The Laguna Beach that "Mr. Laguna," Harry Lawrence, remembers isn't the Laguna Beach of today.
"It was pretty run-down, especially during the war," Lawrence said. "We made most of what it is today."
By "we," he means the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce and Civic Assn., of which he is undoubtedly the oldest member, and other community-minded activists.
In 1947, when Lawrence arrived in Laguna and bought Warren Imports with his late wife, the city was only 20 years old and, while famous as an art colony, was overgrown with weeds and vines.
Lawrence, who had studied architecture, and five other community members joined together to form a Beautification Committee, which is still active. One of their first projects was to get out and remove the overgrowth, pulling it out by hand.
He had definite ideas about how to improve things, and his attention to detail was legendary, as his wife, Zahide, and Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rose Hancock can attest.
Over the years, Lawrence was an integral part of many things that Lagunans take for granted today. He is credited as instigating the city purchase of the oceanfront at Main Beach, and the removal of a string of bars and restaurants to create the famous "Window to the Sea," opening up the ocean view to the public and creating one of city's chief attractions. It's said that the Third Street hill — a steep but well-used route in and out of downtown — was his idea.
He was instrumental in the creation of a hospital in South Laguna — now Mission Hospital Laguna Beach — and co-signed the note that resulted in the purchase of Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre. And he keeps everything filed away neatly in cabinets. Hancock said she found the original note from the Playhouse purchase in his files and showed it to Playhouse officials, along with a newspaper clipping about the theater. The Playhouse, which turns 90 this year, is planning to honor him Oct. 9 at a gala opening for the play, "I Loved Lucy," she said.
His home office is a treasure trove of artifacts, clippings and photos that not only represent the history of Laguna Beach, but his own personal journey.
Lawrence, who will turn 97 on Oct. 1, traveled extensively as he scoured the world for treasures for his Asian antiquities shop. He has a closet stacked high with photo albums, all meticulously catalogued, from his adventures. There are photographs of trips to China, India, Turkey and points in between.
He recalls one of his first trips, taken in 1952 aboard the Queen Mary. The return trip was on the Queen Elizabeth. But he had already seen 42 of the 48 states by the time he was 18; his father had given him a railroad pass — and a ticket to a life of unfettered freedom. His wanderlust continued, and in 1934 he joined the Merchant Marine. During World War II, he served as an officer in the Navy and was heading out to the Pacific Theater when the war ended.
"It was truly a big adventure," he said of his long life of traveling. But he always came home to Laguna Beach, which he can say with authority is the finest place to live in the world.
"I've traveled to 150 countries, and Laguna Beach is the best place," he said, admiring the view from his home overlooking the pristine tide pools at Moss Point.
Lawrence has been in failing health and now must endure daily kidney dialysis treatments, administered by Zahide, who was a nurse in her native Turkey.
His life has slowed down a bit but he is still enthusiastic about Laguna Beach.
"Never have I have been so proud of the city as I am today," he said. "It's got a good city staff, and interesting people."
The Chamber of Commerce will celebrate Lawrence's birthday at 1 p.m. Oct. 1 at Main Beach. Oct. 1 is "Harry Lawrence Day" in Laguna, and Hancock promises a big birthday cake and many well-wishers. All are invited.