Shirley Pepys still hasn't fully pieced together the history of the house whose 100th birthday she'll celebrate this month.
Pepys, the creative director of the Balboa Island Museum & Historical Society, moved in 1995 into the home facing the water at 526 S. Bay Front. She hasn't found documentation of who built the house but has confirmed that Leonora May Collins, the sister-in-law of Balboa Island developer W.S. Collins, bought the land in June 1911.
Some of the house's owners may be lost to history as well, but Pepys knows that Charles and Muriel Gay, who owned an African lion attraction in El Monte, lived there around the World War II years. And Allan Beek, the son of an influential Newport Beach family who grew up next door, recalls riding his tricycle around the yard during the Great Depression.
"Everybody tells me that no matter who owned this house, until we moved in, it was vacant more than it was lived in," Pepys said in her living room last week as a crew set up 1913-style decorations out front.
Perhaps the entire history of 526 S. Bay Front may never be known, but when Pepys opens the home for a holiday party Dec. 12, she'll ask for donations to a related cause — the museum and historical society, which seeks funds for new exhibits and the recording of oral histories by Balboa residents.
That evening, the house will open for wine, appetizers and a screening of archive footage of Balboa Island a century ago. Guests are encouraged to bring $100 donations for the museum, which moved two years ago to a new spot at 331 Marine Ave.
To help celebrate her home's anniversary, Pepys has invited city leaders, museum staff and "100-year-old Balboa residents if we can find them." It won't be the first centennial celebration in the neighborhood this season: The Community Foundation of Balboa Peninsula Point recently enlisted muralist Art Mortimer to paint an image by the Balboa Pavilion based on a 1918 photograph of the area.
The display in front of Pepys' home may not bear much resemblance to Newport Beach a century ago — most likely, it didn't snow then — but it does evoke the period in general. Deanne Lemire, a Lake Forest resident whose family has helped set up the decorations the past two years, said she did research online to find 1910s-vintage garb for the penguins.
Yes, penguins. Half a decade ago, Pepys assembled a collection of penguin statues for a winter scene; now, they're the unofficial mascots of her holiday party. Each year, Pepys gives her design team — which includes Lemire and Lemire's husband, Dan, son Dylan Wells and sister Darcy Hafner — a general theme and lets them use their imaginations.
"It was Hawaiian last time, and so we did a Christmas tree with palm branches coming out of it, and the penguins were done up in Hawaiian skirts and coco [brassieres] and ukuleles and straw hats," Lemire said.
Other attractions outside the front door include a penguin singing group gathered around an old-fashioned microphone, which Lemire pieced together from a toilet flange and sink stoppers, and a cart advertising cocoa and cupcakes for a nickel.
As Pepys prepares to celebrate her house's — and, give or take a few years, Balboa Island's — centennial, she has her eye on the next 100 years and the part her museum can play in preserving history for future generations.
"Now that we've had it open [on Marine Avenue] for two years, there are more and more people wanting us to tell their stories," she said. "They've got so many old photos and memorabilia."
If You Go
What: Balboa Island Museum & Historical Society fundraiser
Where: 526 S. Bay Front, Newport Beach
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 12
Cost: $100 suggested donation
Information: (949) 675-3952 or balboaislandmuseum.org