The very mention of the Crystal Cove cottages stirs up so much passion among devotees, it’s almost like you’ve stumbled onto a religious cult with a secret headquarters.
It’s not just that they’re located on one of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California. Nor that the battle over their fate lasted for decades, played out in the pages of every newspaper.
Movies filmed at Crystal Cove
1918 Treasure Island
1928 Sadie Thompson
1928 White Shadows in the South Seas
1929 The Isle of Lost Ships
1934 Treasure Island
1951 Two of a Kind
1974 Herbie Rides Again
About the Crystal Cove Historic District
About: 12 acres with rental cottages, education and museum shacks and the Beachcomber Café. The public beach at Crystal Cove State Park extends 3.2 miles.
Location: South of Newport Beach. Pay $15 to park at Los Trancos, off the Pacific Coast Highway, and either walk down a path, through a tunnel to the beach, or pay $1 to hop the Beachcomber shuttle bus. If you’re checking into a cottage, turn down toward the beach and follow the signs.
Tours: Every second Saturday of the month, there’s a free 10 a.m. public tour of the 12-acre historic district. Parking is $15.
To make cottage reservations: VisitReserveAmerica.com or call 800-444-7275 CINDY YAMANAKA
This isn’t some decorator’s storyboard of what California beach homes should look like. This is the real thing – funky, beat-up and thrown together by actual beach-dwellers, who kept brushes tied outside the door to get the sand off their feet before coming into the house.
“It feels like it’s real,” said Laura Davick, who grew up in the cove and founded the nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance and is co-author of the book “Crystal Cove Cottages” (Chronicle, 2005). “It’s a place where time slows down and stops.”
The shacks were originally built, starting in the early 1920s, on land owned by the Irvine Co. Owner and rancher James Irvine had allowed people to tent camp on his beach for decades, enjoying the ocean waves and cool breeze. Some came for the entire summer.
Movie companies used the cove as a stand-in for tropical locations like Hawaii and Polynesia, planting palm trees that remain there today and building grass shacks as movie sets. Its secluded location between Newport and Laguna Beach, in a private cove, meant the chance to create a fantasy world.
People soon moved into the abandoned movie-set shacks and then began throwing up their own more permanent vacation homes, on land that was still owned by Irvine.
These beach shacks originally were constructed of materials scavenged or washed up on shore. Telephone poles that floated in on a storm became a foundation. Windows were from a demolished hotel. Driftwood was built into porches and awnings. A wrecked ship provided lumber. Mahogany cabinets from a wrecked cabin cruiser went into a kitchen.
There were no architect’s plans or building codes. There weren’t even any addresses, until gas lines were laid in 1930.
Cottages were all furnished with the cast-offs from people’s real homes.
For decades, the cove was a sanctuary for painters, families and even a former circus family, living in what ultimately became 46 cottages spread out along the cove.
But in 1979, the Irvine Co. sold 1,898 acres of coastal property, including Crystal Cove, to the state for park land. Despite the residents’ best efforts, and legal battles that stretched on for years, they were forced out of their oceanfront paradise in 2001.
Initially, state plans were made to build a pricey resort on the site – now designated as the Crystal Cove State Park Historic District – with rooms estimated to cost $350 to 700 per night.
But public outcry stopped the deal, and a group of activists, led by Laura Davick, paved the way for the cottages’ restoration. Crystal Cove was designated as a state historic park.
Jim Newland, who manages cultural resources for the state parks system, worked with Davick and others to create a plan to preserve and restore the cottages. While state building codes required them to be made safe for occupancy, with details like fire sprinklers and structural support beams to keep them from falling down, they retain their whimsical charm and historic significance.
Ironically, in an era of mass production and master planning, when homes in surrounding hills are built to match color palettes and blend into each other, the riotous chaos of these simple beach shacks attracts visitors who feel like they’ve won the lottery if they get the chance to stay in one.
Nearly everything in the cottages is genuinely old, from the iron bedsteads to the bedside lamps to the coffee tables. And, as much of it as possible is from the original shacks, beat up and weathered looking, with the patina of age.
When the original furnishings weren’t available, Davick and others scoured vintage shops, looking for exactly the right piece.
“I found this in Old Towne Orange,” Davick said, proudly, pointing to an old iron bedstead. She recently was able to return the original kitchen stove to one unit; it had cooked there for 40 years. Today, due to fire danger, it’s only for display.
The mattresses, bedding, couches, linens and refrigerators in each unit are new, along with microwaves that hide under old-fashioned oilcloth covers.
Restorers have striven to make everything else as authentic as possible, such as saving old wooden floors, built from wood that floated onshore, and sanding down paint to determine original colors to replicate.
A lack of blueprints or any of the customary tools of the restorer slowed down the process, though old photos and oral interviews helped. In the early days, many families evicted from the cottages remained bitter and unwilling to help, though attitudes are now softening as memories fade.
A team would evaluate each piece being considered for placement in a cottage, to decide if it would really have been there during its heyday.
“Having been here all my life, I knew what it should look like,” Davick said. “We’d find things from the right period, but I’d realize it was not at all right. This was where all the misfits went from people’s (winter) homes. We wanted to make sure it was really authentic, really ‘covy.’”
It’s the only place in California that’s a “living museum,” where you can come and actually stay in the historically preserved sites, instead of just looking at them behind velvet ropes, Newland said.
Each restored shack was given a theme, such as “Shell Shack”– Davick’s former home – or “Painters Cottage,” representing the actual history of the house. Stacks of board games and books are included for entertainment.
“I was very adamant that there would be no televisions, no direct line telephones,” Newland said. “You are going to step back in time and place when you come here.”
The first phase of restoration involved 14 cottages and cost $17 million, including the cost to lay new sewer and other infrastructure that had never been installed. An intermediate phase added more rentals and public buildings. Now, the final phase has begun, and a fundraising campaign has started to raise $20 million to finish the 17 cottages on the north side of the beach.
Prices to stay range from around $60 to $250 per night, depending on whether visitors are renting a room in a shared house, or an entire cabin. Other cottages are used as education centers and museums.
As time goes on, more former residents are offering up original furnishings, adding to the historic significance of the site.
Davick said she was excited to receive a clawfoot dining table after its original owner retired and moved away.
Recently, Laguna Beach resident Jane Burzell, who grew up playing at the cottage owned by her grandparents, donated back the original cook stove that sat in the kitchen for 40 years, along with a fireplace screen and other artifacts.
She said the cove looks different to her, because the state cleared away a lot of the tropical vegetation, and she’s been “sad to see all the cottages left in disrepair.” But she’s glad to know that the last group is finally planned for renovation, and glad also that the park ranger who used to live in her grandparent’s cottage has now moved out, and it’s available for rent.
“I know my grandparents would be proud to know it looks like it did when we were growing up,” she said. “Laura’s done a nice job bringing back what’s authentic about Crystal Cove, and I’m pretty happy with it.”