Opinion: This is where we live

571 Graceland Dr.

Written by Hunter Fuentes and John Stordahl

Historic homeowner Shelley Katke is located outside 571 Graceland. Built around 1895, the house is one of the oldest homes in the city. Photography: Hunter Fuentes

You don’t always find your dream home; Sometimes, it finds you. Shelley Katke raised five children in a large home in San Clemente. In 2014, she began a new chapter in her life. Shelley began looking for a new home and fell in love with the first house she was shown, 571 Graceland. The previous owner was a talented designer who completed an extensive and tasteful remodel. Shelley always loved the energy of Laguna, but had never considered living in a historic home. She was enchanted. This house spoke to her.

Julia Morgan, the pioneering architect best known for her work on Hearst Castle, once observed that “Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves.”

Some have more to say than others. 571 Graceland has a lot to say.

The interior of 571 Graceland, built by Joseph Yoch as a multi-purpose building to serve many needs in the growing Laguna community during the turn of the century. Photography: Hunter Fuentes

Standing proudly as one of the city’s oldest homes, the original rectangular clapboard and clapboard structure (about 40 feet by 20 feet) was built by Joseph Joch around 1895, not as a home but as a multi-purpose building to serve many needs in the growing community. Joch was a visionary who recognized Laguna’s uniqueness and potential. He invested most of the capital that started the small town. The small building was constructed next to the original Laguna Hotel, the predecessor to the large inn located at the corner of Laguna Avenue and the Coastal Highway. In its early years, it was called the “Pavilion” and then the “Art Gallery.” A historical assessment describes the building as having served as “an informal town hall, church, dance hall, funeral parlor, and wedding chapel.”

It was also the first incarnation of the Laguna Beach Art Gallery, hosting its first exhibition in July 1918. The painters who established Laguna Beach as a famous art colony, Cuprin, Hills, Wendt, and Klitsch among others, hung their works on these walls. Thousands of visitors, including such notables as President Wilson and Helen Keller, visited the gallery each year. As the city grew in size and reputation, it outgrew the small building and was replaced by the current Laguna Art Museum, built on Cliff Drive in 1929. This brought about a new purpose and location for the old gallery.

Frederick Schwankowski, a leader in the city’s artistic community, offered to give the small building a new home on an open lot next to his residence on Graceland Drive. It was moved from Coastal Highway, where it had stood for nearly three decades, to its new location, where it served as the site of the “Little Art Theater.” Many structures in Laguna were moved and in the days before foundations were laid, it was relatively common to move a building to a new location. At the time of its move, the building had only three sides. The actors, under the direction of Wayne Moore, performed in the open-side moving structure in front of a crowd of hundreds who followed the exhibit as it moved to its new home. Only in Laguna! For years, dozens of people filled the theater for multiple performances each month until changes in fire regulations led to the forced closing of the theater in the late 1930s. Schwankowski and his wife, Nellie Mae, converted the building into their residence and art studio. They added a new wing to the original structure that includes a large kitchen and several bedrooms. Windows and doors were moved to better meet the needs of different rooms. A dramatic two-sided fireplace and a curved staircase leading to the private bedroom suite have been added. Part of the staircase wall is made from the front door of the original Laguna Hotel, which was purchased for only fifty cents. The old gallery space remains the heart of the house. The raised stage forms a beautiful, elevated nook at one end with a dramatic loft above. With all its interesting characteristics, the house would be featured on the KCOP television program in April 1965 called “Southern California Resources.” The episode was hosted by Schwankowski’s daughter, Betty, California Historic Landmarks, and used the house as an example of how to preserve the building as part of the state’s history.

Schwankowski was Laguna’s character. He was a gifted artist, theosophist, yoga lover, and political radical. He was also an art teacher at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where his most prominent student was the young Jackson Pollock, who considered “Shwame” one of the most important influences in his life. Schwankowski even directed the Pageant of the Masters in 1946, when it was revived after being suspended during the war. He lived in the home until the 1960s and died in Humboldt County in 1974.

The house has only had a few owners since. The key to living in an old house is to embrace the history and not try to overdo it, Shelley says. Her nine grandchildren fill the house with laughter and excitement during summer and holiday visits, an echo of those crowds from years past. Its extensive art collection fills the walls and the old gallery lives on. Every building has a story. This person celebrates and embraces his many roles, worthy of the applause of many generations.

Hunter Fuentes is a local resident and Realtor with Compass in Laguna Beach, who specializes in historic architecture. John Stordahl has lived in Laguna for over 20 years and is a retired history teacher.

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