “rooms” of sand on the tiny beach.
Outside the living quarters, there are nooks and crannies, overgrown stone stairways, stepping-stones and foot bridges; inside, steep staircases that lead to sumptuously furnished rooms with windows to the sea. Doorways are sometimes large and spacious, and others are impossibly narrow, reminding me of the old Spanish forts we used to visit in Key West — built to withstand the onslaught of pirates.
In one entryway, a bare-wood glazed-over mirror with a weather-beaten shell design hangs as if waiting for a long-gone princess. In some of the larger rooms, huge casement windows open to the sea.
It’s no wonder the Villa, with its aura of romance and mystery, has been a popular spot for weddings as well as vacation rentals. In addition to the main house, with four bedrooms and nine fireplaces, there are six “villas” — small apartments with kitchens and fireplaces of their own.
In fact, according to the Laguna Beach Historical Society, the current owner, Roger Jones, purchased it in 1973 after being a tenant in one of the apartments for five years. He restored it after an unfortunate incident with a cement truck caused considerable damage the same year. It was reopened in 1975 with fanfare befitting a place of such splendor, with politicians and national press at hand.
Let’s hope the new owner will have the same sense of history — and of the splendor of this perfectly Laguna place.
CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.