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Museum Uncovers Link to Past : Art: Discovery of names stamped in basement floor gives boost to coming Laguna Beach exhibit of California artists.


LAGUNA BEACH — If it hadn't been for the winter storms, visitors to the Laguna Art Museum might have forever walked unknowingly over a hidden piece of its history.

But as it happens, the recent rains flooded the basement floor, causing workers to remove the unsightly, mildewy carpet and make a discovery. They uncovered the original concrete floor, on which nearly 200 names of prominent local artists and art lovers were indelibly stamped in the 1930s.

The find could not have come at a better time, Director Charles Desmarais said Wednesday, noting that his museum--the oldest arts organization in Orange County--is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Fittingly, the museum's next major exhibition, to open April 2, is entitled "75 Works, 75 Years: Collecting the Art of California."

"The uncovering of the names is a neat thing . . . since it gives one more suggestion of the history of the museum and its tie to the community," Desmarais said.

The names, stamped boldly into the concrete, are testimony to this rustic community's artistic milieu.

Among other notables, the names include resident artists such as museum founder Edgar A. Payne, Anna Hills, George Gardner Symons, Frank W. Cuprien and Joseph Kleitsch, all of whom have died. However, many of their works, which depicted Southern California life, still grace the museum's walls today.

"These were all early artists who were very instrumental in founding the museum," said Susan M. Anderson, curator of exhibitions. "They're sort of like old friends to us. It's a pleasure for us to have the floor uncovered and reveal the names of the people who made the museum possible."

While the original floor with the names has slowly been uncovered over the last few weeks, museum officials said they earlier suspected the names existed but weren't sure. They began to chronicle the museum's history recently, and in the process discovered how the concrete floor in the basement--which contains the Segerstrom Family Gallery--came to be.

"Our archives showed that the founding members and artists each bought a block and had their names stamped on them for $1.50," said museum spokeswoman Sue Henger. "I guess it was their way of preserving history."

Apparently, history was cloaked when some previous museum officials with good intentions laid yellow tiles over the concrete floor, Desmarais said. When the museum was being renovated in 1986, the tiles were covered by carpet.

"Somewhere along the line, some past administration actually put some kitchen tiles on the floor," Desmarais said ruefully. "Now, we plan to refinish the floor and have it as it was in the '30s."

The museum has its roots in the Laguna Beach Art Assn., which was founded 75 years ago, in August, 1918. The group put on exhibitions in the old town hall building on Ocean Avenue. In 1929, construction began on the museum, on Cliff Drive at Coast Highway, but the building was not completed until 1934. It was remodeled in 1949 and again in 1986.

Wednesday, museum and contract workers labored on their hands and knees to scrape the floor free of stubborn stains and glue. The refinishing should take a couple of days, and the floor should be ready in time for the April 2 exhibition.

Workers said the arduous chore means more now that they know they are helping to restore a historical aspect of the museum.

"I feel like an archeologist, you know, digging and scraping," Irene Bean, 45, said as she wiped dirt stains on her already soiled jeans. "It makes you wonder why they covered the floor in the first place."

Dan Woodman, a contractor hired to restore the floor, said the work has "an eerie feeling about it."

"You know that all these people had one time come to the museum to look at their own names," he said. "It's like uncovering a memorial in some way."

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