Crystal Cove Cottage-Dwellers Prepare to Board Up an Era

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William Van Wyck has been coming to his Crystal Cove home for half a century, since his in-laws sold their place in Big Bear and leased the cabin on the isolated shore north of Laguna Beach.

He remembers when Irvine Ranch owner James Irvine Sr. would stroll around his beachfront property, stop and talk to Van Wyck and his other tenants.

Like Van Wyck, most of those now facing eviction from the picturesque cove have rented houses there for decades, long before they became part of a state park. The cottages are vacation getaways, to which folks come from Pasadena and Arcadia, even Utah, to spend weekends and summers listening to the ocean lap onshore.


Those days are coming to an end, because state parks officials have ordered residents of the 46 cottages in Crystal Cove State Park to leave by April 1.

“They say the public is paying for the beaches and those houses, and you’re getting preferential treatment,” said Van Wyck, 83, who lives in Carlsbad. “Well, I think there’s preferential treatment all over these United States.”

Others take a more conciliatory view. “Fair is fair,” said Homer Livermore, 79, a retired teacher at Glendale High who has had his Crystal Cove place since 1965. “We’ve enjoyed it so much. We’re very fortunate. I think it’s a beautiful place. It should be something for all the public to enjoy.”

Joan Irvine Smith, granddaughter of James Irvine and heiress to the Irvine Ranch that once included Crystal Cove among its 125,000 acres, said squatters built the flimsy shacks that became today’s cottages. Legend has it they were built with scraps from shipwrecks that floated ashore.

“You’re talking about something that was scratched out with a mule and clamshells,” said John Barnard, a retired Riverside County judge whose cabin was built by his wife’s grandparents in 1930.

Because the Irvine Co. wasn’t using the land, Smith said, instead of tossing out the squatters, her grandfather started charging them rent.


Others used Crystal Cove too. Until the mid-’60s, beginning on Memorial Day, people planted large tents on the beach and stayed all summer.

“The beach was wall-to-wall tents,” Livermore recalled.

At one time, residents did buy the cottages and paid rent on the land. Livermore said he paid a little less than $5,000 for his cottage. But when the state bought the land in 1979, it also took title to the houses, residents said.

Some are tiny, beaten-up hovels with showers outside. Others have been converted from the original squatters’ shacks to comfortable, two-story homes with garages, satellite dishes and hot tubs.

The ramshackle exteriors of some cottages often belie the modern decor inside. From the outside, a cottage, pockmarked from the salt air, may look as if the next storm will blow it away. Look inside, and there is a modern kitchen, a polished wood floor and furniture that goes well beyond beat-up beachcomber. Out back you might find an outdoor bar.

These houses have been passed down from generation to generation, and in some cases, it is the great-grandchildren of the original residents who gaze out their windows to watch the dolphins swim past. The cottages have been in the families so long that residents invariably use the word “own” when talking about them, although they all rent from the state.

“It’s very dear to us,” said Sara Shatford, whose family has rented its house for 44 years. “Everybody who has grown up there feels it’s part of their background.”


With the tenants gone, the state hopes to replace aging septic tanks, and to determine other infrastructure needs in Crystal Cove.

Still to be determined is what will happen to the cottages now that a plan to turn them into a luxury resort has been scotched.

The Crystal Cove Residents Assn. has put on hold its lawsuit to have the evictions declared illegal, and their attorney said they are willing to move if there is an acceptable plan for restoring the cottages, which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The state Department of Recreation and Parks continues to insist the tenants are out, unless legal action forestalls the move.

The recent events are just the latest skirmish between the Crystal Cove tenants and the state, a fight that began when the Irvine Co. sold the land to California for $32.5 million. The tenants have been threatened with eviction so many times, that it’s almost life as usual. This time, though, they seem resigned that their time is coming to an end.

“They’ve been throwing us out for so many years, I assumed it was going to happen,” said John T. McGraw, who has been coming to


Crystal Cove since his mother-in-law bought a house in 1940.

Others aren’t so matter-of-fact.

“What am I going to do?” mourned one 76-year-old female resident who requested anonymity. “Die. My life is over.”

Most people living in Crystal Cove aren’t as dramatic. Most know they’ve been getting a good deal all these years for a beach hideaway like no other in Southern California, even though rents that once were $60 a month or so have risen to $569 for a 312-square-foot cabin to $2,246 for a 1,950-square-foot house, and tenants have to do their own maintenance.

Still, there are hard-liners who want to delay the inevitable, who can’t understand why they can’t stay in paradise forever.

The historic district is set in an isolated stretch of coast between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach. A narrow bumpy road leads from the highway to the cottages.

“Welcome to Crystal Cove,” says a hand-painted sign. “A Slice of Paradise.”

Palm trees and eucalyptus trees border the area, isolating it from the massive Irvine Co. housing development going up on the bluffs just across Pacific Coast Highway.

The rents bring the state nearly $500,000 a year. According to their leases, tenants aren’t allowed to sublet their cottages, but some do.


And although the cottages are not supposed to be passed on to survivors when the tenant dies, the state has not enforced the rule.

Ray Morrison is one of the newcomers. He inherited his cottage in the mid-1980s from his aunt. Although the publisher of fine-art posters lives in Salt Lake City, he visits Crystal Cove every two months or so.

Maddy Benson, 52, a professor at Irvine Valley College, is one of the few people who lives at Crystal Cove full-time. The two-bedroom house with the leaky roof she shares with her husband is the only home she has known as an adult. “When it rains, you just cross your fingers,” she said.

The cottage and the one next door touch. Once they made up one house that a pair of brothers owned. But they got in a fight in the 1920s and split the house in half, she said.

John T. McGraw, 84, whose wife, Betty Ford McGraw, inherited the cottage from her mother, is a retired engineering consultant and former executive. The couple don’t go to the cabin much anymore, leaving it for their children and relatives who come from as far as Canada.

John McGraw remembers when he would pry abalone off the rocks, and when the kelp was so thick that there was only a small opening to launch a boat. He would wade into the ocean so only his head stuck out, and the water was so clear he could see his feet.


But times change, and so does Crystal Cove. The kelp beds are gone in many places, and the water is not so crystal clear.

In the past, it wasn’t unusual for John McGraw to sit and watch the whales going by.

“Now you see a whole flock of boats chasing the whales,” he said.