When Ole Hanson set out to build San Clemente into a seaside destination, he envisioned the northern entrance way as an entertainment draw – a place people could see shows in a big theater, hang out poolside just steps from the sand or dance the night away.
Parts of the seaside town founder’s vision still stand in decades-old building, and while these Spanish-style structures give a glimpse into the past, they also hold hope for the future of this stretch of coastline.
San Clemente’s North Beach just recently earned official national and state historic designation, a 10-year effort to recognize the historical significance of North Beach and give a boost to the area with hopes it will become a tourism destination and, once again, an entertainment hub.
The history of the seaside town is weaved in the applications for recognition into the National Register of Historic Places and the California Office of Historic Preservation, a formal process that must go through several approvals before a building or place can receive the nod and be listed in the nation’s official list of properties worthy of protection.
“The idea of having a historic district is to help inform your own citizens of the historic designation, but it also lets the rest of the world know that San Clemente is an important resource as part of Orange County’s history,” said Larry Culbertson, president of the San Clemente Historical Society. “It’s something we’ve been working on for a long time.”
The new official name of the triangle-shaped area – bound on the north by North El Camino Real, on the southwest by Avenida Estacion, and on the southeast by Boca De La Playa – is now the “North Beach Historic District.”
San Clemente got its start about a century ago, in 1925, when Hanson had an idea to build a Spanish-style village in a remote area halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, the documents submitted to the state explain.
“I vision a place where people can live together more pleasantly than any other place in America. I am going to build a beautiful city on the ocean, where the whole city is a park,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, included in the application. “I want plazas, playgrounds, a school, a pool, a golf course, a ﬁshing pier and a beach enlivened with people getting a healthy joy out of life.”
The 1928 San Clemente Beach Club, now the Ole Hanson Beach Club, was the first built and already has a place on the National Register of Historic Places, designated in 1981.
The beach club was considered to be one of the best swimming facilities in America, a pool just steps from the sand. It was selected for the United States’ Olympic swimming team tryouts the year it was built.
But after its heyday, it sat for years – empty, falling apart and stuck in a time warp – until the city in 2016 rehabilitated the building and pool. Today, it’s a public pool and also a popular wedding venue that offers ocean views.
The former Aquarium Café, a one-story building built in 1931 next to the Beach Club, was a unique eatery and dancing venue with massive fish tanks lining its walls.
“Dining tables surrounded a central dance floor enclosed by walls filled with decorative live fish – swimming within four salt and freshwater tanks made from 240 square feet of plate glass,” the application says. “Two large towers atop the restaurant stored the necessary water supply for the aquariums. One captured rainwater that was fed into the freshwater tanks, while sea water was pumped from the ocean into the other tower to supply the saltwater tanks.”
Through the years, there has been a buffet of restaurants occupying the building, including the Anchor Inn, Margarita’s Village and the Ichibiri Restaurant. Today, it’s OC Fresca, which opened in 2019.
When the Great Depression hampered development, Hanson left for other ventures. But as the economy rebounded, so did his vision.
The nearby Casino San Clemente opened in 1937, at the cost of $75,000, drawing an estimated 5,000 dancers on opening night.
“The year was 1937 and Ole Hanson’s seaside Spanish village had withered following the nationwide financial collapse of 1929. People sought an outlet – like ballroom dancing and swinging big bands. And San Clemente sought something to revitalize what had once been a very promising community,” the application says. “The casino soon became a popular social and cultural destination, renowned for its name talent, such as Judy Garland, and live orchestras, including Sterling Young’s Columbia Network Orchestra, Bert Smith and the NBC Orchestra, and Dean Holt and his Trocadero Orchestra. The casino also hosted live radio broadcasts six nights a week.”
The casino was sold in the 1950s and became a Moose Lodge. By 1976, the building was called Sebastian’s West, a 360-seat dinner theater offering Broadway musical productions and theater, drawing performers such as Mickey Rooney, Vera Miles and Caesar Romero.
In recent decades, the building has been occupied by everything from offices to a science museum. Since 2009, it has been a popular wedding and events venue, with regular jazz and other concerts.
Currently in transition is the former San Clemente Theater, known as the Miramar, which first opened in 1938. For decades, there were concerts and movies, live performances and other events that drew people to town.
But since the early ’90s, it’s been empty, sitting stagnant and falling apart, its insides charred from a fire in 2005. Many big plans have come and gone in the past three decades.
“There were developers that wanted to bulldoze it, several proposals that would have wiped it out. We worked hard to save the Miramar with big campaigns,” Culbertson said. “When the Miramar is completed, it’s going to be a real gem.”
Keeping with Hanson’s vision hasn’t been easy, especially as some of the building sat vacant, falling apart, as coastal property values surged elsewhere across Southern California.
Last year the Miramar and former bowling alley were purchased by developers, the same who created the Windmill Food Hall in San Diego, and are currently under construction.
The two-story theater has a 44-foot tall, square tower at the building’s entrance, with recent restoration work unveiling a faded crest with wings and the words El Hidalgo – the Gentleman – the planned original name of the building before it changed to the San Clemente Theater before opening night, Culbertson said.
When its resurrection is complete, plans are to resume as a concert and events venue.
Just next to the theater is, or was, the bowling alley built in 1946. It was torn down recently due to its poor condition, with plans to reconstruct it how it once was.
“We toured it repeatedly, it was toxic inside – neglect, rain, mold,” Culbertson said. “A total disaster.”
Parts of it, such as large wood roof rafters and the bowling lanes, have been salvaged to be incorporated into future designs of a food hall and eatery.
Jay Correia, supervisor of cultural resources programs for the state’s Office of Historic Preservation, wrote in an e-mail that the designation was made official on Dec. 15, though advocates in the city only learned of their success in recent days.
At the most basic level, preserving these places provides a sense of place, Correia said.
“Preserving historic buildings creates a sense of shared history and belonging, which in turn may provide a sense of community pride and spirit. Preserving our shared history and experience illustrates the hard work and vision of people like Ole Hanson and countless others and hopefully fosters a sense that we all share an important role to play in our great state of California,” he said.
San Clemente is considered one of the earliest master planned communities in California, he noted. When compared to the millions of buildings in the state that have been constructed since the 1920s to 1940s, buildings that pre-date World War II are “comparatively rare.”
The state gives incentives to builders to work with these kinds of older buildings, with a 20% Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, applicable to commercial buildings like those in the North Beach Historic District, he said.
Tyler Johnson, president of the North Beach Community Association, said the new designation will shine light on a part of town that’s been overlooked in recent years.
“These are beautiful buildings that were centerpieces to the community, they were the jewels to the community before,” said Johnson, a chiropractor with an office in North Beach. “Instead of driving through that part of town, it will be a destination.”
But he also wants to make sure the new historic designation won’t hinder others trying to do business in the area. There’s plans for a brewery nearby, as well as another eatery with live music planned at an abandoned art supply store.
“We definitively want to see business development and growth in North Beach and not have this be something that keeps developers and businesses away became they are afraid of red tape,” he said.
Culbertson hopes the revitalization, keeping Hanson’s century-old dream alive, will help spur new life into the area.
“This is going to help put San Clemente on the map even more,”‘ he said. “What I see down the line: North Beach, it’s moving upward.”
Source: Orange County Register