Coal Oil Point’s Spotlight Building: how it has been memorialized today


When walking down the streets of Isla Vista, the college town located adjacent to the UC Santa Barbara campus and known for its wild parties, the beautiful beaches are easily seen curving around the distant point. This small bay is known as Coal Oil Point. Strong waves lap the shoreline which is smothered in kelp during summer. Peeking out from the cliffs overlooking this beach is a dilapidated, crumbled down shack. It is not large building, but over the years it has added to the character that causes thousands of people to flock to this beach every year.

This house was built and once owned by the well known Campbell family. They bought hundreds of acres around western Goleta and constructed many houses, including (at the time) a beautiful abalone shelled beach cottage surrounded by magnificent Cypress trees on the calm shores of this beach.

Legend has it that the Campbell family used this beach cottage, that has tunnels extending under the cliff it sits on ,for smuggled goods and alcohol (which was illegal during the Prohibition era). In 1945, the land was sold to Helena Devereaux, who gave this land to the college later on.

Over time this building has been forgotten: since the land was sold there has been no purpose for it. In the past one hundred years, this structure has turned into a landmark for this ‘chilled out’ small surf town. One can not think of Isla Vista without mentioning this building.

So why is this building important? The memory of this structure has changed over time, causing society to perceive this building in a new fashion every few years. This is due to the fast turnover rate that occurs with a college town. Mystery begins to creep in when people start thinking it might have been a smuggler’s hole or a jailhouse, but not just a quaint beach cottage. Due to the bars that are on the front of the building, it is now referred to as the “jailhouse”, or the “jail” in present day references.

This is called collective memory: a society as a whole remembering something together. As Dee Britton, a professor at SUNY Empire State College wrote in an article: “collective memory is used by groups to interpret a past, and yet these memories become detached from the past…[and] deliberately eliminate others from representation (collective amnesia)”.

This jailhouse has been collectively altered in society’s eye during its time watching over Coal Oil Point. The idea that it was a beach house, or a smugglers hole has been “detached from the past”, and has long been forgotten. Now, it is replaced with a new idea of what the building is.


Beach Cottage during present day

Along with this is the idea of how collective memory creates new opportunities. Because this building no longer has a purpose, this ever-changing society has created a new idea for re-shaping this enclosure. Today this house is laden with people painting graffiti art all over the cobblestones, taking over the space. College aged men and women circle around this building like hounds, attempting to have a crack at putting their mark down on this legendary building.

Due to collective amnesia, people have been allowed to turn this disintegrated building into a work of art. This has created a new beginning for this house, a new purpose if you will.

I look forward to coming back to this beach in 20 years and seeing how else it has changed then.

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