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Hotel Laguna windows, paint vote delayed as commissioners focus on historic significance

By SARA HALL

A decision on exterior paint colors and upper floor windows for the historic Hotel Laguna was delayed last week as the Planning Commission unanimously agreed they wanted a more complete concept that more accurately represented a specific decade in the building’s “period of significance.”

After more than two hours of discussion, commissioners voted 5-0 on Wednesday (Jan. 4) to table the items until March 1. While the proposed paint colors were acceptable, commissioners wanted to see more of an overall conceptual plan (with a more complete color scheme, including awnings) and, although the historic preservation consultant determined the period of significance to be a range between 1930-1950, commissioners wanted the project to focus on the style of the early 1930s, including that the windows appear more wood-like. 

“We do need to get back to something that is more flavorful of the original,” said Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin.

They also asked the applicant, Mo Honarkar, president of Hotel Laguna, LLC, to consider adding an architectural embellishment (as seen in early postcards) above the main entrance of the hotel, located at 425 S. Coast Highway.

There are a number of points that need to be addressed, commissioners agreed.

“I do think there are unanswered questions relative to how to capture the spirit of that 1930s – and even early ‘40s – to the optimal extent without coming up with extremely elaborate, extremely impractical solutions,” said Commissioner Steve Kellenberg. “This is so important, it seems like a little bit more time is justified.” 

There might be an alternative window material that isn’t “ridiculous” from a maintenance and cost standpoint, “but that gets a little closer to the character of what was there historically,” he said. He’d also like to see some thoughts on the historic embellishments, he added.

Several commissioners agreed that the color options were fine and if it weren’t for the other issues, particularly the window material and not knowing the colors of the other project features, like awnings, they might have been able to approve it. 

It’s hard to move forward when they don’t have those details, said Commission Chair Jorg Dubin. They don’t have the full palette of where the project is going to land on a number of aspects, he said. 

“I know this is not what you wanted to hear,” Dubin said to Honarkar. “But this is our front row center, most significant building in town and to not be able to see comprehensive elevations of where this is going to land makes it very hard for us to give any kind of approval on both of these things.” 

Hotel Laguna windows current property

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Commissioners requested that the proposed window material look more like the original wooden windows

The big hang up at the moment is the window material selection, Dubin said.

Last week’s application included design review for the proposed replacement of all guest room windows and fire escape doors on the second and third floors and repainting the exterior of the structure with new body and trim colors for Hotel Laguna. 

A concept review of Hotel Laguna was presented to the Planning Commission on Dec. 1, 2021, and although there weren’t a lot of specific details for the commissioners to comment on at the time, they did discuss the importance of renovating the iconic hotel to align with its historic appearance. Commissioners suggested that the applicant provide historical research and documentation with any future formal applications.

Over the past year, the city has been processing permits and entitlements and overseeing work for the renovation of Hotel Laguna. The interior renovations to the second and third floor guest rooms are currently underway. 

The existing single-paned windows replaced the original wood-framed hung windows in the 1960s. The current windows consist mostly of tripartite mill finish (clear coat) aluminum-framed outward-opening casement windows with a center fixed panel flanked by two smaller casement windows.

The proposed replacements would be one-inch dual-glazed, aluminum frame windows to improve sound attenuation and energy efficiency. They were proposed to be a dark bronze color. 

The original windows were hung windows, vertically operating, wood-framed windows generally two of them separated by a wide center mullion, noted Commission Chair Pro Tem Ken Sadler. Those were replaced many decades ago by the metal windows, he added. 

Restoring the windows back to the historic style isn’t required because the “original wooden windows are history” and the building was evaluated after they had been removed and replaced, he confirmed with the applicant team.

They’re trying to provide an improved appearance of the building, said Robert Chattel, president of Chattel, Inc., the historic preservation consulting firm for the project.

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“It may not be a perfect restoration of the windows, but the general and overall form of the historic windows was two parts with a center mullion,” he explained. “For me, in my interpretation, those are the basis of the analysis.”

The hung style of window, in his interpretation, it’s not a necessary element, Chattel said. The overall shape and form of the window with the center mullion is key to what these windows should be, he added. 

Kellenberg, noting that some residents were concerned about the contemporary look of the proposed windows, asked if they considered other window materials that were better aligned with the spirit of the period of significance.

They looked at a variety of different window options, said DJ Moore of Latham & Watkins, who spoke on behalf of the Laguna Beach Company, the lease owner of the historic hotel. He acknowledged a suggestion from residents for wood windows, but explained why that would be a “bad idea for a commercial building,” on an oceanfront property. 

Wood windows “could require substantial ongoing maintenance and replacement” and “further impact the building over time,” he said. They would be disrupting the Downtown and working on the windows every five or 10 years, Moore said. That’s not a good outcome for the property owner or the community, he added. 

Dubin agreed that wood isn’t a feasible option. It’s a nice dream, he said, but it’s just not going to work in this environment.

While Sadler said he understood the maintenance issue, they were originally wooden hung windows and window construction has improved since the 1930s. There are probably some alternatives that would be more durable but would still have the appearance of wood, he said. 

They should at least try to better replicate the look of the original windows, Sadler emphasized. It was a mistake when they replaced them with the aluminum material they used in the 1960s, he said, and repeating that process now by using those replacement windows as the target would only compound that mistake.

Hotel Laguna windows historic photo 1930s

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Courtesy of Laguna Beach Historical Society

A photo of Hotel Laguna from the 1930s that commissioners directed the applicant to emulate in the rehabilitation project

They are willing to move in the direction of the hung windows, Moore said, but using wood is a lot more difficult.   

When designing the project, they considered other material choices, he said.

The windows were not necessary to achieve eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places that the project received, Moore explained. With a rehabilitation, the windows don’t have to be restored to their exact original appearance, he explained. 

“The windows had all lost their integrity because they were all replaced after the period of significance,” Moore said. “The design that we had proposed…is intended to be evocative of that original appearance with the center mullion.”

“So, what you’re saying is, you’re getting as close as you can and still being practical?” Kellenberg asked.

“That’s the idea,” Moore answered. 

Their intent is to not be inconsistent with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, he said. 

Although that shouldn’t be the only guideline for this particular project, Kellenberg replied.

“There’s the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and there’s the community of Laguna Beach standards. Just because the Secretary of the Interior would approve it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for the community,” Kellenberg said. “We’re asking a lot of questions because this is a really important building.”

It’s a landmark building in the city, he added. Another local landmark is the theater, which went through an “incredible amount of detail on getting it right.”

“With that context, when we’re looking at this, it’s like we need to find the right level of ‘getting it right’ regardless of Washington regulations,” Kellenberg said.

Moore asked what material a majority of the commission was leaning toward.

“In my opinion, if it has the look and feel of a wood window, then fine. If it looks like that,” Sadler said, pointing to the sample sitting on the dais that the applicant brought in, “then not so much.”

It looks too modern and contemporary, he said. 

The proposed window style is also too bulky, Dubin added. 

They don’t have a clear and direct answer, Kellenberg noted, suggesting the applicant team return with softer options that have more of a wood appearance and aren’t so high contrast.

“We are really troubled with this,” Kellenberg added. 

Commissioners also discussed narrowing down the period of significance (1930s-1950s) to a specific timeframe and focus on what “postcard” look is actually relevant, Whitin said. 

Chattel submitted the evaluation of the period of significance, which was approved and certified by National Park Service staff. He acknowledged the commissioners’ interest in the earlier period. 

“I think that the direction, that I suspect both the applicant and the commission could probably narrow in and focus on, are these few photographs, that show a darker window…and a fairly simple color palette,” he said. 

Hotel Laguna windows postcard 1930s

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Postcard image courtesy of City of Laguna Beach

A postcard from the 1930s shows an architectural embellishment above the main entrance of Hotel Laguna

Kellenberg pointed out a postcard of the same era shows an emblem or medallion in an inset at the top of the building, above the main entrance on Coast Highway. It was painted a darker color (appearing to match the trim) and added architectural interest. That feature has disappeared over time and it’s become a flat surface, he noted. 

“If we were focusing on this era and using this era to justify the darker window sills, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t also, then, look at the medallion embellishment,” Kellenberg said. 

The inset design was an important architectural feature in the 1930s, he added. 

“Clearly the original architect saw that as a place to create a visual accent on the primary entry portion of the building,” Kellenberg said.

Dubin thought it looked like a shield or tile, possibly featuring the letters H and L. It’s an interesting focal point of the architecture, especially for that era, he said.

“It would be a nice option to maybe do something there that has that flavor of the original, of how the building looked when it was originally there,” Dubin said. “Those are the kinds of things that would bring it back to that historic vision of the original architect and the city itself.”

There might be features buried under stucco that could come back to life, he added. 

Chattel noted that there likely wasn’t sufficient documentation to accurately reconstruct that feature, since it no longer exists.

It doesn’t need to be reconstructed exactly as shown, Kellenberg said, but clearly the original architect saw it as a place to create a visual focal point above the primary entry portion of the building.

“It’s an opportunity to do something of an accent or an artistic (feature) or a mural or something that could reflect the original intention of this period,” Kellenberg said. 

Chattel said he’d be happy to prepare elevation drawings that show what colors would be where. Several commissioners liked the idea of conceptual color drawings.

He also noted that none of the earlier photos are colorized, so they don’t know the actual color of the trim and awnings, just that they were a dark shade. 

Honarkar, who pointed out that the postcards aren’t historically accurate representations, confirmed the plan was for the awnings to be black.

Commissioners also commented on the piecemealing process for the rehabilitation project. 

“(The) pieces don’t give us a full picture of where this is going to land at the end of the day when it’s complete,” Dubin said. “It’s hard to process this stuff without having those answers.”

Regarding the piecemealing, Moore explained that only portions are before the Planning Commission because there was a “chunk of approvals” that are now being appealed to the California Coastal Commission that could affect the ground floor. Meanwhile, they want to get the other hotel rooms open. 

“And in order to re-open the rooms, you need to get the windows replaced,” he concluded. 

There were only a few public speakers, but all commented on the importance of matching the original as much as possible. It shouldn’t be based on the cheapest or fastest option, the speakers agreed. 

The windows as proposed look too modern and will stick out, Catherine Jurca said. They were previously replaced with something incompatible, she noted, that doesn’t mean they should be replaced again with another incompatible style. 

Wood windows can be energy efficient and, with regular maintenance, won’t need frequent replacement, she suggested. 

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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