From house replicas to creative sculptures, Laguna mailboxes transcend the traditional.
By Sharon Stello
In this artsy town, even the mailboxes are masterpieces: Animal shapes from fish to cows, near perfect house replicas and impressive sculptures dot the streets, waiting for each day’s letters and packages to arrive. Some of the mailboxes that resemble little homes are like dioramas complete with figurines and elaborate landscaping similar to model train scenery. Many of these charming boxes were handmade by the homeowners, lovingly maintained through the years, bringing smiles to the faces of passersby.
Often, a mailbox’s aesthetic matches the residence style—quaint creations paired with historic cottages, modern designs for contemporary abodes, sealife-inspired options for beachside bungalows. The imagination knows no bounds when it comes to these front yard conversation starters.
Helen Shirley, a postal carrier for 26 years—including the last decade in Laguna Beach—is quite familiar with this city’s mailboxes, which are anything but typical. In north Laguna, she says, some homes have baskets hanging in the trees that serve as receptacles for letters delivered there. In other neighborhoods, the postal contraptions have left Shirley scratching her head in befuddlement, like one puzzling house replica on Catalina Street. “When I first delivered there, it took me like three days to figure out how to open it,” she says. Shirley recalls another that was built into a hedge, hidden from sight. “Delivering mail in Laguna is like being on a scavenger hunt because sometimes you have to seek and figure out how to open the mailboxes,” she says.
For some, the creative mailboxes are like an art exhibit. Local resident and avid walker Janelle Naess enjoys seeing them, along with the area’s architecture and landmarks on her frequent strolls. Naess shares these local treasures by offering free maps for self-guided walking tours on her website, lagunabeachwalks.com. “Walking the neighborhoods of Laguna Beach is like going to an amazing home and garden show where you see new, repurposed and unique decor,” she says. “Every property has something of interest and many homeowners use their mailboxes as their focal point.”
Indeed, from the unique to the thought-provoking and slightly puzzling, these works of art deserve a closer look—and many have a story to tell.
On Ruby Street, attached to a picket fence, a mailbox that looks like a tiny house with a red door and wooden roof was once a discarded tchotchke that received new life at the home of Judi Patterson. “I found it in Orange on the street, left over from a garage sale,” Patterson says. She picked it up and brought it home, where she painted it, covered it with seashells and added a bird on it. Patterson loves a good find and decorates her 1938 cottage with repurposed items, changing the decor all the time. “I’m a flea market person,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a thing in my house that’s not from a flea market.” For 24 years, Patterson has lived in the 900-square-foot home, a quaint structure that needed a mailbox to match. “It wouldn’t be fun not to have a cute mailbox,” she says. During the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, she says artists have come by and painted pictures of her house and mailbox (whose little red door mimics the bright color on her own home’s door and front gate). It’s a charming scene that’s quintessential Laguna.
On Glenneyre Street, a standard metal mailbox sits atop a rusted, early 1950s cruiser bicycle, which owner Yank Sefton installed in front of his home in 1993. “As different … [as] the houses are in Laguna Beach, I thought it would also help to break away from the traditional mailbox look-alike,” Sefton says. “While visiting the big Elkhart flea market in Wisconsin in ’93, I saw the bike in a vendor’s booth, pumping me to take her home with [me] back to California. So I bought her, packed her up and shipped her back to California on an Amtrak train to Oceanside where we met once again and I peddled her back to Laguna Beach. (Actually, I put her in my truck as she was too tired to be peddled all the way home).” It took Sefton one day to assemble his mailbox holder, welding the bike to 3-inch pipes imbedded in concrete for security. Now, it’s an eye-catcher, getting the thumbs up and occasional “wow,” much like Sefton’s classic car. “I receive nice comments all the time, especially from visiting tourists who happen to be walking by,” Sefton says. “And it is all a great reference point when telling people where I live.”
An English Tudor-style house stands on Catalina Street with a replica home serving as the mailbox out front. The design resembles that of the full-size residence with its wood-shingled roof and decorative “half-timbering,” a kind of exposed wood framework over white stucco walls. “It’s been here probably since the ’50s,” says owner Madeline McLendon, who inherited the mailbox when she bought the house 46 years ago. “It’s a cute idea to do that,” McLendon says of the alternative box. She takes care of it, repainting and replacing the little shingles on top as pesky termites eat away at the wood. “I keep repairing it because I will always love it,” she says.
Another miniature house-style mailbox can be found on Glenneyre Street. The little green house is extremely detailed—down to a stained glass-looking window, wood shingles, a mini wreath on the door, a flower garden, cat figurines and a bird sitting atop a brick-like chimney. “We love it. Everybody notices it,” says Maurice Yotnegparian who owns the home with his wife, Hilda. A friend created the mailbox within the last year to replace another she made 10 to 15 years ago, which had become weathered over time. Maurice crafted a clear fiberglass cover to keep some of the dust and cobwebs off. Though not an exact replica of the house, the mailbox captures the feeling of the historic residence, which was built in 1923. Maurice says Linda calls the home “the love nest” because it’s such a romantic place. “When you come to Laguna, you have to hold hands with your wife,” Maurice says of the beach town ambience. Maurice adds that the mailbox’s intricate details—from blinds in the windows to a metal lattice chair on the porch—pull you in, almost making you want to live in that tiny cottage. The “dreamy” scene even captivates little ones who visit. As Maurice says, “My grandchildren will stand there and look at it for hours.”
Laguna Canyon Road
Homes aren’t the only structures with intricate mailboxes. Some businesses, too, have a little fun with this common item. On Laguna Canyon Road, McCormick and Son’s mailbox is a model of the mortuary’s chapel, but with a taller steeple. Plastic windows even resemble stained glass. Crematory manager Rebecca McCormick says the mailbox was crafted by her father, Robert McCormick Jr., who died about three years ago. The family business has been located in the canyon for more than 40 years and Rebecca’s father built the mailbox about 25 to 30 years ago. It’s occasionally been hit or knocked down by passing motorists, so Rebecca has refurbished it and stuck it back on the post. As a funeral home, she says the mailbox offers a small bright spot at a business that’s somber by nature as they help families during a time of grieving. “Being a mortuary, there’s not a lot of fun, fancy things we get to have,” she says. “… You find it in the little things,” she says of the mailbox that might bring a smile to someone’s face for even a brief moment.
Canyon Acres Drive
Frank Smart, a former Festival of Arts exhibitor, makes contemporary, stainless steel mailboxes in addition to his other metal work such as gates, light fixtures and furniture. A Laguna resident since 1987, Smart moved here from Scotland and started creating the metal mailboxes around 1990, completing about 15 for Laguna residents; he still makes them occasionally. When working on his architectural metal projects, homeowners also needed mailboxes, so he began custom-making them to fit with the homes’ respective styles. It takes about two or three days to make one, welding together the pieces of sheet metal. He has two of these modern mailboxes on his own property on Canyon Acres Drive: One is a long rectangular box that rises at a slant from the ground. The other looks like a metal tube that appears to hang from a hook. Both are modern mailbox marvels.
Crescent Bay Drive
Tucked along a curve on Crescent Bay Drive, a mailbox rests on the folded thumb of a redwood hand sculpture that stands at least 4 feet tall. The owner’s last name, believe it or not, is Hand. Longtime local Doug Hand, a 1960 alumnus of Laguna Beach High School, had the mailbox made about 20 years ago in the Monterey area. He was there for a conference and drove by a lot where wood carvings were being sold. One in particular caught his eye: A large carved hand with the index finger pointing out. He thought it would be fun to place his home’s mailbox on the finger, but the man selling the carvings advised against it because the weight of the mailbox might make the finger break off. So, Hand paid for another one to be crafted with the thumb bent in toward the palm, providing a more stable base for the mailbox. He also had a wedding band carved onto the sculpture’s ‘ring finger’ to represent his own marriage. Hand and his wife, Diane, have lived in Laguna together for about 45 years—30 of them in their current home. Hand says he decided to embrace a more creative mailbox rather than something traditional because, well, “this is Laguna.” “I know there are a lot of artists in town. I’m not one of them, but I appreciate the eclecticness of the town,” he says.
Temple Hills Drive
Along the steep and curvy Temple Hills Drive, a corner home features a concrete-encased mailbox with a mosaic-type treatment. As owner Susan Immel explains, the old one on a wooden post kept getting hit by cars on the busy road, so she opted to create something more sturdy back in the early 1990s. The project was finished within one day, using Quikrete. “I had to work fast because it sets up fast,” Immel says. Into the cement, she placed a variety of decorative pieces, some with special meaning. An artist, she painted a scene of Main Beach on a small porcelain disc pressed onto one side of the box. (Her ceramic painting talents can also be found on her front porch tiles, which feature a hummingbird, flowers and the like.) Also on the mailbox: a ceramic set of teeth, representing her daughter, who is a dentist; a gold mask reminiscent of “The Phantom of the Opera,” a musical that her husband likes; an old key; coins from her travels; as well as seashells, colored glass pebbles and a little image of a birdhouse because, well, she likes birdhouses. With such a unique mailbox, one would think it would be hard to miss. However, Immel says, trucks still manage to run into the concrete structure, leaving behind cracks. Yet, despite these impacts, it continues to stand, adding a bit of individuality to the neighborhood.