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Going Coastal

The modest Southern California beach cottage once ensured inlanders an outpost with an ocean breeze in the summer heat. Today, residents call their ramshackle charm an antidote to modern life.

January 19, 2006|John Balzar | 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.

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