Cottage #23: “A Resource and Treasure for the People of California”

“The whole glorious story of … Crystal Cove” is the one Christine Shirley wanted visitors to understand when they visited Cottage #23, “Casita del Mar” on the North Beach. Christine first started visiting the cove in the 1930s, and acquired the lease to Cottage #23 in 1967. Among the terms she used most to describe Crystal Cove were “treasure” and “gift.” In the late 1970s, Christine was one of the primary drafters of an application nominating Crystal Cove to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, preserving the Cove “as a resource and treasure for the people of California.” The application was a tremendous effort and a longshot, but Christine and her small committee exhaustively detailed the breadth of the Cove’s natural, cultural, and historical significance and uniqueness. On June 15, 1979, Crystal Cove was listed on the Register, preserving a gift that keeps on giving to the people of California.

Christine understood that Crystal Cove offers a uniquely engaging portal into nature and history. During the time that she and her husband Jack Shirley occupied Cottage #23, she prepared two different welcomes for guests that gave a sense of why she worked so hard on the National Registry application. One was a typewritten set of instructions for using the cottage, ranging from how to get the key to how to light the pilot light on the gas stove in the kitchen. She let guests know that the refrigerator on the back porch was “in great condition by Cove standards,” and that the toaster was old but still worked. The cottage manual went on to share that the two slipcovered sofas made great beds, and there was a hose outside for washing off beach sand. “Plenty of books to read,” she said, closing with a caution that “plumbing is delicate … cesspool is under living room!”

While the “instructions” on the “use” of Cottage #23 were extremely helpful, Christine realized they were an incomplete introduction, so she created a second list, and typed at the top “Do read this page first. After typing the other page, I realized I wasn’t telling the whole glorious story of #23 Crystal Cove, which has been ours since 1967.” Having welcomed guests with information about where the clothesline was and that the dining table extended to seat 6, she realized those useful details were not the most important things about the gift of visiting Crystal Cove.

“What about the splendid views from the deck, so often enjoyed at sunset?” Christine wrote. “What about the dolphins and pelicans going by and the exquisite shorebirds?” The second welcome invited Cove visitors to enjoy the gift of “The most natural stretch remaining on Southern California beaches for walking that is ours” and to appreciate “the power and mystery of the sea.” Rather than apologize for the rustic conditions of the cottage, she offered them as a rare gift: “the curtains are old and stained, but just open them up and enjoy the view!” and of the kitchen counters, sink, and cabinet, she says “treat them as artifacts.”

Christine carried this understanding of the true value of the gift of Crystal Cove to the rigorous application for the National Registry, and other pieces of her writing, all now preserved in an archive at UCI. “There is an enclave of cottages at one of the loveliest of natural beach settings remaining in Southern California” she wrote, and just a few months after the application was accepted, the State of California purchased the land “and the entire park was named after Crystal Cove, the small enclave of cottages … one of Orange County’s greatest treasures.”

The etymology of “legacy” is “a gift bestowed.” Coveite Christine Shirley’s efforts to protect the historic cottages with national recognition helped protect the whole park for the public as a gift that keeps on giving for generations to come.  If you would like to be part of this ongoing legacy by helping restore the remaining 17 cottages of the North Beach — including Cottage #23 — please consider making a donation to Crystal Cove Conservancy’s Heritage Legacy Project for California.

“The beach is always different,” Christine wrote. “Each wave is unique. The birds traversing the great Pacific Flyway come to visit. The tidepools are breathtaking at low tide. Waves from distant storms sweep in. The bluffs are as they were centuries ago. All this is here at Crystal Cove State Park” as a “resource and treasure for the people of California.”


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