by Donia Moore
If you have lived in San Clemente for a while, you have probably noticed a theme here. San Clementeans love preserving their history. One of the most beautiful buildings in town is located right on Avenida Del Mar and you have probably walked past it countless times. Maybe you’ve even stopped to enjoy a restful few moments in its lovely courtyard.
The elegant 60-room Hotel San Clemente was a shimmering light in the darkness for many people needing to rest their heavy heads when traveling between Los Angeles and San Diego in the 1920s. Built at an astronomical cost of $75,000, it was considered the place to stay in Southern California when it opened on November 7, 1927. For $2 a night, you could stay in one of the swankiest places in California.
If you were traveling through this neck of the isolated Orange County orchards along the Coast Highway, you really didn’t have much choice. Thousands of people were on the road, especially during horse racing season at Del Mar. America’s love affair with the automobile and road trips had reached a new high, and roadside amenities were in demand.
Homes Away From Home
Ole Hanson had purchased numerous plots of land for what would become the beach town of San Clemente. Due to his marketing efforts, interest was keen and sales were grossing up to $125,000 a day. Most lots sold for between $2,000 and $5,000 for smaller residences of three to five rooms. Garages and sidewalks were included. Massive mansions, like Casa Romantica (Ole’s home) and Casa Pacifica, were in the $30,000 range. People were coming in from all over the country to see the area. Locals from Los Angeles joined journeyers from Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Long Beach, La Jolla, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and even New York.
The visitors needed a place to stay while they were being wined and dined by Ole’s sales team. Equally important were the workman who were building the dream community and had to be brought in. Craftsmen and materials came from Mexico with their hand painted and Saltillo tiles. Others came with their plumbing, electrical, and building talents. San Clemente was off the beaten track at that point, with very little in the way of travel comforts. The Hotel followed the building tenets that Hanson set for all the other buildings in town: red tile roof; white stucco walls; Spanish influenced architecture.
Hotel guests could choose from a variety of activities during their stay. The beach and fishing were, of course, popular activities, but horseback riding along the extensive bridle trails that Ole Hanson had designed throughout the community was also a popular pastime. A couple years later, in 1928, 25 men and mules constructed the 1200 ft. long San Clemente Fishing and Pleasure Pier. Originally designed by Bill Ayer, it cost $75,000 to build - as much as it cost to build the hotel two years earlier.
Santa Barbara South
The graceful lines and fluid design of Hotel San Clemente were due to the architectural talents of J. Wilmer Hershey of Sears and Westbrook, part of developer Ole Hanson’s dream team brought here to create the seaside community. Hershey was hired by Ole Hanson not only to design the homes, boulevard shops, and the business and industrial districts, but also the public buildings, all of which were to follow the influence of Spanish architecture.
Hanson met Hershey when they worked together in Santa Barbara where Hershey redesigned the elegant courthouse following the 1925 earthquake. A master of Spanish Revivalist architecture, Hershey made some rough sketches for Ole, based on the informal rural style of Andalusia (Spain). They were the basis for the final Santa Barbara courthouse design, and later the Hotel San Clemente. The design of both buildings relied on similarity of materials and variation of design motifs rather than a symmetry of forms. Characteristics such as thick, white plastered walls, loggias, exterior staircases, towers, repetitive windows, iron grille work, balcony railings and gates, decorative tile and red-roof tiles provided some cohesion. Variations exist in the treatment of rooflines, entrances and windows, but the two buildings share a remarkable resemblance.
Focusing on the Vision
When Hershey’s designs were completed, Thomas F. Murphine, Trafford Huteson and George Halliday were responsible for the construction of Hershey’s Mediterranean style masterpiece. They were all cohorts of Ole’s from his Santa Barbara days and understood his Spanish Village vision. Initially helping out as Selling Agents, Murphine and Huteson brought the dream to life. Murphine sat on the city’s first Architectural Board and later became the first Mayor of San Clemente when Ole’s son turned down the honor.
Two other structures were built during the same period. Fortunately they have been preserved and are now part of the beautiful Stanford Court Antiques Store and Decorative Arts Center, which flanks the Hotel San Clemente. Michael Kaupp, owner of the Berg Building at 106 Avenida Del Mar and the Taylor Building at 104 Avenida Del Mar has painstakingly restored aspects of the buildings and incorporated them into his lovely shop.
Built in 1928, the Berg Building originally hosted the first open-air produce market run by Louis Le Gakes. It went through a number of transitions, including an automobile showroom and several incorporations of hardware stores before it came into Michael’s creative hands in 1995.
The Taylor Building was completed in early 1927, the same year the Hotel San Clemente opened its doors. It housed the Buena Fe dry goods store, owned by Miss Bowen. Hotel guests could purchase dry goods, bathing suits and men’s and women’s clothing there. Hers was one of the first businesses to open in San Clemente. She also started the first Circulating Library in San Clemente, storing a large stock of books in the rear of her shop. Both building interiors were incorporated into what is now Stanford Court Antiques and Decorative Arts Center.
First leased by James E. Lynch, an experienced hotel man, the hotel was later passed to Ole’s son Bob to manage. Originally, the hotel had 60 rooms with separate baths, but was later remodeled to include small shops on the ground floor.
Write Home About
Although Hotel San Clemente guests liked to send postcards and letters home to their friends and family describing their stay at the luxury spot, there was no official post office cancellation stamp. Postmaster Latham, the first postmaster for San Clemente, got tired of waiting for it to be approved and simply used pen and ink to validate the mail being sent out from the new town.
The little community grew rapidly. In addition to the Hotel San Clemente, it boasted an additional hotel called the Prada, one apartment house, a hand-carving furniture factory, three office buildings, a lumber yard, a mortuary and 10 stores, plus around 200 residences.,
The “Dirty Dozen”
The year following the hotel opening, San Clemente’s population “soared” to 500. There were only five children in town in 1926, but the city founders decided it was time to build a school. Las Palmas was the first school in San Clemente and the first teacher was Miss Bernice Hayward, who later became Mrs. Bernice Ayers. Students in her first class were nicknamed The Dirty Dozen. By 1927, the school was completed and there were as many teachers needed as there had been children in town the year before.
San Clemente Style
San Clemente had its share of growing pains affecting all the businesses in town. Traffic was horrendous in the 1920s, and parking for Hotel San Clemente, as well as many other businesses in town, was very difficult to find. One stop light at the top of Avenida Del Mar was all the traffic control in San Clemente. In summer, traffic got so bad that the city simply turned the stoplight off and had police officers directing traffic. The Seashore Café, owned by Tom Vidor, routinely went through 500 pounds of coffee a week, selling travelers cups of coffee for a nickel a cup.
When the much-heralded Golden State Freeway opened in 1960, it split the town in half. Few travelers ventured off the rapidly flowing river of traffic to pass the time in the little beach community. Cars no longer had to pass through San Clemente on their way north or south and hours of travel were cut from the drive in both directions.
“It looked like someone had locked the door,” said businessman John Cuchessi in an earlier interview. Many of the businesses closed. A few like the Hotel San Clemente held on but had to modify their business. The hotel’s owners decided to turn their deluxe property into apartments that are still rented out today.
Take Another Look
Fortunately, much of the original ambiance remained, and today the hotel still serves as a unique living space in the middle of town, a place to meet friends in the tiled courtyard with its vintage fountain, host a community meeting in the comfortable lobby, or just relax with a great cup of coffee at the Calypso Café. Walk on by and take another look at the beautiful old building that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It really is worth the walk.