Along the Crystal Cove coast, once chaparral-covered hills are dotted with miniature villas and a shopping center. Lining the ridges of Laguna Canyon are houses of ever-increasing square footage. And along the once sleepy Coast Highway, a consistent stream of cars stop and go. But centered around a wishing well on a small section of Manzanita Drive, Laguna Beach is still the cozy, bohemian community it once was. And for about $1,400 a week, you can be a part of it.
As most every Orange Countian knows, the 1920s saw the birth of an artists' community in Laguna's pristine coastal canyon. Bohemians came for the cheap land and inspiring setting. Soon, Laguna became a resort community as well, drawing Hollywood bigwigs south with its simple charms. Among them was film producer Harry Greene, who commissioned local architect Thomas "Harper to create a small compound of cottages where he could take friends for relaxing getaways. The cottages, five in all, were built in 1927 with a unique blending of Old World and Laguna flavors. In the 1930s, they were sold to Jane Gilman and her artist sister E. Willoughby Chamberlain, who maintained ownership of this little architectural jewel until 1998, when they sold it to fourth-generation Californians—who have proved to be deserving caretakers. With an intent to turn the now-named Manzanita Cottages into a vacation rental property, they spend six months on a meticulous restoration/renovation, which took some of the cottage walls down to the slats, through the original fixtures and hardware were maintained whenever possible. Recreating and preserving the soul of the 1930's in this little enclave was their driving desire.
It's rumored that Joan Crawford and her husband Franchot Tone once enjoyed the Yellow Cottage, but certainly not more than we did. Nancy Duesenberg of Duesenberg Designs in Newport Beach made the most of the 500—square-foot interior—with its hardwood floors, whimsical archways, petite rooms, and rounded ceilings—using warm, period-accurate colors, vintage posters, books, and plain-air artwork to transport guests through time. The warm rose and blue of the tiny kitchen we captured on film, for future inspiration, when we manage to buy our own little dream bungalow. In the bedroom, as in all the cottages, a very non-period king-sized bed made the perfect place for gazing out into the private, tiled garden courtyard.
One of the most serendipitous developments in the restoration: The necessary termite treatment killed all the exterior plants. They called in local landscape designer Molly Wood, who researched the foliage used in Pasadena bungalow gardens of the 1920s and '30s. She accordingly created an enchanting outdoor space, where roses bloom outside kitchen windows, clumps of lilies add grace, and hummingbirds hover around the tubular orange blossoms of the bush known as "lion's tail." Even post-rainstorm in December, the little garden plots were lush and lovely.
Because the cottages are intended for semi-long term rentals (each has a two-night minimum in the offseason and a one-week minimum stay in the summer), they are stocked with modern necessities: a full-sized refrigerator, small stove, and microwave, dishes, utensils, hairdryers, irons, towels, etc. Both these everyday items and Manzanita's neighborhood location make overnight guests feel like Laguna residents. During our stay we took walks downtown, read by the fire, sat in the garden, and generally found that it was easy to imagine we were living the simple life of the Laguna Beach of yesteryear.
The bargain land is gone in Laguna. Across from the Manzanita Cottages, a two-bedroom home is offered for $1.1 million. Times, they do change. But in Manzanita's colored cottages, all the good things are still the same.