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Newport Beach

Volume 6, Issue 38  | May 11, 2021

You Must Remember This: Ugly house contest vs. preserving dwellings from the past


In the last few years, we have had three new houses – three huge new houses – built on our block, each one uglier than the next. It was puzzling until I realized it must be some sort of contest. After all, there are ugly sweater contests, so why not an ugly house contest? I don’t know why someone would sponsor such a contest or why anyone would want to compete, but it’s the only solution I can come up with. And yes, I know about people in glass houses. My house would never win any beauty awards. Built in the fifties, we’ve done upgrades but mostly to the interior – replacing pink plastic countertops, swapping out aluminum-framed windows – but the outside is pretty much the homely thing it always was. It has one saving grace, however. It’s a small house on a small lot, and as a result, it quietly whispers its homeliness instead of shrieking it as some of these larger ones do.

The funny thing is that despite its lack of architectural beauty, my house and others of its era have quite a few fans, perhaps because they hearken back to a period before Newport was Rich and Famous, when we were just a little beach town. Taken one by one, these old houses aren’t that much, but as a group they exude a quaint charm which is attracting fresh attention as evidenced by a new committee of the CdM Residents Association, an historical committee under the auspices of Ron Yeo, the architect. One of the goals of the group is to preserve, if not in actual form at least in memory, as many of these older homes as possible. Tom Heffernan is leading the effort, and he has already documented more than 200 houses built in the 40s and 50s and is gathering as much information on each as he can. In addition, the committee is working on various ways to make it more attractive to preserve these older homes. Now, I get it.

Nobody who bought my house today would live in it. For a house that costs under six figures (eat your heart out), it’s great. For seven figures? No way.   Even as an investment property, by the time you add in the property taxes it’s too small to charge enough rent to make it worthwhile. Faced with this reality, the committee is mulling over an effort to get the city to adopt the Mills Act. The Mills Act is like the Williamson Act, except for houses instead of agriculture. Like the Williamson Act, it is completely voluntary. If you don’t want to do it, there’s nothing to make you, but if you do participate, you agree to preserve the home for 10 years, and in return you get a tax break, enough of one to make renting it more feasible. At the end of 10 years, you can re-up or walk away. With the recent election narrowing the opportunity to pass Prop 13 protection on to heirs, this might be just enough of a difference to save the old family homestead.

But back to the contest. Bigger is if not better at least demanded, but there are ways of going big and still building something that looks like it belongs in the neighborhood. It’s sort of like the Lido House. The Marriott and the Fashion Island hotels are very well-regarded, but as far as their architecture, they could be in Milwaukee. The Lido House, on the other hand, says it’s part of a coastal town from any angle. It seems that developers could take a cue from that – do their best to capture a bit of the neighborhood’s ambience and still go up in size, but seeing the number of examples that do just the opposite, I’m back to my original conjecture – an Ugly House Contest – and live in expectation of a trophy winner on my block. 


Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, longtime resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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