Coast Inn: Forgotten history is brought alive in new website with photos – it needs your memories too


Photos courtesy Carolyn Smith Burris

Whenever the Coast Inn is mentioned in articles these days, the hotel – one of the three oldest in Laguna Beach, along with Hotel Laguna and Camino del Casa – seems almost inevitably paired with the Boom Boom Room, the bar that during the eighties and nineties gained a deep and abiding reputation as a fun, and safe, gathering spot for gay people. 

The scourge of AIDS during those years only intensified the loyalty of its customers, who regarded it as a safe haven, a place to gain solace as well as to forget, for a while, the horrors of the disease and enjoy camaraderie with friends and lovers. 

It’s no wonder the Boom looms large in Laguna’s history.

Which, Carolyn Smith Burris, granddaughter of the Coast Inn’s original builder and long-time owner, “Pappy” Smith, fully understands and appreciates. 

Preserving the history of Coast Inn’s first 50 years

However, Smith Burris is on a mission to ensure that the story of the hotel’s first 50-plus years – from its opening in 1929 – is also recognized, honored and preserved, because, she says, much of that history has been obscured or distorted over time. 

Smith Burris tells Stu News that she wants her family’s role in Laguna’s history – and, by definition, the Coast Inn’s historical role – to become better known and, she hopes, acknowledged in some key way in future iterations of the hotel.

“That will need the City’s support,” she says.

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The first three hotels in Laguna Beach

With that in mind, Smith Burris, working with historians, has just completed a comprehensive website containing a detailed timeline of the Coast Inn’s history and ownership. The timeline in particular, replete with old newspaper clippings and photos, should be of great value to researchers.

She’s also asking locals with memories of the hotel’s past to contribute to her website with their memories – already she has some contributions from people like childhood friend Mayor Kelly Boyd, who as a third-generation Lagunan also has knowledge of those halcyon days. (Boyd recently republished a book that his grandfather, J.S. Thurston, wrote back in 1947, “Laguna Beach of Early Days.”)

“The Coast Inn played such an enormous role in Laguna’s early existence. The population was in the 300s when it first opened. It quickly became a local gathering place known for its community spirit,” Smith Burris says. 

“My grandfather opened up the stairs to the beach to everyone the minute they were built. That community spirit has endured throughout its existence.”

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Coast Inn as it looked from 1933 - 1954

The website also contains some fascinating anecdotes about Laguna’s early social life. A newspaper clipping from 1933 highlights the visit of “world’s champion swimmer Buster Crabb” who, the headline reads (proving that puns are nothing new) “Long Swim for Crabb” who apparently circled the USS Coronado battleship lying two and a half miles offshore.

Clippings also talk about fireworks on the beach, and a “wiener and marshmallow roast” (proving that tastes do change over time).

South Seas Bar becomes internationally famous

“Especially in the forties, the South Seas Bar [which opened in 1936] became famous all over the world as a gathering place for military families,” Smith Burris says. “I was told that ladies would fly out from New York City for a weekend because the hotel was known to attract such a fun-loving beach crowd.

“This fame grew during the years of the Second World War and Coast Inn became even more well-known internationally as military guys, stationed at El Toro, traveled to Korea and back during the fifties,” she adds.

The South Seas countertop bar was glass over a fish tank with live fish. Mogens Abel, patriarch of the Abel family, still well-known artists in town, painted a mural that graced the South Seas room, with its Polynesian/tiki themes. 

In the fifties, an annual May 1 beach party was initiated, to the delight of the community, who clearly knew how to party, based on the photos on the website.

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Partying during one of the Coast Inn’s famous beach parties

Smith Burris notes, “Coast Inn is a key part of our history as a community – I think of the first three hotels as the tripod on which our town was built. I want the city to support and acknowledge that early history as we approach the centennial of our town’s founding.  I don’t want that lost.”

Smith Burris agrees that it is personal for her, given her family connections. She has strong memories of the place and recalls many wonderful anecdotes told to her by her beloved grandmother Caroline. 

“Yes, it’s personal,” she says. “But it’s also vital to the town that we don’t forget the past of these three hotels, that we honor their role in our community, and make the effort to embrace their entire history, not just parts of it.”

Carolyn Smith Burris’s website can be found at