Bette Davis, Hippies and a Pirate Tower – Visit Laguna’s Past

The coastal city of Laguna Beach has lived through a colorful past, one that has helped shape it to be the city it is today.

From a world-renowned artist's first mural masterpiece to Hollywood film stars that lived in the city or visited regularly. Prohibition to the free-loving hippie movement to a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, Laguna Beach has seen it all and has prospered because of it. So the next time you are out and about exploring Laguna Beach, take some time to seek out some of the historical sites and places that are now a part of Laguna's past but will always live on through stories and memories. 

A Colorful History

Prohibition in Laguna Beach 

During the prohibition era, Laguna Beach was one of the places you could easily, although illegal, find a drink to quench your thirst. Rumrunners in the 1920s brought liquor to the secluded beaches and coves of Laguna Beach from Canada, transferring it to smaller boats, which were often painted black. Legend has it that one evening, a boat filled with a precious cargo of Scotch whiskey washed up on the sand, after venturing too close to the rocks. 

It didn't take long for the news to spread and locals rushed down to the waters to grab as many bottles as they could. Visit Fisherman's Cove and the White House to see where the Mob ran whiskey and rum into Orange County through Laguna Beach. What is now the White House Restaurant used to be Orange County's Speakeasy during prohibition. Visitors can still see the back door entrance today in the alley behind the restaurant. *

Laguna's Counterculture Movement 

With such a colorful history during the prohibition era, it should come as no surprise that Laguna Beach became the stomping grounds for the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Timothy Leary in 1967. Known as the "Hippie Mafia," the Brotherhood produced and distributed drugs, in hopes of starting a psychedelic revolution in the United States, and they were doing it all from Laguna Beach. 

Leary was arrested regularly and was held in twenty-nine different prisons throughout the world, with one incident occurring on Woodland Drive in Laguna Beach in 1968, when he was arrested for possession of marijuana. From December 25-27, 1970, the "Christmas Happening" was staged in Laguna Canyon. Nearly 25,000 people looking to disconnect from reality by getting really high attended an event dubbed "Woodstock West," and they could do so freely as the drugs were running rampant throughout the event. 

At one time during the event, a small plane swooped over the gathering and dropped thousands of Christmas cards, each containing a dose of Orange Sunshine, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love's brand of LSD. The canyon today isn't privy to magical Christmas cards but it's not hard to imagine it filled with happy, loving people when visiting this creative corner of town.*

Star of the Silver Screen

Bette Davis Eyes

Did you know Bette Davis once lived in Laguna Beach? She also often performed at The Laguna Playhouse in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Her historic California English Tudor home in Wood's Cove is a must-see attraction in Laguna Beach. The home was built in 1929 and is registered as a historic structure. The home is located off of Diamond Street...just look closely for the chimney with a big letter "D" on it, a decorative touch that Ms. Davis added when she moved in.

Artist of the Deep Blue Sea

The Original Whaling Wall 

World famous marine life artist Robert Wyland, who still lives in Laguna Beach when he is in town, is almost synonymous with the city as his art gallery is one of the most visited spots in town. Behind his gallery on the back deck, visitors can also enjoy a 180-degree view of the beach, making it a double whammy as guests can enjoy the incredible works of art and then step out to see where he gets a lot of his inspiration from. His first whaling wall also happens to be in Laguna Beach and makes for a great photo, especially since it's the original, and there are now over 100 others around the world

Iconic Laguna Architecture

Victoria Tower 

Commonly referred to as the "Pirate Tower", this iconic Laguna Beach attraction comes with a unique history. At the foot of the cliff on Victoria Beach is a sixty-foot tower with a spired roof. Built in 1926, it was designed to house a spiral staircase linking the house on Victoria Drive above with the beach below. Eccentric to say the least, but as the years went by, and new owners moved in, the tower remained. 

One of the home's former owners really played up the pirate tale by occasionally dressing up as a pirate, hiding gold coins in the gaps and crevices of the tower's concrete exterior, as a treasure hunt for local children. Today, the tower is locked and the staircase is inaccessible. 

Although the tower serves no functional purpose, it's become pretty famous on social media, as its presence is unexpected and makes for a really fantastic backdrop to any photo. *

St Francis Cathedral

This tiny church in Laguna Beach was at one time the smallest Catholic Cathedral in the world, although it has since lost its title and now sits in the number two spot. Perched on Park Avenue, St Francis Cathedral is one of the only few American Catholic cathedrals in the country. 

Constructed in 1933 out of rubble from the Long Beach earthquake, it's now a national landmark, once listed by the Guinness Book of Records. The actual building only measures seventeen feet by sixty feet, and holds a maximum of forty-eight people for services. The architecture and mere size of the church make it an interesting place to visit. *

The Lumberyard 

The iconic restaurant in Laguna Beach is named such because it used to be a lumberyard! The Normandy-style restaurant, which was built in 1919, was the home of Laguna Lumber until it moved to the canyon in 1975. 

The building then became a place to eat; for many years it was the Ivy House (ivy had grown to cover the roof); now it's simply the Lumberyard. Laguna Lumber provided approximately 90% of the wood for Laguna's early buildings. The original architect was well known Chris Abel and his son, Gregg Abel, did the most recent renovation.

LGBTQ History in Laguna Beach

Laguna's First Gay Bar

The Seahorse is a neighborhood beer and wine bar that is located inside Pearl St. General in the Pearl District of Laguna Beach. The historic building has had many incarnations since 1926 when it first opened as a liquor store and hardware store. In 1946 it became The Seahorse, Laguna's first gay bar, having to operate as a secret watering hole for decades. Today, The Seahorse celebrates diversity and inclusion as all are welcomed to enjoy the craft and micro brew beers, wines by the glass & bottle and creative bar food.

Boom Boom No More 

At one time, Laguna Beach was home to the Boom Boom Room, a gay bar that served as a safe space for many Orange County residents as well as others who would drive from far to be able to have a place where they felt welcomed. The enormous bar was once a place where Rock Hudson and Paul Lynde partied, and a place where a guy could enjoy a martini while checking out the bronzed bodies of the surfers coming off the beach. 

The bar has been closed for years, but still stands in the same spot, mostly untouched inside, as if time stood still inside and moved on outside. It's unknown how long the building will remain so it's worth visiting for a bit of nostalgic LGBTQ history in Laguna Beach. Or visit during Laguna Beach Pride when it's been known that The Boom opens for a one-day party event. 

Last Man Standing 

Main Street Bar & Cabaret is another of Laguna Beach's infamous bars, which has been welcoming and accepting of everyone for over 60 years. Located right on Coast Highway, the unassuming exterior of the bar is nothing compared to what you'll find on the inside. Stop by for a drink, stay for karaoke, try your luck at Drag Queen Bingo or just dance the night away, no matter what you decide, a visit to Laguna's last queer bar is a must.

* Content for this article is from the book “101 Things to Love About Laguna Beach” by authors, Sally Eastwood and Helen Polins-Jones. The book is available for purchase at Laguna Beach Books. 

About the Author

David Duran

Wordsmith

David Duran is an award winning travel writer who has traveled to all seven continents and more than 70 countries. His work focuses on general destination and luxury travel as well as culinary, hospitality and airlines. He has contributed to such publications as Travel+Leisure, Jetsetter, The New York Post, Fodor’s and Southbay Magazine. In addition, he has written for every major LGBT publication in the US as well as several others overseas.