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story & photos by Tyler Kindred
On the southern side of town, nestled between two winding roads, sits a white, two-story adobe dwelling. Appearing to be a historical landmark, the property was actually built in 2007, inspired by many of southern California’s Spanish architectural influences. The man behind the estate is Larry Culbertson, current president of the San Clemente Historical Society.
Outside the abode, a patched scarecrow watches over raised gardens accompanied by a Saint Mary statue in the front yard. Curved archways and wrought iron architecture generate a familiar feel. ‘Ole Hanson on steroids…’ as Mrs. Culbertson puts it.
Part Casa Romantica, part Smithsonian, a walk inside seems like a jump from southern San Clemente to some Spanish-themed Wes Anderson film. Taxidermy boar and deer heads fill the rooms, amongst century-old family tree diagrams and historical relics of the sea-fairing kind.
An elevator ride one floor down leads to the garage-housed San Clemente Historical Society - a small part of it at least. Cabinets filled with folders of documents rest methodically and chronologically organized alongside several barrels of aging homemade wine.
Formerly ensconced in their predominant El Camino Real property, the Historical Society now eyes the previously occupied Chamber of Commerce building on El Camino Real for potential housing. For now, the greater part of the recorded century lies in public storage, on built in stacks reaching over head-high.
We sat down with Mr. Culbertson to discuss the history of San Clemente and its notably eccentric founder, and why Spanish Colonial architecture is still very much a part of our future.
When did you’re involvement with the San Clemente Historical Society begin?
About 2004. I saw that the Historical Society was having a meeting, and they got together with a bunch of the old-timers, down at the old Robison house, and they shared stories. I found it interesting. They were looking for people to help out in various areas; they needed someone to help with the archives. I’ve always loved looking at the old pictures and reading the old documents. I’d go there once a week and help sort things out and catalogue things, and then they decided they needed someone to scan the photos. So I got involved in that, scanning hundreds of old photos that we had in the collection. The idea was to put it together into a book, the Arcadia book, which we finally got put together.
Have you always been interested in History?
Yes. I was raised in Long Beach, and my mother was kind of a history buff. She would take us to the missions, and the old adobes and the ranchos. From the time I was a little boy I always had an interest in the ‘old’.
When did the San Clemente Historical Society begin?
Well, the society was founded in 1973. At that point in time the historic buildings were being torn down. And in the 1970s those buildings were just getting to be 50-years-old. Originally, there were about 500 buildings that Ole built back in that short period of time, between 1926 and 1930, when the depression hit. The buildings were getting of an age where people were tearing them down to put up apartment buildings. A group of citizens were getting very concerned because they were tearing down not just the small, dilapidated buildings, but they were tearing down these big, important buildings, along the cliffs. So that was the real impetus. There was a building called the ‘Barteau’ building, that was right at the end of Cazadore lane; a beautiful house. That was bulldozed, and so a group of people got together and formed the historical society and encouraged the city to start saving these buildings. They were an important part of our history. So that was the impetus, 40-years-ago.
What’s been the inspiration for the design of this house that you’re living in now?
The Spanish Colonial Revival style. When we were designing this house, we went around town and looked at all the details that we could find. We didn’t want to copy an ‘Ole’, but we wanted to incorporate any of the features that we thought we liked. We looked around town here, and we also went outside of town, to other Spanish Colonial Revival buildings that we found in Los Angeles, and put together all the little details that we liked. We had our architect try to incorporate as many of those as we could.
What do you think has been the most interesting period of San Clemente’s history?
The founder’s period, definitely. Ole started selling lots when there was nothing here. He set up a tent and started selling lots in December of 1925. So for that short period of time, in 1926, 27, 28 and 29, it was like a gold rush town here. It was just construction everywhere. They called in carpenters from far and wide. They built over 500 buildings, commercial and residential. So it’s hard to imagine what it looked like around here. Everywhere you looked there must have been construction going on, so it was a very exciting time for the town.
What’s been an interesting story that you’ve heard about San Clemente?
The stories about the Casa Romantica are the some of the most interesting. Ole saved that best five acres for his family. He built probably the most amazing house in town. The whole story about Ole with 6 of his 10 children living with him at that point in time. The stories surrounding that are amazing. He had a pool in the middle with goldfish, and he was given an alligator that ate the goldfish. He was given all kinds of exotic birds. He was quite an interesting character.
Where do you see the San Clemente Historical Society going in the immediate future?
We’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing. We have several different facets of what we do. Our goal is to encourage appreciation of the heritage of San Clemente. We go about doing that in several different ways. We try to educate the public, we set up our booth on the first Sunday of the month, we write letters to the editor, go to city council meetings. We try to keep the idea of San Clemente, with the white stucco walls and red tile roofs, keep that Ole Hanson story in the minds of people. We’re going to keep doing that. A large part of that is preservation. Even though 40 years ago we slowed down the destruction of the buildings, there are still forces that are working to change the historic structures and even to eliminate them. So we are constantly trying to remind the public that we need to hold on to these historic resources because they are an important part of history and our identity. So were going to keep doing that, keep educating the public, keep working for the preservation of the historic resources, keep on doing what we’re doing.