“The Most Interesting Treatment Plant in the County” The Historic 1935 Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant

The Laguna Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant, 1938

The Laguna Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant, 1938

“The 1935 Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant is a significant surviving public works facility from a community that greatly upgraded its infrastructure in the 1930’s with New Deal assistance to accommodate projected growth.The town could not become the popular artistic and tourist destination without this facility.The facility design, intended to blend with the romantic geography and early twentieth century architecture of the community, now is a major landmark for the town.It retains strong integrity aspects of location, design, materials, workmanship, feeling, setting, and association.”

From: Cultural Resources Reconnaissance for the Village Entrance Project, Laguna Beach, California, SWCA Cultural Resources Report Database No. 2006-200, April 2006.

The CWEA History Committee usually writes articles about long-gone “Forgotten Facilities” that were part of California’s and CWEA’s wastewater history. It’s not often that we get to present a facility from our past that is not only remembered but still exists (in part) and is recognized as an historic landmark.  Such is the case with the City of Laguna Beach’s 1935 sewage treatment plant – it’s distinctive digester tower and adjacent plant building were saved from demolition in 1989, added to the City’s historic register, and are now being considered for restoration.

The Most Interesting Sewage Treatment Plant in the County”

Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant 2017 – Lighthouse Shaped Vent is above the Plant

Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant 2017 – Lighthouse Shaped Vent is above the Plant

In his 2014 book titled “The New Deal in Orange County,” Author Charles Epting, refers to the remaining structures of City of Laguna Beach’s old wastewater treatment plant as the “most interesting sewage treatment plant in the County.” It’s easy to see why Epting finds the plant interesting – the unique architecture of the digester was styled as a Normandy castle tower with a winding exterior stairway and a Mediterranean influence. Additionally, the treatment plant vent stack on the slope above the plant was designed to resemble a lighthouse.

The Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant Design and Construction

The City of Laguna Beach hired the Currie Engineering Company of San Bernardino in 1931 to design the new sewage treatment plant and outfall. The site for the plant is at the entrance to downtown area as one approaches from Laguna Canyon Road. The Laguna Canyon “Village Entrance” site was selected in 1931 because “it was zoned non-residential.”  According to the Los Angeles Times, the site “was, however, within a block of the Woman’s Club and two blocks from City Hall and the fire station. Therefore, the City Council wanted to use every known method of odor control and state-of-the-art sewage treatment.”

Close-up of Vent Stack Disguised as a Lighthouse

Close-up of Vent Stack Disguised as a Lighthouse

Frank S. Currie, a highly active member of the California Sewage Works Association, designed an activated sludge plant with an enclosed treatment process inside architecturally pleasing buildings to meet the City Council’s requirement for odor control and mitigate the objections of locals who did not like the idea of a sewage treatment plant in the area. Currie selected the activated sludge process to provide “complete treatment” for addressing concerns about odors and the ocean discharge of effluent through the City’s new 400-foot outfall. In addition to enclosing the treatment processes, the plant influent was pre-chlorinated for odor control at a manhole 50 feet from the plant headworks. Currie also designed a ventilation system to completely change the air in the plant every ten minutes and the air was exhausted through the lighthouse-shaped vent stack on the slope 200 feet above the plant.

The City Council accepted Currie’s plans for the new plant on September 2, 1931. The Council subsequently adopted a resolution to set an election to vote on the sale of bonds in the amount of $180,000 for the construction of the plant, outfall, and a trunk sewer. The bond vote was successful, and the bonds were issued in December 1931. Unfortunately, there were no buyers thanks to the impact of the Great Depression. 

In June 1932, the City applied for a loan of federal funds through the New Deal Public Works Administration (PWA); however, the PWA rejected the City’s application in December 1932. A City representative made a follow-up presentation to the PWA Board in Washington D.C. to make the City’s case for funding. Thankis to the presentation before the PWA Board, the City of Laguna Beach was awarded a combined grant and loan in 1934 totaling $190,000 ($39,000 in grant funds and a $151,000 loan). The total funding for the project would be approximately $3,579,000 in 2018 dollars.

The PWA loan included conditions for unemployment relief that required the project to use local workers for construction, limit work to six 5-hour days per week, and it also stipulated that human labor was preferred to machinery (when practical). Workers were required to be paid the federal minimum wage of $1.10 per hour for skilled labor and $0.45 per hour for unskilled labor. The City adopted the federal wage scale for the project, called for bids, and secured rights of way during January 1934.

The City of Laguna Beach awarded the project to the lowest bidder, J.C. Hickey, at $161,806 on February 21, 1934 and construction began in August 1934. The project was completed in May 1935 (the notice of completion was issued May 15th).

Announcement of the Spring Conference

Announcement of the Spring Conference

The 1938 California Sewage Works Association Conference and the Laguna Beach Plant Tour

Laguna Beach Old Sewage Disposal Plant Interior. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Laguna Beach Old Sewage Disposal Plant Interior. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The 1938 CSWA Spring Conference was held in San Diego and the conference plant tours included the City of Laguna Beach’s Sewage Treatment Plant, which was billed as “a new activated sludge treatment plant with many new innovations.” The new innovations highlighted at the 1938 CSWA Spring Conference included the odor control measures and the enclosed treatment process. These measures were presented in a conference paper by the City of Laguna Beach’s operator, R.D. Woodward, who also provided the following description of the plant:

“The Laguna Beach Sewage Disposal Plant is an enclosed plant located within the City Limits, 5 blocks from the business district. It is an activated sludge system, equipped with:

  • One primary clarifier, 30,000 gal., with Hardinge equipment and Currie Air Skimmer.
  • Two secondary clarifiers, Hardinge, 33,500 gal. each.
  • Five Hardinge Aerators, with independent motors, tank capacity 51,000 gal. each.
  • One digester with circulating pump and hot water coils.
  • One gas furnace, gas storage tank, one outside burner.
  • Two Chicago pumps from the clarifiers.
  • One Chicago Screw feed sludge pump.
  • One chlorination pump used as an air clarifier for the ventilating system.
  • Capacity of plant, 720,000 gal. per day.
  • Total flow for 1937, 34,472,000 gal. Average per day 94,444 gal.
  • Chlorine used for year 1937, 4,604 lb.
  • Daily average, 12 3/4 lb.

Tower in Laguna Beach, CA, Sewage Treatment Works before plantingOur plant and trunk sewers were built at the same time. Lateral sewers were built later. Therefore, our plant was started with a very small flow, which was taken care of by settling, chlorination and ventilation. We were not able to start aeration until the flow reached 30 to 40 thousand gallons per day, as checked by a weir, and Morey & Jones flow meter.

The plant is ventilated by a large blower driven by a 3 hp. Motor running continuously, which exhausts stale air from one end of each room and draws in the fresh air through ventilators at the other end.

The ventilators can be regulated to draw more air from places where the odors are strongest. The foul air passes through a 20-in. pipe to a large chimney or ventilator tower placed on the hillside above the plant.

The air is clarified as it passes through the pipe by 16 chlorinated water sprays. We have found this system to work very well. We never allow any stale sewage to stand in tanks or flumes. To hold odors down, tanks and flumes are kept clean at all times.

Same tower as shown in Fig. 2 but after planting with shrubs and vines.The activated sludge aerators are inverted pumps, which force the water from the middle of the tank to the bottom through 48 small nozzles. As the water passes the suction point in the pump, by siphon action it takes in air distributing it in the water. At first the nozzles were pointing to the wall and upward. This arrangement allowed the air to pass out of the water too quickly. The nozzles were then tried pointing across the tank, which arrangement holds the air in suspension much longer. Now, I have lengthened every other pipe or discharge nozzle of the aerators to 3 feet, which gives still better circulation and air distribution, and allows finer adjustments, increasing the efficiency.”

A discussion of Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment plant was also included in a 1941 CSWA Operator Symposium. The topic was plant beautification and R.D. Woodward, now plant superintendent, described the planting of landscaping around the plant, particularly the planting of vines (ivy) to cover the digester tower (see before and after photos). Mr. Woodward noted that the vines had to be trimmed twice a year and this was a particularly difficult job due to the height of the tower (48 feet high).  Woodward didn’t discuss why the decision was made to cover the tower in vines, however, the vines were eventually removed, and the tower’s exterior returned to its original attractive “castle” appearance.

The Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant Today (and Tomorrow?)

The Tower, 2018

The Tower, 2018

The Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant digester tower and building are still standing and greet visitors as they approach the Village Entrance. The plant operated from 1935 until 1983 and was listed on the City’s historic register in 1989. There is strong public support for the restoration and preservation of the old treatment plant structures as evidenced by public workshops and the development of restoration project plans. The Laguna Beach Historical Society, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Village Laguna group have all voiced their support for the restoration and preservation of the Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant structures.

On August 7, 2018, the Laguna Beach City Council approved a contract for a $10.8 million project to beautify what is locally known as the Village Entrance. The project included restoring the exterior of the old Laguna Beach Digester Tower. However, on September 11, 2018 the Laguna Beach City Council decided against making “solid plans” for the old treatment plant due to concerns about the costs exceeding the original estimate of $433,174 for the work (Miranda Andrade, Daily Pilot, Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2018). The City Council agreed to look for potential outside funding sources to help finance renovations and voted unanimously to seek outside money to fund any exterior renovations or re-purposing of the building.

Given the public support for the restoration of the old Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant and its landmark status, the CWEA History Committee believes the odds are good that the Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant will not become another “Forgotten Facility”.

About the Author

Nicholas Pinhey

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2 comments on ““The Most Interesting Treatment Plant in the County” The Historic 1935 Laguna Beach Sewage Treatment Plant

  1. Richard Currie says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the Laguna Beach treatment plant. I have some personal history with Currie Engineering that made this article particularly interesting. The plant was designed by my great uncle, Frank S. Currie. The Currie Air Skimmer referenced in the article was designed and patented by my grandfather and founder of Currie Engineering, Clare Currie. Further my dad, David Currie, surveyed the pipeline up the hill from the plant to the odor control stack (lighthouse) when he was a young engineer.

    The Laguna plant was a great source of pride for Currie Engineering. I remember seeing pictures of the plant on the walls of their office in San Bernardino. My dad told me stories about the plant and drove me out to see it one afternoon. He told me about my grandfather and his brother’s passion for their work which was well illustrated in design of the Laguna plant. This plant design was a reflection of the early Currie engineering philosophy. Clare Currie was quoted:

    “I say put the plant right in the main street if you can get it there. It is the best way to ensure proper operating care. The trouble with plants out of town is out of sight, out of mind. Put it right under their nose and it will have to be taken care of… landscape it and make it attractive.”

    Currie Engineering was an amazing company and designed hundreds of collection and treatment facilities in California from San Diego to King City between 1924 and 1980. The company was originally based in Webster City, Iowa. I had the great fortune of being an employee of Currie Engineering early in my engineering career. The company was bought out by another southern California firm in the early 1980s. We have a proud history in the Currie family of having 4 generations of Civil Engineers in California (all RCEs). My father’s uncle (Frank S. Currie), my father David H. Currie and his brother Frank H. Currie were the core of Currie Engineering in California. Frank H. Currie, the younger partner, worked in southern California into his 80’s, and recently passed. His son, Frank Donald Currie, my cousin, is also a Registered Civil Engineer. In addition to my brief work at Currie Engineering, I retired from the profession 5 years ago after being General Manager and Chief Engineer for Union Sanitary District. My son Evan Currie, recently formed Currie Engineers in Redwood City and is carrying on the fine tradition of registered Civil Engineers in California in the wastewater profession. He provides construction management services for treatment works in the SF Bay area.

    I hope that the City of Laguna beach is ultimately successful in restoring this landmark, iconic Treatment Plant in the not too distant future. It is a great example of thoughtful, creative, and technically challenging Civil Engineering work reflecting the great heritage of our profession.

    Richard B. Currie

    1. Nicholas A Pinhey says:

      Thank you for the feedback and the information on Currie Engineering and your family. It’s really great information and helps complete the article. There are articles in the old CSWA Journals on other Currie designed treatment plants. I may contact you to get additional background for another article.
      Nick Pinhey

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