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A Passport Won’t Get You to These French Charms in Oceanside

St. Malo is a cluster of French Normandy Tudor homes on the north side of the Buena Vista Lagoon between Oceanside and Carlsbad. You can see the slanted roofs, decorative half-timbering, turreted towers and animal wind vanes of this distinctive community from Highway 101 and the beach.

Many have wondered about this idyllic Oceanside community, and many have tried to charm the 24-hour armed guard who presides over the gated entry, admitting only owners or guests of the very private residents within.

Count me among them. Long fascinated by the charming community behind the gate, I too tried to gain entry by sweet talking the guard. It is such a pleasant spot; it’s where I want to live when I win the lotto.

The guard was not impressed.

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Disappointed, but undeterred, I contacted Doug Harwood, a broker with Coldwell Banker/The Harwood Group, who has an active listing on a home inside the gates at 77 Saint Malo Beach for just under $2.9 million.

Rare Treat

I had done my research and knew that the community was founded in 1926 by Kenyon and Louise Keith of Pasadena.

As luck would have it, Harwood has worked for the family of the founders for years. He not only was personally knowledgeable about the secretive community, he had a stylish coffee table book written by a descendant of Keith’s on the history of St. Malo. Written exclusively for St. Malo residents, I had the unique privilege of being invited to his office to read through it.

“I can’t let you take it with you,” Harwood said. “It’s one of only a few in existence.”

And what a treat it was. There were fantastic photos carefully curated from the very beginning of the project all the way through to nearly current day.

Keith, a Pasadena architect and builder, and his wife Louise were in Europe in the 1920s and were captivated by St. Malo, a quaint French fishing village in Brittany. They dreamed of building a similar homestead on the coast in California.

Scouring the coast from Ventura to San Diego, they finally found three oceanfront acres in Oceanside, but the owner informed them that they had to buy all 26 acres or no deal. The Keiths took it.

In a partnership with other family investors, they paid $91,000 in 1926 for the acreage and developed St. Malo, a private enclave for friends and family. Even though in a few short years the stock market would crash and the Great Depression would besiege the country, it was a sound investment.

Keith set strict architectural guidelines and transfer of title rules for each home, most of which remain in place today. In 2014, there are 82 homes in the community, with three lots left.

Many of the original families are still there, transferring ownership of the properties through the generations. However, Harwood said there have been more homes sold outside of the original families lately because as prices go up, “the pool of buyers thins out.” Harwood said 10 homes have sold in the last six years, and they have not been family transfers.

A Trip Back in Time

Kristi Hawthorne, a 31-year resident of Oceanside and volunteer archivist for the Oceanside Historical Society sent me several newspaper articles on St. Malo dating back to 1930.

Hawthorne, who has also written a book “Oceanside, Where Life is Worth Living,” said of St. Malo, “Nowadays, you and I can take a two-week vacation every year, but the people who owned property in St. Malo in the 1950s and 1960s ‘summered.’”

The book on St. Malo’s history confirmed this luxury. Like something right out of a John Cheever novel, it said every year the families would come from Pasadena to spend the summer on the beach. The wives moved the household and children to St. Malo, leaving the husband’s behind to work. On Fridays, husbands and friends would board the express train from Los Angeles and drink and play cards in the club cars, arriving for the barbecue parties at the cabana just in time for sunset.

The St. Malo of today is indeed a throwback to times gone by, a private oasis on the Pacific Ocean — definitely worth a lotto ticket.

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