The effort to preserve historic cottages is ‘basically starting from scratch’ because of deteriorating conditions.
“That one was Bob Lawson’s, they called it the Buttertub, and these two belonged to the Shirleys,” Laura Davick says, pointing to a string of run-down cottages at Crystal Cove State Beach.
These aren’t the quirky, kitschy rentals that vacation-goers vie for months in advance. These 17 cottages are rickety, faded, and fenced off from curious beach-goers.
What are the Crystal Cove cottages?
Crystal Cove’s cottages are part of a 12.3-acre historic district tucked along the sandy bluffs of the 2,791-acre Crystal Cove State Park at the southern edge of Newport Beach.
Learn more with free walking tours held at 10 a.m. on the second Saturday of
Tours begin at Cottage No. 35.
Crystal Cove through the years
1920s and ’30s
46 cottages built as seaside get-aways
State purchases Crystal Cove State Park from the Irvine Co. for $32 million. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
State signs 60-year agreement with developer Michael Freed to convert existing cottages into luxury resort.
Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove founded.
The state drops resort plans after a public outcry and cash infusion from the Coastal Conservancy.
Residents of the historic cottages move out after dodging evictions for decades.
Crystal Cove Alliance signs an agreement with the state to help support the park.
Work begins on the $15.4 million project to restore the park and 22 of the cottages.
Restoration of 22 cottages completed. Thirteen become rentals. Crystal Cove Alliance agrees to manage food services and cottage rentals.
Work begins to renovate seven cottages, which ultimately costs $6.7 million and takes 18 months.
The date Crystal Cove Alliance hopes to submit plans to the Coastal Commission for the final stage of restoration.
Sources: Register archives and Crystal Cove Alliance
For decades, people lived here thanks to leases with the state. Then they were kicked out to make way for a luxury resort, which was later scrapped. Now this tumbled-down collection represents the last leg of a massive restoration effort started in 2004.
Today, the sandy bluff behind them is crumbling. Electrical systems, plumbing, foundations, roofs all need re-doing. Then there’s sea rise. Some of the cottages might need elevating.
“It’s basically almost starting from scratch,” Davick says of the task before the Crystal Cove Alliance, the nonprofit she founded, and the one that oversees the popular rentals, bustling Beachcomber Restaurant, and now this last leg of restoration.
Of the original 46 1920s- and ‘30s-era cottages, 29 have already been turned into overnight rentals, a museum, cultural center, and more.
After a decade, this is the final chapter — perhaps the most daunting one, with a price tag that could reach $20 million.
“We were thinking of putting a sign on PCH,” she says, “saying ‘We’re not done yet.’”
The clock is ticking for the Buttertub. Its once-cheery yellow paint is sun-bleached and peeling. Sea air and shifting sands have wreaked havoc on its walls, roof and foundation, doing the same damage to the 16 other cottages.
They sit on a coastline where sea levels could rise three feet or more by the end of the century, according a 2012 report from the National Research Council.
The previously restored cottages are protected by a road that acts like a barrier, Davick says. But there’s nothing to stop the ocean from washing away the last 17 cottages over time.
The preservation project would open all of these as overnight rentals to eager vacationers. Davick says they hope to submit their plan to the California Coastal Commission in November. They’re hoping for approval in about a year, at which point they’d start construction.
Davick knows the Buttertub and all these cottages intimately. She was raised in Cottage #2, now a rental.
More than a decade ago, it was in Davick’s living room in Cottage #2 where she and others worked to derail plans by the cash-strapped state to turn these cottages into a high-end resort. At the time, it didn’t matter that they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Their group, the Alliance to Save Crystal Cove, lobbied Sacramento. Local icons like Joan Irvine Smith joined the fight.
In 2001, public outrage prompted the state parks agency to drop the plan. Two years later, Davick’s group changed its name and mission — becoming today’s Crystal Cove Alliance and focusing on restoration and education.
They’ve accomplished a lot since then.
With a mix of public and private money, they’ve pushed through two phases of restoration, spending roughly $22 million to create 24 rentals, research areas, a visitor center and museum.
A Place to Make Memories
Over the years, birthdays have been celebrated here and lovers have tied the knot. Countless vacationers have made memories. Some were inspired to write down their feelings in the journals found in each cottage. This unnamed visitor from 2007 waxed poetic:
Roses are red
Sea shells are beige
My love for this place
can’t be expressed on this page.
During this time, the Alliance also won the state contract to manage the rentals and concessions — a first for a nonprofit, Davick said, and a model in a state park system mired in debt and controversy over misplaced funds. Their set-up is self-sustaining, meaning a portion of revenues from food sales and overnight rentals stay in the park — rather than fill state coffers.
It’s a unique set-up, said Brian Ketterer, district superintendent for the state Department of Parks and Recreation, who oversees the county’s parks. There’s few like it in the state, save for a smaller operation at Doheny State Beach, he said.
“What they’re doing at Crystal Cove and Doheny is working,” he said.
Over the years, the Alliance has expanded its mission. Today, they teach high school students about marine life. They’re set to open a new educational center in October. They’ve even taken up the fight against invasive plants through a partnership with six other agencies.
“A passion to protect this place has turned it into what it is today,” Davick says.
How to pay for restoration?
But passion doesn’t pay the bills. Restoration of the final 17 cottages won’t come cheap.
They need several retaining walls to shore up the crumbling bluffs. The cottages need overhauling inside and out. There are plans to recreate the original 700-foot wooden boardwalk running in front of the cottages. It’ll make the cottages easier for everybody to get to.
Then there’s sea rise. New building standards could equal pricey construction. Some of the cottages that sit right on the sand might need elevating.
It all adds up.
“We think we’ll need to spend about $7 million just on infrastructure,” Davick says.
The cottages themselves should run about $360,000 a piece to restore, she says, based on past figures.
They’ve cobbled together roughly $6 million so far, some promised by the state parks system, some anticipated from a recent increase in rental rates, she says. Then there’s another $240,000 they expect to raise in September from their annual gala, though that money isn’t dedicated to restoration.
If cost estimates come in where they think, they’re about $14 million short, Davick says. Right now, a design firm is coming up with the guidelines they’ll use to solicit bids.
“By the end this year, we’ll have hard numbers on what the cost will be,” she says.
She calls this last leg one of the “most challenging projects in Orange County.” She said she hopes they can get done in the next five years. In her mind, it’s not a matter of if, but when.
“I can’t rest until this is done,” she says.