by Tom Marshall, San Clemente Historical Society
Town founder Ole Hanson’s vision for San Clemente was for all buildings to be of Spanish Colonial design, meaning white stucco walls and hand-made red tile roofs. It was made an official requirement with the passage of the City’s first zoning ordinance May 2, 1928. Today, a casual observer can note that most of the buildings in town don’t comply. What happened?
For the first five years of San Clemente’s existence hundreds of homes and businesses were built according to those requirements. Around 200 of them are still standing. But the Great Depression of the 1930s changed everything.
By 1933, many buildings here were in foreclosure due to non-payment of loans. The Bank of America owned much of the property, many just sitting empty with no buyers in sight. They even had to foreclose on Ole’s home, now known as Casa Romantica. The bank faced similar financial problems in many other California towns it served. B of A had so much property on its hands and so little cash it fell deeply behind in paying the local property taxes.
The situation got so dire that in August, 1936, the City of San Clemente came within a week of having to declare bankruptcy and go out of business because it had so little income to pay its debts. The city’s collapse was averted at the last minute when Bank of America presented a check for $26,900 as final payment of its overdue property taxes in San Clemente.
While that took care of past debt, the future looked equally bleak. No one had the money to buy a home here. Something had to be done to jump start the local economy as the depression began to ease somewhat. The bank formed a subsidiary, The Capital Company, to build new homes and commercial property at affordable costs. To do that, the company and some local residents sought to amend the building ordinance to allow other, less costly, types of construction. City attorney B. Z. McKinney advised that the ordinance was probably legally invalid anyway. That idea didn’t go down well with many people.
The town’s residents became deeply divided on the issue of changing the ordinance from Ole’s original vision. The political tumult resulted in the ousting of Mayor A. T. Smith by council member Dan Mulherron, and what newspapers called a general political housecleaning at city hall. The new city council decided to resolve the issue in court by filing a “friendly” lawsuit against TCC. In November, 1936, Superior Court Judge G. K. Scovel ruled that the city had overstepped its policing authority as “the color of the walls and roofs …have nothing to do with public health, safety or morals; hence the ordinance … is invalid.” A court official noted Ole’s vision was “just an idea nothing more.” Incredibly, in December, Mayor Mulherron resigned and was replaced on the council by David Stoddard, president of The Capital Company, which was the largest single property owner in town. Apparently they didn’t worry about potential conflicts of interest back then.
By January, 1937, TCC began promoting a new, improved type of “playhouses” as they called their version of a vacation home or beach cottage. The homes were to be built in Rancho Tropico adjacent to the Municipal Golf Course with views of the beach and San Clemente’s “pleasure pier.” The cottages would feature knotty pine interiors, dining terraces and fully furnished rooms with nautical bunks. The lots sold for as little at $250 with a 25% down payment; all utility hook-ups included. Larger homes for full-time residents were also being built in what was called California Colonial style.
Reminiscent of Ole’s sales strategy, colorful advertisements ran in newspapers throughout Southern California, including Los Angeles. People were encouraged to come see the sites for themselves. The ordinance battle also attracted regional news coverage. It is unclear how many of these cottages and homes were built in San Clemente or how many may still exist. “If anyone believes they own one of these gems, we’d like to hear from you at sanclementehistoricalsociety.org,” stated Historical Society president Larry Culbertson, who is compiling a listing of the surviving homes.
Ole Hanson’s dream may have died in the 1930s, but it was replaced with a new dream of The Capital Company of an affordable playground of “Sun-Tan Beaches.” Other dreams continue to evolve making San Clemente truly the City of Dreams.