In early times, local Indians thrived on the rich coastal lands and freshwater canyon lakes that made up the area they named Lagonas, for ‘lake.'
By the late 1800s, visitors were making an annual pilgrimage on rutted trails through the canyons to camp at Laguna Beach each summer. By the time painter Norman St. Clair visited from San Francisco in 1903, Laguna already had become a popular tourist destination with a hotel: the Hotel Laguna.
Like tourists of any era, St. Clair returned home with glowing reports and landscape paintings that led his artist friends to follow him south. It wasn't long before Plein Air artists like William Wendt and California marine artist Frank Cuprien moved to Laguna Beach.
Within a few years, Laguna Beach had a permanent population of about 300 people - half of whom were artists.
In 1918, artist Edgar Payne opened an art gallery that later became the Laguna Art Museum, one of the first art museums in the state.
The early Depression years weren't kind to the art community, and in 1932 the Festival of Arts staged its first show near Hotel Laguna, hoping to draw some additional business to town after the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Artist and vaudevillian Lolita Perine added ‘living pictures' to the festival, launching the tradition of the Pageant of the Masters.
The city had already caught the eye of Hollywood filmmakers. Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Mary Pickford, Judy Garland, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Rooney maintained homes in town. Later, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson joined them.
During World War II, servicemen stationed in the area became acquainted with the Orange County coast - and many of them came back to live later on.
The Surf & Sand opened in 1948; its restaurant became popular with a long list of notable personalities that included Peter Ustinov, Joe Namath and Billy Graham.
By the 1960s, the Main Beach boardwalk was transformed into an open public beach park. The decade brought other changes, too. A group of artists who thought the Festival of Arts was too restrictive in accepting exhibitors began the Sawdust Festival, and the Art-A-Fair followed a year later to focus on traditional arts and new mediums.
As an art colony in the 1960s, the city experienced its share of the ‘hippie' culture as well, but that gave way to a new group of people who put the small town on the map: the White House Press Corps.
During the Nixon years, when President Nixon visited his home in San Clemente, the press corps took up residence at the Surf & Sand. Fledgling reporters like Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer were frequent guests. Newscasters would do stand-ups from the beach in front of the hotel.
As Orange County continued to develop in the 1980s and beyond, environmentalists worked to create a Greenbelt of preserved land around Laguna Beach, purchasing some and getting other land donated from the Irvine Company.
Today, Laguna Beach has become a full-fledged resort town. Its newest addition is the Montage Laguna Beach, which draws its own Hollywood crowd, including sometime-resident Heather Locklear.
Locals and visitors alike can stroll in the new public park that was created along with the Montage, explore tide pools and enjoy the sunsets over the Pacific, just as the Indians, Spaniards and early artists who recognized Laguna's charm did in times gone by.
Laguna's universal allure is best expressed on a famous gate built in 1935 that today stands at the corner of Forest and Park Avenues. It reads, "This gate hangs well and hinders none, refresh and rest, then travel on."
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