The Sawdust Facade – A look Back at the Origins of This Whimsical Creation

written by Liz Goldner

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Few structures embody the artistic nature and quirkiness of Laguna Beach as vividly as the Sawdust Art Festival facade. This distinctive edifice, which welcomes visitors traveling here on Canyon Road, features several architectural styles reflective of the community surrounding it.

The fact is that the facade has become such an integral part of the gateway to our city that many residents and visitors take its presence for granted. But ask the Sawdust’s long-time exhibitors about this structure and you’ll learn that before it was constructed in 1988, the festival built a temporary, rambling, rough-hewn facade nearly every year. Then inquire as to how this magical facade was designed and built, and you’ll hear about Jim Lashley, a long-time Laguna resident and architect who won a contest in 1987 to create a permanent edifice for the event.

I met with Lashley, now almost 80 years old, on a late August afternoon in front of the Sawdust, as throngs of people were entering and leaving. He had traveled to the festival on his bicycle from his downtown home, and was eager to talk about his life as an architect and about how he designed the facade.

Lashley’s father was in the military. “So I grew up all over the place,” the architect says, recalling that he observed all kinds of cultures and buildings. He studied architecture at the University of Southern California, and at one point his roommate decided to move to Laguna and asked Lashley to design a home here for him. The budding architect agreed to do so, soon fell in love with our city—especially with its unusual, vernacular, hand-made houses—and moved here after graduation in the late 1950s. He began working as an architect, creating and remodeling houses all over the city, often in the craftsman style, which features a wide-open interior design and exposed wood and beams.

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In 1987 the Sawdust’s board decided that the festival needed a permanent facade and asked local architects to submit plans. Resident Patti Ohsland, for whom Lashley had designed a home, recommended that he enter this design contest. As a resident for nearly 30 years, he had been observing our city’s unique architecture, and he chose several houses that he admired as models for the festival’s main edifice and for its adjoining west and east reconstructions. The Sawdust board liked his plans the best and chose him to create the new facade.

Lashley modeled the festival’s main entrance on one of Laguna’s most iconic houses, “The Witch’s House” on Wave Street in north Laguna. Designed and built in the late 1920s by Los Angeles architect Vernon Barker, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Lashley explains that when this and other houses were built in the early 20th century, Laguna had no building department and no codes; therefore, architects could design eccentric residences with little oversight. Today the Sawdust’s main entrance and the Witch’s House are like congenial cousins, with each featuring steep, soaring gables facing in different directions, irregular shake shingles and variously shaped windows, some broad, others tall and narrow, along with oddly angled doors. Both buildings also contain prominently displayed stone chimneys recalling similar structures out of fairy tales. And both are built mainly of wood (although the Sawdust’s main edifice includes stucco for durability).

The west facade of the Sawdust, to the right of the main entrance, is the most fanciful and eclectic. Lashley explains that this design is based on a vintage house on High Drive. Indeed, a home with similar features with extensive use of natural rock and a chimney can be seen there. Yet Lashley’s design also incorporates Provincial features including an arched doorway and window, an asymmetrical shape, and a silo-type tower or chimney. Adding to the west section’s storybook character are intricate, colorful tiles bordering the arched doorway and window and dividing the lower stone work from the upper wooden walls. Local ceramic artist Marlo Bartels created and installed this tile work.

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The east facade encompasses the most traditional design of the three Sawdust edifices. For this section, Lashley copied the look of a Cotswold-style house on Virginia Park Drive near Laguna Beach High School. The English Cotswald style, similar to homes depicted in children’s books, features stucco walls, a large central chimney, simulated thatched roofs and steep arched gables. Just to the right of this edifice there is a low-slung facade, made primarily of wood, with pitched roofs and square symmetrical windows. It was inspired by the American Craftsman style of architecture, and in particular by a residence on the corner of Carmelita and Pearl Streets.

While Jim Lashley’s Sawdust facade is a durable, creative reflection of the artistic community surrounding it, he has kept a low profile for most of his life, and his architectural plans have seldom been extolled by the community. In 2012, however, the Sawdust erected a plaque near its main entrance. It reads, “In tribute to JIM LASHLEY, Laguna Beach Architect and Artist, Designer of the Sawdust Art Festival facade and permanent buildings in 1988, inspired by early houses of Laguna Beach … with gratitude and admiration by the Board of Directors and Artists.”

The Sawdust Art Festival’s Winter Wonderland features artwork, jewelry, clothing, blown glass, ceramics, woodwork, metals, painting, photography, sculpture, clothing and more. There are also outdoor cafes, art classes, live entertainment, a petting zoo and even Santa. The event runs five weekends from November 19 through December 18, 2016, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. sawdustartfestival.org

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