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Before Design Committees and Building Codes, Vernacular Beach Architecture Was the Rule in O.C.


Coming up with the exact definition of "vernacular beach architecture" is not an easy task. Some say it's architecture designed without building codes, formal plans or professional architects. Others say it's almost any cottage or bungalow in a seaside town. And yet others believe it's a past-tense term--architecture built in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, never to be repeated.

"If you get a bunch of people in a room, they'll have their own definition of what vernacular architecture is," says Leslie Heumann, architectural historian who worked on a historical survey in San Clemente.

But all the definitions share certain aspects. For one, the typical beach cottage had no particular style. Form followed function. If a room was too dark, you cut a window into a wall. If you needed a deck, you hung it wherever it fit. Rooms were added on as your family grew.

Also, local materials were used by craftsman in the creation of small, low-massed structures that communicated a particular feeling or style of the area or setting.

Life was simpler then, and so were beach houses.

Times have changed.

Now we have building codes and design committees that determine if a building is appropriate for a particular city and neighborhood. Because of this, what worked in the early part of this century can't work now.

"Vernacular architecture was just kind of thrown up as needed," says Bill Hendricks, director of the Sherman Library in Corona del Mar, which has a vintage beach house on its property.

Barbara Helton-Berg, who teaches architecture at UC Irvine Extension, says, "Vernacular architecture varies from city to city. Materials were related to those who were doing the building, their tools and trades or the vision of the founder. They were funky, single-walled constructions, not impressive buildings.

"The beauty of vernacular architecture is that it was made for a reason and fit the environment. Any architecture that is vernacular in its nature is more powerful because it fits the landscape and the neighborhood."

According to Jim Lashley, Laguna Beach architect and landscape architect, the cottages and bungalows you find along our coast belong to an architectural style that is strictly Southern Californian.

"People just didn't need a lot of space back then," he says. "And they typically built houses with pitched roofs with attics for airflow, and had overhangs to break the sun's glare."

Few examples of vernacular beach architecture remain in Orange County. In San Clemente, the Beachcomber Apartments & Motel is a vernacular example of Spanish design. The motel, a registered historic building, comprises a series of stepped, connected units and relates to the site, the curve of the cliff.

"Its importance is more the location and what it is than how it looks," Heumann says. "It's just about the only period motel left in that immediate vicinity and wasn't, to my knowledge, designed by an architect."

The adobe house at the Sherman Library is another example. Constructed in 1940, the couple who built it came up with the design themselves.

You can find other examples of the old-style beach architecture in Corona del Mar, Laguna Beach and Balboa Peninsula. But you have to go exploring, because many of the old buildings have been torn down to make way for the buildings that take their place.

The old cottages are also not easy to find because many were built on the backs of lots.

"In Laguna, there are Spanish-style homes on Park Avenue by the high school that are from the '20s and '30s," Lashley says. "They were built at the same time clapboard homes went up. Also the little Catholic Church on Park near Glenneyre is a wonderful example. If you look at the entryway, the stained glass, it was all done freehand by wonderful craftsmen."

One of the last beach enclaves in the county is Crystal Cove. The National Register of Historic Places lists the 45 cottages there as being "the last intact examples of vernacular beach architecture" in Southern California.

Construction of Crystal Cove's dwellings began as camping places around 1927 by the Irvine Co. Tenants continued to modified them through the '90s, making the homes more permanent, bit by bit.

The buildings were designed without architects. Only a few had formal plans. Although the cottages had milled lumber and modern construction materials, the materials were used without a knowledge of structural principles.

"Architects were never involved, unless it was maybe at a cocktail party," says Jim Thobe, a Crystal Cove resident for 30 years.

The Irvine Co. sold the Crystal Cove land to the state in 1979, which plans to evict the residents, restore the bungalows and rent them to tourists. Tenants are paying rent on a month-by-month basis until the state finalizes its plans.

Preservationists and residents, most of whom have been living in the area for decades, resent the change. Others fear the complete loss of this architectural style.

Says Zenger: "Many of the idiosyncratic enclaves are gone and only found in history books. Those vernacular beach cottages, and the cultures that lived there, have all but vanished. The county isn't what it used to be. I don't know what you do to combat tearing down old stuff. I guess development and population growth makes it inevitable."

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