Times Staff Writer

SURE, we live in the land of the new and the novel, of fresh beginnings and reinvention. How else could the guiding cliche of Southern California have endured so long and spread so far? But let's not forget that this style of living that we claim to have invented also borrows from what our founding citizens could not bear to forget and did not want to leave behind.

One signpost of this past that shapes our present is the humble beach cottage.

Laughably small, even toy-like, often faded, sagging and peeling from disregard, clapboard beach cottages fill in the nondescript spaces of many coastal communities from Venice to Laguna Beach and beyond. To many eyes, these boxy, low-slung cottages that borrow haphazardly from Cape Cod, bungalow and Spanish styles, are single-story tear-downs waiting for the next architectural fancy to reach for the sky.

If you grew up in Southern California, you could be forgiven for believing that these cottages were local inventions -- just a step up from shanties and reflecting an era when people were jammed together and had to make do with less. Today, these dwellings, which often lack the respect, or the size, to be called "homes," are fit for surf bums, kids out of college or the local tarot-card reader, no place for grown-ups.

But there is a story that goes back further to explain the presence of these cottages on our shore, and behind the story is a contemporary counter-trend that mixes East Coast nostalgia with fresh exuberance for a simpler and more casual California way of living. "People today are so caught up in excessive living, I think they forget how easy it is to enjoy the pleasures of a simpler life," says Lizzie McGraw, a smiling, pig-tailed champion of the beach cottage.

You can call her a woman who didn't want to grow up.

As a child in Fredonia, N.Y., her family had a beach cottage a few miles away on the shore of Lake Erie's Van Buren Bay. Summers in that cottage, free of television and close to the outdoors, were the best and most carefree days of her life. She can still hear the screen door banging behind her in the rush to get out and live it up.

"I've never gotten over it," she says.

That is, until she moved to California and went jogging one day from her Santa Monica apartment and found herself in Venice in the middle of a whole neighborhood of beach cottages. Until that instant, "I didn't really relate to L.A." That was almost a decade ago, and nothing, as the saying goes, has been the same since. Lake Erie's summer life was unexpectedly spread out in front of her with the same weather-beaten, front-porch, sand-on-the-doorstep intimacy. Except now she could indulge herself year-round.

As she dug into the history of cottages in Southern California, she discovered a pedigree that made her feel even more at home.

The 1900-20s cottages of the California coast were, in the main, built as second homes for the residents of Pasadena, Hancock Park and elsewhere inland. It was an idea that early migrants brought with them for the same practical reason that cottages flourished back home in the East and upper Midwest: Before the days of air conditioning, people staked a claim near the water for the sake of summer's cool air and a few weeks of relaxed living. Thus in California, cottages extended inland as far as the moist onshore breezes. Let's say that beach cottages are better described as beach-weather cottages.

McGraw's cottage home, for instance, is five miles from the seashore, located south and east of Venice in more affordable Inglewood.

To enter her home through a front porch, barely big enough for a single chair, is to cross the continent in a few steps and recall an ethos from a different age. Simple living, to her way of thinking, has nothing to do with minimalism. The house fairly brims with stuff, arranged in the predetermined fashion of a wall-to-wall jigsaw puzzle. Everything has a precise place and a reason.

Her beloved dishes, for instance, are displayed as functional art. Tables and chests move to accommodate guests. A dining table serves as a desk or a display top, depending. Family photographs become decoupage to decorate a cabinet.

Stuffed pillows, muted prints, antique mirrors, open shelving and pastel color compose the ambience of her miniature living room, which opens into an adjacent "home theater," barely the size of a modern closet with room for two if they're willing to share a single bowl of popcorn.

The vest-pocket galley kitchen evokes, if not exactly the 1920s, a genuinely bygone era -- a 6-by-8 space that serves her chef-boyfriend, Jonathan Fineman, just fine for the couple's frequent entertaining. And the bedroom? "A dresser, a nightstand, a bed." And, to note an authentic touch, this summer house was built without a heater or insulation.

"You've got to be a certain kind of person to live in a cottage," she explains.

Surely, McGraw is that person. She transformed her passion for cottages into her livelihood. She is the proprietor of Tumbleweed & Dandelion, a store in artsy Venice that occupies a 1926 cottage. Here she fabricates and sells floral print, overstuffed and Adirondack cottage furnishings and accessories, and provides decorating help for those getting started in cottage life. If this were not enough, McGraw spends off hours working on a book about Southern California cottage living.

Although the history of cottages here has not been painstakingly preserved and celebrated the way some of the region's characteristic architecture has, the earliest beach cottages -- some of them quite imposing -- were one-offs to satisfy wealthy migrants. Before long, more modest cottages spread into tracts and developments. Notable was tobacco magnate Abbot Kinney's fanciful, canal-laced planned community of Venice at the beginning of the 20th century. Kinney himself had settled in the San Gabriel Valley and built a cottage in Santa Monica before his grand attempt to bring a touch of Euro-carnival resort to the Los Angeles coast.

Today, with the cottage serving as a year-round home, occupants must adjust correspondingly. Just like boats that are turned into homes, a cottage demands organization and imposes discipline.

"I don't mind living without a dishwasher. I love my dishes, I love washing them," says McGraw. "My boyfriend finds that the kitchen forces him to clean up as he cooks. There's no room for anything to stay dirty. And you can't be someone with 50 pairs of shoes. There's space for your flip-flops, a pair of sneakers and your going-out-on-the-town shoes, that's it."

Guests seem naturally inclined to pitch in when it comes time to clean up. Over the holidays, McGraw had 20 people for dinner. If you didn't bus dishes and pick up, you were in the way with nowhere to hide.

The walls of these tiny rooms don't close in, and the little four-pane windows barely hide the view, because a cottage is meant to push its occupants outside -- to the patio, onto the porch, into the neighborhood, down the street to the coffee shop and beyond to the communal space of the beach.

To McGraw's New York eyes it's downright odd to see so many people here wall their homes off, bolt their doors, turn on the climate control. These residents live with bigger floor plans but enjoy less space in the community and count the days until they can get out of town on their next vacation.

"Honestly, I don't understand why some people come out here," she says. "We're closing ourselves in. Here in California. Doesn't make sense." For her, almost every day has a few minutes of beach vacation built into it. If she misses out now and then, it's her fault.

Judging from customers at her store and McGraw's frequent wanderings in coastal neighborhoods, there is a gentle uptick in interest in cottages. Unfortunately, as she sees it, property values in many desirable coastal communities have risen so high that even postage-stamp lots hardly justify a ramshackle one-story, one-bedroom cottage, unless the owner bought long ago.

A few miles north and west, Bryan Delancey recently rented just such a 1920s Venice beach cottage. His muted, midcentury Eames-style furnishings offer a decor in sharp contrast to McGraw's, but his enthusiasm for the life draws from the same well.

He too is a New Yorker. He grew up spending summers at the family's cottage on Fire Island, then went to college in San Diego. A television sports producer, Delancey spent 12 years in New York City, most recently in a Harlem brownstone. Eight months ago, he answered the urge to come west again.

"I wanted the feeling of really living in California. What would give me that? What would give me a feeling of being part of this beach community? A beach cottage," he says.

For a 40-year-old with 11 surfboards, two bicycles, a skateboard, a king-size bed -- "which is the bedroom" -- a home office, and a vintage O'Keefe & Merritt stove no wider than a keyboard, his 800-square-feet cottage is "cozy . . . almost like living your college days again.

"I start the day on the beach cruiser and go down to the break wall, the Venice pier, with a cup of coffee and check out the surf or take a walk on the beach. It's a pretty nice way to start the day

If three of anything qualifies as a trend, a visit to Manhattan Beach suggests that something indeed is afoot cottage-wise.

Here again, we find people enjoying California coastal life at its purest, perhaps its fullest and most elemental, after migrating from the East in search of sand, sun and the faint smell of Coppertone on salty breezes. Long-timers here can talk your ear off about Neutra, Schindler, Koenig and the other Modernist architects who worked so cleverly with glass to reduce the barriers between Southern California's indoors and outdoors. But if you bring a fresh eye from the Atlantic seaboard, an effective alternative is simply to keep the door open and plop down on an Adirondack chair on the porch.

Tricia McLoughlin grew up in Delaware; her husband, Brian, in New York. Before moving west, they lived in a Brooklyn brownstone. But the happy-go-lucky salad days they remembered were as newlyweds living in a cottage on Chesapeake Bay.

Today, they own the last original beach cottage on an unmarked, dead-end street atop a hill overlooking the surfing lineup of Manhattan Beach. The other cottages were torn down long ago in favor of contemporary homes that rise up and squeeze footage out of precious lots. The McLoughlin's cottage survived for 70 years or so, it seems, by the determination of a previous owner who undertook two major expansions to add a second story and half of a third to supersize the cottage to 2,600 square feet -- just right for a couple, two children, two dogs, two cats and two goldfish.

With storybook gables, shingle siding and a Dutch door, the home today resembles a well-tended English country cottage, but the heart of it still says: California and sand between your toes.

"This is a house you can beat up. It's easy, casual, uncomplicated living," says Tricia McLoughlin, a banking industry debt syndicator by vocation.

A warren of small rooms preserves an intimacy that belies the scale of the cottage, and beamed A-frame ceilings upstairs cast a vacation-like feel to the sleeping quarters. Surfboards, beach cruiser bicycles and an outdoor beach shower reflect the rhythms of active California coastal living.

Inside, in earth tones and pastels, the McLoughlin home represents a victory of personal taste over the constraints of any school of design.

Furniture leans toward the rustic with pieces from afar -- including a damachia, or East Indian travel bench, and English club chairs. Dashes of wainscot are complemented by nautical stair railings, Edison-era lamps and a stained glass window. The overall feel is not unlike a Northwoods lodge where all visitors are expected to leave something behind, so that after a few decades the place expresses a universal humanity.

McLoughlin smiles and calls it "Manhattan Beach comfortable." Like so many, this cottage does not have heat or air conditioning. A wood fire in the fireplace serves on chilly nights. Yet, the mood of the cottage is so invitingly warm, says McLoughlin, "People are so shocked when I tell them there's no heating system." Well, not everyone is shocked.

When you begin poking around, you come to realize that beach cottage homes are not hide-outs in which occupants seek to shelter from the world around them. They are coastal outposts for the young-at-heart who want a little sand in the neighborhood to cushion their feet as they make their way in life, and for a few months a year they'll wear a sweater if they have to.

John Balzar can be reached at home@latimes.com.

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