China Cove: Corona del Mar’s Hidden Paradise

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Before Corona del Mar there was nothing but Rocky Point, a windswept mesa high above the harbor entrance. Beneath this bluff was a yet unnamed cove that was mercilessly beat about by the large waves cresting and breaking at the harbor entrance. In the early years of Newport Beach, this approach to Newport Harbor witnessed many boating and marine mishaps that resulted in numerous deaths. China Cove was void of human life at that point, but had an over abundance of rattlesnakes, gulls, fish, starfish and stingrays. Little did any of Newport’s early pioneers know that this rough and tumble cove would be among the chic enclaves in Newport Beach.

By the1930s with the completion of the two jetties, thus ensuring a safe access to the harbor, China Cove’s sandy beaches were protected from the ravages of the sea and became the first sheltered inlet upon entering Newport Harbor. This made it a prime target for builders and developers.

In 1925, among celebrities such as Duke Kahanamoku and then famous movie queen Dorothy Mackaill, the Balboa Palisades Club was founded by 100 members. The members built an exclusive club and bath house just east of Sparr’s Bathouse. The club offered boat service, cottages and general recreation. This privately funded club was financially unsustainable because of its location, lack of good water and competition with the town of Balboa on the peninsula, which had everything that the Palisades did plus the easy access of the Red Car rail service. By 1928, a group of Pasadena members purchased the Palisades operation and tried to resurrect the struggling resort. But the Great Depression was a death knell for the Palisades Club as was reflective of the entire effort to develop the Corona del Mar bluff area. Lot sales were non-existent and many cash-strapped owners gave there lots back to the City of Newport Beach for as little as $75 in back taxes.

As part of these tough times, the Balboa Palisades Clubhouse was sold. It was at this time that the cove became home to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) biological studies building. William G. Kerckoff, a tycoon, donated $50,000 from his fortune earned through enterprises in lumber, gas, oil, electricity and land development. The building remains to this day and has become the landmark structure for the cove.

One year later in 1929, the China House, which gave the cove its moniker, was built by William Lindsay, a prominent department store owner and attorney. He built it for his wife who loved “oriental” architecture and colors, thus giving rise to a tiled roof, ornate fixtures and a carved dragon. Factually, some of the home was decorated in Japanese tradition as much as in Chinese but the name stuck. The home stood as a prominent fixture in the harbor until it was torn down and redeveloped into two luxury homes in 1987.

Today’s residents of China Cove are either quite wealthy, in that, the actual land values are some of the highest in town, or extremely lucky, in that, the property was purchased a generation or more ago and they have ridden the extraordinary appreciation train to current values.

The lower level homes are boxed together on small lots while the upper homes face directly west for some of the finest views in town. Values in the cove are high with sales averaging $3,420,708. Unlike other neighborhoods, the number of houses that don’t sell is as high as those that do. On a square foot basis, prices average more than $1,000 per square foot with a history of sold properties that have averaged as high as $2,699 per square foot on Cove Street. No other neighborhood truly compares to China Cove. It’s an appraiser’s nightmare.  Compare today’s prices and square footage costs to the fact that in 1929, you could buy three lots for $6,500. Not a bad investment if you still had those three lots today.

Now, China Cove is one of Newport Beach’s greatest hidden secrets even without a guard gate and the fact it is open to the public. It’s known by many Newport Beach residents for its volleyball and beach; perfect for local mothers with small children. Sure, an occasional sun worshiper from out of town will find their way down the steep access road only to get confused and frustrated by the dead end streets and lack of parking. They soon discover that Big Corona is right around the corner with plenty of parking, food, fire rings and lifeguards.

To the residents of China Cove, this is one of the reasons for their loyalty. They love the quaintness and the turn of the 20th century flair of it. These wonderfully spoiled homeowners find themselves with little to complain about except for an occasional city ordinance that changes the rules regarding the beach and/or the streets. Other than that, China Cove is pretty much left to its own devices.

There are few properties in China Cove, making it the perfect blend of a bayfront and beachfront lifestyle. There is casualness about the residents that surpasses even Balboa Island and the Peninsula. As my grand dad used to say, “Elegance is in the mind of the beholder.” China Cove is quite elegant in a small and totally unique way.

Reach Duncan Forgey at Prudential California Realty. His phone is 949.548.4800  and his email is Forgey5000@yahoo.com.

By Duncan Forgery