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A little white home with blue trim and a screened-in front porch surrounded by a white picket fence.
A cottage on Fraser Avenue in Santa Monica.

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The surviving beach shacks of Los Angeles

In the era of multimillion-dollar mansions, the early days of beachfront housing sound too good to be true 

In 1974, a young teacher named Stephen Anaya and his family moved into an early-20th-century shingle-style bungalow on the historic beachside street of Fraser Avenue in Santa Monica. Five years later, they bought it. “It was our dream to live on the street,” he says. It was our philosophy to buy the worst house on the street and fix it up. That’s the only way that we could really do it.”

The wood-frame cottage, measuring 25 by 95 feet, had been through many lives. For decades it was owned by a carpenter named Max Demme, a refugee from the Austro-Hungarian empire. During the depression, Demme had kept the aging cottage together the best he could, using an overabundance of nails. Throughout the 1980s, the Anayas would lovingly bring their seaside home up to code, thus preserving one of best examples of Southern California’s humble beachside architecture, far removed from the elaborate multi-floored mansions that dot the coast today.

In the era of multimillion-dollar beach homes—out of reach to all but the wealthiest of Angelenos—the early days of beachfront housing sound too good to be true.

All across the shores of the Southland, early beach homes were fashioned from telephone poles and the wood from old piers. Architect Thomas Harper, who built the first cottage in Laguna in 1883, used wood from defunct boats, according to The Cottages and Castles of Laguna.

Vacationers began to set up simple tents on the north and south beaches of Santa Monica in the 1870s and ’80s, according to Nina Fresco, Santa Monica Conservancy board member. While the owners of North Beach dealt harshly with commercial squatters, they were generally tolerant of “tenters,” who would set up from the shore to the bluffs of Palisades Park.

A new angular home with a slanted roofline and gray stucco and wood facade towers over an old little home.
Today, the average home in Santa Monica is 2,993 square feet.

“The tents in those days were like platforms with a frame and canvas walls,” Fresco says. “Some people would even build small, really cheap, simple wooden shacks, which were really one step up from the tents.”

The powers that be quickly learned that tenters were actually good for business. “People didn’t care that much because they weren’t competing with bath houses—they were just hanging out, and they would come and rent bathing suits from the bath houses,” Fresco says. “The hardware stores would advertise in the beginning of the summer season that they had a whole new stock of tents that people could buy.”

When the grand Hotel Arcadia opened in 1887, investors quickly pounced on this newly fashionable beachfront area. Small lots next to the hotel were subdivided, and investors built “slightly more commodious shacks” that were rented to vacationers, many from the East and Midwest. On the bluffs around Strand Street, wealthy lawyers and politicians constructed large vacation cottages.

In the Ocean Park area, longtime land battles that had held up construction finally ended around 1900. Real estate agent Alexander Fraser, who was advising the developer George Hart (owner of the Rosslyn Hotel in Downtown LA), decided to bring some order to beachside development.

“He’s like, okay, we’re getting all the shacks out of here, and we’re going to put deed restrictions and people have to build houses that cost a certain amount of money, and they had development standards,” Fresco says. “They had to be set back, they had to have porches. And all of a sudden those houses sold like gangbusters.”

A residential street with homes—in shades of pink, cream, and green, packed tightly together. A yellow jeep is parked out front.
After 1900, beach homes started selling “like gangbusters.”

This new seaside neighborhood, developed between 1902 and 1905, boasted a grid system with streets named after both Fraser and Hart. The homes were small, and built with the goal of keeping a view of the nearby ocean.

They’re basically all stock beach cottages, but there’s a variety of different styles,” Fresco says. “Some of them are more Craftsman looking, some of them are more Queen Anne… and you know they would have shingles and Victorian house parts that were factory made and decorated.”

Today, Fraser Avenue—one of the four remaining streets with intact original homes from the development—has the most concentrated grouping of historic beach cottages in Santa Monica. During World War II, however, the cottages and neighborhood were dramatically altered.

We bought our house, which is a single-family dwelling,” Anaya says. “But it had been made into multiple units, as most of the houses were, for the World War II aircraft workers at Douglas. So, some of the houses had been raised. Some of the rooms had been bisected. There were shared bathrooms. That was throughout the neighborhood—to facilitate the workers for the war effort.”

The original homes on Fraser Avenue were small, and built with the goal of keeping a view of the ocean.

In the 1950s, half of the neighborhood was demolished to build high-rise condos. By the time the Anayas moved in, Fraser Avenue was a rundown, bohemian enclave, dominated by folks who worked in the music industry.

“It was pretty funky during the ’70s,” Anaya says. It could also be dangerous, and the nearby Ocean Park Pier was constantly being vandalized and burned. Slowly but surely the Anayas lovingly fixed up their home, correcting previous owner Demme’s makeshift handiwork and the alterations of the war years. We had to really work hard in the ’80s to bring it up to code,” he says.

The shotgun nature of early-20th-century beach cottages and their often-slapdash upkeep is evident across the Southland.

“We have a member who once told me they purchased one of these houses in the ’40s with their husband as newlyweds, and as she went to hang up their wedding photo, the nail went right through the wall to the outside,” says Jamie Erickson, museum director at Hermosa Beach Historical Society.

Original oceanfront homes weren’t much more than ice shacks.

Not all early beach dwellings were even constructed with the sea in mind. In Hermosa Beach, vacationers would hunker down in “skid homes,” tiny wood-frame dwellings built by the oil companies to house employees.

A lot of people bought them, and they brought them down here to the beach, and they would tow them by mule right to the seashore in the summertime, and in the wintertime tow them back,” says longtime resident and contractor Rick Koenig. “They’re pretty much not much more than an ice-fishing shack.”

Koenig has spent his life restoring and retrofitting historic beach cottages in and around Hermosa Beach. Strengthening foundations, unclogging and replacing cast-iron water pipes, redoing wooden floors and molding, undoing the damage of kids with skateboards—it’s all in a day’s work for Koenig, whose family arrived in Hermosa in 1897. He has also done work on his own home, a gingerbread-style three-story beach cottage at Manhattan Avenue and 18th Street, designed by his grandfather on a lot that cost only $400.

“In 1917 they didn’t have many of the things that we take for granted today, like insulation, weather stripping, and building codes. There was no building department when this place was built,” he says. “I must say that my grandfather was a big proponent of dancing with nature. When there’s an earthquake, you kind of move with it. As with all these old places, they have their creaks and cracks. But that’s part of the romance.”

By the 1920s, landowners and developers fully caught on to the beach cottage craze. In Ventura, developers opened Hollywood Beach, offering 520 cottage-ready lots for as low as $200. On Balboa Island, small, kitschy beach cottages featuring distinctive double doors rose up, while in Laguna, a small compound of cottages was commissioned by the film producer Harry Greene. Even the insular Rindge family got in the act, opening up a small portion of their vast Malibu holdings to create what would become the famed “movie colony.” This seasonal resort of 100 temporary beach shacks would be inhabited by stars like Bing Crosby and Constance Bennett.

No doubt the best-preserved example of these 1920s beach shack communities is Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County, right off Pacific Coast Highway. There, more than 30 restored, brightly colored wooden beach shacks still hug the shore, instantly putting any guest in a laid-back mood. These ramshackle structures are the product of decades of work, often by the same families who started out as squatters, in the early 20th century, on beachfront land owned by the Irvine Company.

In 1927, the schooner Ester Buhne wrecked off the coast, proving a boon for these amateur builders, who used the lumber that washed ashore to fashion simple beach shacks. Over the years, “coveites” would come back to their second homes year after year, adding on to their uninsulated shacks until they became rambling, large-scale homes.

Homes on Fraser Avenue now sell for more than $4 million.

But an influx of money and architectural advances during the 1920s and ’30s would also signal the eventual death knell for the simple wood-frame beach cottage. As Elizabeth McMillian notes in Beach House: From Malibu to Laguna, the rich and famous began to throw their money around, transforming the concept of the beach retreat. Such big-name architects as Stiles O. Clements, Green and Green, and Rudolph Schindler “designed houses inspired by images of the Mediterranean, Spain, Greece, Italy, France and of American bungalows, adobes and pueblos, and New England cottages.”

This change is best exemplified by the Gold Coast of Santa Monica. During the 1920s, early movie stars and moguls built large, revival-style mansions on the northern shore of Santa Monica, commissioning estates focused more on status than the enjoyment of simple pleasures. The vacation home became increasingly out of reach to middle-class Southern Californians as the wealthy gobbled up the plots along the shore, and beach shacks were bulldozed over in the name of progress and prestige.

Today, the average home in Santa Monica is 2,993 square feet and costs more than $1.6 million. But for those lucky enough to live in the remaining beach cottages of the Southland, life is still simple and sweet.

“It’s a wonderful place to live,” Anaya says of his cottage on Fraser Avenue in Santa Monica, where homes now sell for upward of $4 million.

“We have a nice balance of young and old,” he says. “We’ve had an annual July Fourth and Independence Day parade, and it’s been going on since 1971. That’s where everybody dresses up, and the street is closed, and banners are put up. And sometimes there’s not enough people to view it. So they take turns. One group goes down the street and the others are the spectators, and vice versa.”

For Koenig, Hermosa is his Mayberry by the sea.” His historic house, now worth well more than $1 million, is a connection to his family—past, present, and future. “Some people believe in ghosts, some people don’t, but I do feel like there’s six generations that have been in this house, counting my grandkids, and I can feel my grandparents, my great-grandfather, and stuff here,” he says. “It’s a very comforting, kind of a Westernized feng shui.”

But asked his favorite thing about his home, Anaya is emphatic: “I have a view of the ocean.”

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