by Anne Batty
Located between Avenida Palizada and Ola Vista, the recently renamed Old Town San Clemente was originally called the Old City Yard then the Old City Plaza, and it was once home to the village’s first fire house and police station.
In June 1928 the town’s earliest newspaper, El Heraldo de San Clemente reported, “a building to house the local fire department will be constructed by popular subscription and turned over to the city when completed.”
With this announcement the plaza became the hub of the town’s city services, and the generous subscriptions received from the local citizenry in amounts from $6 to $150 were used, not only to protect the town from fire, but to advance the building of a jail for housing the town’s drunks, thieves and trouble-makers.
Later, along with the first firehouse and jail, a municipal blacksmith shop (supplying ironworks to enhance the Spanish architecture), city warehouses and maintenance shops were built. These facilities were used by the city until 1962 when a new civic center was built on Avenida Presidio, but the maintenance yard was kept in the plaza until1974.
James H. Bennett was the town’s first fire chief, but in 1937 Merton Hackett, a reporter at the San Clemente Sun, joined the city’s volunteer fire department eventually becoming full-time fire chief and holding that position longer than any other. When he retired in 1966 he was the longest-serving fireman in the town’s history.
The police department started with only two employees: Chief Forest J. Eaton and a motorcycle officer, Harry Comber who succeeded Eaton in 1930. Their first headquarters was a single room on the top floor of the old Bank of America building located at El Camino Real and Avenida Del Mar. The police and fire chief shared one car, and the department’s main duty during those early years was to ticket the speeders who raced through the sleepy village on their way to San Diego and Tijuana.
In the 1960s, after the police and firefighters took up residence across town, realtor Mel Portwood came up with the idea to restore the old buildings; and along with several other partners bought the property from the city and turned the plaza into a shopping/dining spot. Eager entrepreneurs soon converted the old police station into a restaurant where in addition to eating and drinking, party-goers could have their picture taken dining in a jail cell. A succession of restaurants and local shops soon followed and continue to occupy space there to this day.
New Name, New Look
Sharing a new vision for the property, the plaza’s present owner, Eric Brenn, revealed “we have changed the name from the Old City Plaza to Old Town San Clemente because of its location in the center of the city and because we are redeveloping the property with an Old Town Western Theme. We are turning it into a food, drink and entertainment destination much like many Orange County cities have done before. It is designed to be a place where the community can meet, hold events and have parties; one where visitors can come to enjoy the town and its vivid history.
“The main restaurant will house a Nixon Museum displaying San Clemente memorabilia from a time when the town was known as the Western White House. Dignitaries will be pictured on the walls, and diners will still be able to choose dining surrounded by steel bars and wanted posters.”
Along with several other restaurants, all serving farm fresh foods, the center presently houses over 24 businesses including Blackbird Pies, Barefoot Bliss, Beach Cottage Nails, Vibe Hair Studio, Seashore Pet Spa, Beach Cities Barber Shop, Simple Touch Skincare, Pinky’s Coffee and Bagels, and many more. And when sharing plans for the center’s redevelopment Eric said, “our kick-off for the newly structured dining/shopping plaza is planned for December 2018. A large glockenspiel clock tower (a clock musically indicating time with dancing figures performing for 12 to 15 minutes) will be constructed to introduce the center and to launch a myriad of entertaining holiday activities.”
From Old City Yard to Old City Plaza to Old Town San Clemente, the name, structures and businesses may have changed but the plaza remains. In its spot in the center of the village it has become a town icon, one that serves as a constant reminder of the colorful heritage dwellers of the village have come to love.