The Historic Fire Of 1993 Destroys Bartlett BuildingMar 06, 2023 02:08PM ● By Tom Marshall
Fire officials said the blaze started in an upstairs rooming house, apparently from someone smoking in bed.
by Tom Marshall
This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the biggest fires in San Clemente history. The blaze gutted one of the oldest commercial buildings in the city; the Bartlett Building on the southwest corner of El Camino Real and Avenida Del Mar.
Built in 1926, it housed some of the city’s first businesses including a pharmacy, hardware store and the city’s first newspaper, The El Heraldo. In March 1927, Betty Weatherholtz became San Clemente’s first recorded birth. She was born in one of the building’s second floor residences. In later years the building was home to a pool hall, grocery store and a bookie’s office.
Fire officials said the blaze started in an upstairs rooming house, apparently from someone smoking in bed. Twenty residents were displaced. Only one minor injury was reported. “Those poor people lost everything but the clothes on their backs,” lamented the building’s owner, Ruth Clark.
Also affected were three businesses including Rocky Sabo’s surf shop which was two days away from holding its grand opening. Sabo was in the process of moving the business from its former Shorecliffs location because it had been impacted by mudslides which closed the highway three times. “I just can’t win. I may just give up,” Sabo told The Sun/Post newspaper.
Aware of the Bartlett’s historic place in the local culture, Clark promised, “We’re going to be like the phoenix that rises from the ashes.” That was good news to San Clemente Historical Society vice president at the time, Dorothy Fuller, who told The Los Angeles Times, “all life in town pretty much revolved around that corner. It’s had a pretty colorful past.”
It took 15 months and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the building to be reconstructed. To block the burned-out ruins from eyesight, a plywood fence was constructed. Local artist Sylvain Chamberlain volunteered to paint a beach mural on it. One of the panels contained a Picasso re-creation of two women frolicking with partly exposed breasts. That resulted in controversy. One resident, Rose Culbertson (mother of current Historical Society president Larry Culbertson) claimed it was inappropriate since it could be viewed by children. With a few dabs of paint Sylvain defused the issue, only to face protests from others who thought it wasn’t right to change the artists original vision for the mural.
Once the restoration was complete, Clark planned to auction off the mural to cover some of the rebuilding costs. The artist was enraged by that and whitewashed it before the mural could be sold.
Finally, the Bartlett building reopened May 15, 1994, along with Rocky Sabo’s Surf and Sport Shop. “It was well worth the wait,” beamed Sabo.