This week's mystery found our intrepid reporter ankle deep in the pristine sands of Victoria Beach. One of Orange County's more secluded public areas, the tiny beach is guarded on both ends by rocky cliffs and is accessible by a narrow concrete stairway down a steep slope. Above the beach, verdant hillsides are dotted with large houses on stilts. Here, the county's wealthiest residents make do. Beyond the beach's north end is a small cove, best explored at low tide, which harbors a storybook mystery known to some locals as the Pirate Tower.
To the uninitiated beach goer, the 60 foot rocket-like structure seems to have been carved out of the cliff by massive waves hundreds of years ago. Ocean breezes moan through small portals covered by rusting metal grates on the tower's sides and a large door at the structure's base, also covered in rust, reveals a wooden spiral staircase twisting to the ledge above.
A number of scenarios come to mind: Was the tower a lookout built by Spanish explorers or perhaps a lighthouse? Was it built by one of the area's right-wingers to serve as a sniper's nest from which to shoot incoming illegal Mexicans traveling by motor boat?
A less fantastic answer was found in building department records at Laguna City Hall. As it turns out, the tower is nothing more than a fancy staircase for the homeowner above. But the backstory is interesting nonetheless.
According to a report written by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, both the house and tower were built in 1926 for the family of William E. Brown, a state senator representing California's 37th district, and a frequent Christian Science lecturer.
“The architecture of the house and tower are closely interwoven with the natural precipitous quality of the cliffs,” reads the report. “The style on both is outstanding. The house rightfully serves as one of Laguna's landmark homes.”
“The highest art is the art of living,” he said.
By the look of things from the beach below, Brown lived quite well. The French provincial revival house overlooking the Pacific ocean served as a summer/holiday home for the distinguished gentleman and his family.
Brown sold the property in the 1940s to a retired Naval officer from Los Angeles named Harold Kendrick. It was then that the building took on a pirate-related mystique. Kendrick was known for dressing himself up as a seafaring plunderer and hiding coins in the tower's many crevices. Neighborhood kids would scour the staircase for hidden treasure, and what they found, they were allowed to keep.
Since then the home has changed hands multiple times and was recently owned by Hollywood diva Bette Midler, star of the 1988 film Oliver & Company. She and her husband Martin Von Haselberg entered into a Mills Contract with the city in 1997. Passed in 1972, the Mills act provides tax relief for homeowners who actively participate in the restoration and maintenance of their historic properties.
Many will remember Midler's turn in the 1988 film Beaches,
which featured scenes filmed a few miles north at Crystal Cove State Park's
historic cottages. The quaint little dwellings were built in the '30s as a movie set and a seaside colony followed. The buildings were spared from the bulldozer's blade in the new millennium through the efforts of the Crystal Cove Alliance and are available for weekend getaways
But it would seem glory of the Pirate tower of Victoria Beach is at a low ebb. As it stares across the deep like a silent sentinel, the forces of nature slowly chip away at its facade. In February of this year, a city building inspector found the shingle roof had reached the end of its life span and that “hydrostatic compression” had led to excessive cracking of the exterior plaster.
If ghosts exist, it's easy to imagine the spirits of wayward children searching for coins in the tower's cracks on lonely summer nights. Now, with the threat of falling chunks of concrete to beach goers below, one has to wonder if the children can expect to be joined by the spirits of crushed dog walkers. Stay tuned.