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San Clemente Journal

Making the Case for Mid-Century Architecture

Oct 12, 2020 10:36AM ● By Larry Culbertson

Mid-century modern at 241 Avenida Del Mar.

by Larry Culbertson, President, San Clemente Historical Society

San Clemente is iconic for its Spanish Colonial Revival (SCR) architecture. It was conceived as a Spanish village. The town motto is, “The Spanish Village by The Sea.” Nevertheless, there are other styles of architecture that have been introduced over the years and they need to be recognized. 

How did this paradox come about?
At the town’s beginning in 1925, deed restrictions permitted only Spanish architecture. Hundreds of buildings were built before the 1929 Great Depression brought economic chaos. In 1933 those restrictions were removed because it was believed they might hinder construction. Building slowly rebounded, with the pace accelerating after WWII. SCR architecture had fallen out of favor and was no longer required so San Clemente saw the construction of a variety of styles. Most buildings in the “T” Zone (Avenida Del Mar and nearby sections of El Camino Real) date from 1947 to the 1960s. Most are not SCR style.

By the 1970s people were beginning to realize that the SCR architectural heritage of the town was something that should be embraced; not shunned. The City now requires new construction in much of older San Clemente to be of SCR style, but those non-SCR buildings will be with us until the owners decide to replace them.

There is a certain allure to the idea of fulfilling the original dream of an unadulterated “Spanish Village.” But there is another line of thought that the non-SCR buildings have become a part of our history and that we should hold on to some, not all, as a record of our past.
San Clemente maintains an inventory of just over 200 buildings on what is called the Designated Historic Structures List. Only buildings constructed between 1926 and 1949 are included. When the list was last updated in 2006, it was recommended that we should consider the inclusion of 1950 and 1960 buildings. That has not been done.
It is high time to take a good look at San Clemente buildings from that Mid-Century period and encourage the preservation of most important of them.

Here are some of the architectural styles seen around San Clemente with a few examples:

Mid-Century Modern - This style has flat walls and roofs, large panes of glass for lots of natural light, floors at slightly different levels, and landscape visible and accessible.

166-176 Avenida Del Mar - Low, sleek, and unpretentious this attractive building has stood at the corner of Ola Vista since 1954. A shade structure along the sidewalk combines with the manicured landscape, stone walls and large windows to entice customers into the five storefronts set far back.

135 Avenida Del Mar - Since 1963, the amazing glass and aluminum recessed entry has beautifully displayed Sam’s Shoes merchandise. Cantilevered display cases and huge plate glass windows attract customers to enter. The roof projecting over the sidewalk provides sunshade and nightlight. It is a work of art.

241 Avenida Del Mar - Constructed in 1952 and currently in use as an office. The flat roof projects out past the corner of the building and over the sidewalk. That roof is punctured by a porthole and a bold two-story red brick column. A glass block window provides some light and an interesting detail. Full width plate glass windows accentuate the look. 
There are a many more Mid-Century Modern 
buildings in town.

 Googie – The architect John Lautner designed the 1949 Hollywood restaurant named Googies. The style became an instant hit for restaurants, gas stations, car washes, banks, and other consumer commercial buildings. Cantilevered roofs, hard angles, bold shapes, vivid colors, a variety of materials, and big plate glass windows are all themes of the style. 

550 N. El Camino Real - Pedro’s Taco - Designed by renowned architect Hugh Kaptur, in 1953, you cannot miss this building. With its heavily sloping roof, beautiful useless fin, and bright paint, it screams Googie. What a gem.

The iconic Denny's...


529 Avenida Pico-Denny’s - Since 1965, the classic boomerang roof and neon sign beckon the hungry.

Catalyst Surf Shop is an expample of Art Deco.

 Art Deco - These buildings have a sleek, linear appearance with stylized geometric ornamentation. Decorative panels at entrances, around windows, and along edges.

118-124 S. El Camino Real - This might be our finest example of Art Deco. Built in 1946 and carefully rehabilitated in 2017, Catalyst Surf Shop anchors the prominent corner, with Jimmy John’s, Bonzai Bowls, and Sur Coffee in the other storefronts. This mainstay of the T-Zone needs to be included on our historic roster.

220 S. El Camino Real – Built in 1948 this building gives a nod to Art Deco with the fluted panels above and to the sides of the corner entrance. The Red Fox Lounge has been in business there since 1955!

Tiki style, former Chamber of Commerce building at 1100 N. El Camino Real.


Tiki Architecture - 1100 N. El Camino Real - Built by the Chamber of Commerce in 1962, this is another building that no one can miss. Tiki did not catch on a lot in San Clemente, but this is nice example.

The Cinderella homes in North Beach.

 Cinderella Homes - This tract of 35 houses in North Beach bounded by Calle Sacramento, Calle Las Bolas, and Avenida Florencia was built in 1955. The style is marked by high-gabled, shake-like roofs and decorative gingerbread trim.

As you can see, there is so much more to the architectural history of San Clemente than just Spanish Colonial Revival. The only way we can save some of that history is to have it professionally evaluated and allow the owners of important Mid-Century buildings to take advantage of the tax incentives available to officially recognized resources.