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The Enduring Appeal of Crystal Cove

Crystal Cove steadfastly remains in the past as it hurtles toward a secure future

Sunset glows at Crystal Cove.

Walk out to the water’s edge, then turn around,” Laura Davick says. “That’s the best spot if you want to see the past, present and future of Crystal Cove.”

The woman whose own past, present and future are inextricably linked to this coastal place knows what she’s talking about. As gorgeous as the view out to sea is from this vantage point (not an oil rig in sight!), the view looking in from the windswept tideline is even more remarkable.

To the right, an eclectic and colorful cluster of wood-frame and shake cottages huddles along the Los Trancos Canyon bluffs, a hand-tinted 1930s postcard come to life in its idealized depiction of a California long gone. The impression evoked by this crazy quilt of handmade beachfront homes sprouting from vivid tropical foliage has been likened so often to traveling through time that it’s become cliché to say so. But there’s no better way to say it: This vista at once delights and jars as a landscape pulled out of time.

The view to the left offers another kind of jarring. The north side of this tiny beach colony-turned-state park displays the ravages of time. Here the other cottages of Crystal Cove sag and shrivel from salt, wind, storms and disuse. Their faded paint peels in big, open blisters, the boardwalk connecting them is broken and tumbled, and once-colorful surfaces are reduced to the tint of ancient driftwood splashed with the dull brown stains that blossom from rusted nails. Here the aged stands (barely) next to the ageless, a real-time before-and-after diptych.

“That’s the next stage – the last stage – of the restoration,” Davick says, sweeping her arm at the rotting side of paradise. “This is our big initiative now. And then we’ll be finished.” She laughs a bit then, because she knows “finished” is a relative term at Crystal Cove. It has always been a work in progress.

Tucked beneath an elevated portion of Coast Highway between Newport and Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove has evolved from a disused corner of a working ranch, to silent movie stand-in for tropical islands, to Roaring ’20s beachside campground, to the idyllic enclave where generations lived for next to nothing on one of the most beautiful beaches in Orange County. Then, over the protests of those who had so long occupied the makeshift cottages, it was slated to become a luxury resort, only to become a setting defined by eviction battles, political battles and legal battles.

When all that was settled, Crystal Cove took on its latest incarnation as a state park, marine preserve, field school for students from kindergarten through college, ecological research station and unique protected historic district. How unique? The historic buildings are not set off behind museums’ standard ropes and acrylic shields, but are available to touch, enjoy and live in as retro-cool vacation rentals. And they are so cheap (as little as $35 a night per person) that the cove is, by far, the best beachside getaway deal anywhere in the state, if not the country.

At the center of this transformation is Davick – having lived there as a child, the last resident who had to pack up and leave her beloved cottage, a leader in opposing the luxury resort plan, and now head of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance, which runs the historic district in partnership with the state.

Davick has come full circle through what has become her life’s work. Her office is just a short walk from the cottage where she grew up, where she watches a new generation of families experience (for a few days or hours, at least) an essential part of her own idyllic childhood a half-century ago.

“Growing up here was like living on an island,” she says. “It was amazing …  I didn’t want that to be lost. And now everyone can experience the spirit of Crystal Cove.”

• • •

Crystal Cove was acquired by the Irvine family during the Civil War as part of the vast Irvine Ranch property (formerly the old Rancho San Joaquin land grant). At that time, the view of the unspoiled beach belonged primarily to 30,000 head of sheep that grazed the hillsides across what would later become Coast Highway.

Early in the 20th century, the film industry discovered the cove as a likely setting, and with permission from the Irvines, began planting palm trees and tropical flowers, and erecting thatched-roof huts for such movies as “Treasure Island,” “The Sea Wolf,” “Sadie Thompson” and – in later years – “Beaches” and “A Few Good Men.”

Around the same time, employees and friends of the Irvines were allowed to tent-camp on the beach, with some lingering for entire summers and mixing it up with film crew folks who stayed long after the cameras stopped rolling. An impromptu community began to emerge, and its members began to make more permanent dwellings, occupying the old movie set cottages, then building with whatever materials were at hand: driftwood, teak from old boats, a washed-up load of lumber from a capsized cargo vessel. There were no building permits, no architects, no property lines and no design guidelines. The only rule was one to satisfy the Hollywood set designers: The earlier cottages had to have thatched roofs or palm fronds positioned to hide more substantial roofing materials.

“There was nothing built to code,” Davick laughs. “Unless it was the code of the wild.”
She finds it ironic that the grassy hillsides overlooking the cove where cattle and sheep once grazed now hold a flock of identical Mediterranean-style houses in a carefully planned and coiffed subdivision. This approach to coastal living couldn’t be further from Crystal Cove’s disorderly charms, though the view of the cove and its historic district is one of the new development’s selling points. Guests at the park, however, try to ignore the view of the subdivision, which clashes rather than charms.

The Davick family’s connection to the place began in 1937, when Laura’s mother, Peggy, began camping there with her family and met her husband-to-be, Bob Davick, three years later. Four generations of the family would end up living there, Davick says.

In the 1940s, the Irvines began to worry that ownership of the gated settlement, by then consisting of 46 cottages, would be lost due to squatters rights because so many people were living there year-round. The company required occupants to either leave or give up ownership claims in exchange for inexpensive leases. They could repair, paint and fix up their cottages, but couldn’t add rooms or build more houses. Most of the residents went along with this plan, and the unusual arrangement meant that the 1920s-1940s “vernacular” appearance of the cottages would be kept, with the colony becoming a kind of living museum.

The Davick family lived steps from the sand in what is now referred to as Cottage 2 – “The Shell Shack” – named for Davick’s grandmother’s extensive seashell collection. As she recalls it, the tight-knit community lived together, fished together, had bonfires and beach parties together, and sent their kids to neighboring schools together in Newport and Laguna. Each night Davick went to sleep to the sound of waves, and each day her playground was the biggest private beach in California – which cost the family less than renting the average two-bedroom apartment in Santa Ana.

This 46-family paradise lasted until 1979, when the state bought 2,791 acres, including Crystal Cove, from the Irvine Co. for $32 million, with the cluster of cottages listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Residents managed to stave off evictions for more than two decades, first with a long-term lease to give them time to relocate, then through litigation. Davick, who had left to work for a company building nursing homes in Florida, gave up her job and returned to the Shell Shack in the late 1990s after the state announced it would let private developers turn the settlement into a $60 million luxury resort. She founded her nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance to lead the fight against the resort proposal, which was eventually abandoned in favor of Davick’s idea for a full restoration of the cottages. Her idea was to preserve the character and ambiance she grew up with, so that guests at the park can experience an approximation of life at the beach as it was in the 1930s.

The result is the multistage restoration program now in progress. Each cottage has been preserved using as much of the original materials as possible, “peeling them like onions,” as Davick describes it, so that proper foundations, plumbing, electrical systems and earthquake protection can be added. Then the old cottages – freshened with new paint, termite-free wood and period furnishings – are put back in place. Twenty-nine of the 46 have been restored, with 17 available as rentals, and others serving as a store, visitor center,  check-in center, marine research facility, film and media center, and education commons.

Each cottage has a theme that matches its original decor and tenant, such as the Painter’s Cottage, the Dive Shack, the Romantic Retreat, the Sand Castle, and Davick’s Shell Shack.
Jim Newland, who researched the history of the cove for the state parks department, and who serves as the new acting manager for the park, has been adamant about preserving the original atmosphere, with period furnishings, rotary telephones and no televisions in the cottages. Instead, they are stocked with board games for low-tech family entertainment.
“We’re striving for authenticity,” Newland says, adding that guests seem to take pains to avoid damaging the historic homes they are occupying. “There’s been next to no vandalism. No issues with the furnishings. People appreciate the experience. I hear that all the time.”
The park has a protected underwater park favored by divers, hosts classes of all grade levels – with 3,000 students participating this year – and partners with marine researchers from UC Irvine. The researchers are gathering data on marine life to determine what mix of protections and recreation (including fishing) is optimal for the park waters.

Davick says she is particularly enthused about this education component of the park, as it allows so many more kids to enjoy the place she loves best. High school students have been recruited to help gather the data through “digital fishing” – the use of underwater cams in place of hooks and bait – giving them a unique opportunity to participate in real and meaningful research in a way that makes science fun.

“I mean, a day at the beach?” Davick laughs. “This beach? Of course they love it.”
Davick’s group, once an opponent to the state park plans, is now the state’s partner and has a long-term contract for managing the lodgings and the restaurant. Her alliance is also raising the $26 million needed for restoration of the last 17 cottages, as the state parks department has no money for it. About half will cover the actual restoration, while the other $13 million is needed to for road-building, utilities and other infrastructure, including state mandates to raise coastal structures to avoid damage from rising sea levels.

Then the biggest challenge will be to meet the demand for reservations at the popular beach vacation spot, which have to be purchased online, six months in advance, on the first of the month.

“You have to be quick and persistent,” Davick says. “They evaporate in five minutes.”

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