The history of San Clemente begins far south of the bustle of Los Angeles and just north of San Diego County, where the Pacific Coast Highway slows to meander through a coastal enclave dotted with terracotta-tiled roofs set against a glimmering Pacific Ocean.
The quaint town’s decidedly Mediterranean feel and relaxed pace of life could easily be mistaken for a vacation destination somewhere along the Amalfi Coast rather than just a short drive away from Southern California’s two most metropolitan cities—the exact sentiment San Clemente has aimed to evoke since its inception 90 years ago.
Before Becoming a City
San Clemente was originally occupied by the native Juañeno people but was virtually uninhabited until Father Junipero Serra established the San Juan Capistrano Mission in 1776.
Natives were conscripted to work for the mission, and it was during this time that native and Spanish settlers alike began to establish villages nearby.
A Man with a Vision
In 1925, Ole Hanson, the mayor of Seattle and major land developer, craved a sun-filled seaside escape that would serve as a vacation haven for Southern Californians tired of “the big city.”
With its idyllic weather, pristine beaches, and fertile soil, San Clemente embodied Hanson’s vision of a Mediterranean-style resort town.
One rainy day in December of 1925, Hanson invited over 600 LA inhabitants to venture out to the undeveloped plot and hear his real estate presentation, providing luxury transportation and meals for all interested buyers.
His efforts proved to be worthwhile: within six months, Hanson sold over 1,200 lots at an average price of $300/lot.
In an effort to lend the town a uniform Spanish colonial charm, a mandate was issued with each land deed that required buildings sport white stucco exteriors and red tile roofs, an architectural style that’s since distinguished the area.
A House of Romance
Hanson himself wanted a slice of his seaside resort dream. He built a villa-style home for his family that he named “Casa Romantica,” a sprawling estate perched on a bluff overlooking the town’s iconic pier.
He lost the property in the Great Depression shortly after inhabiting it, and the home was confiscated by the bank. After passing through the hands of several different owners, Casa Romantica eventually fell into a state of neglect and seemed doomed for demolition.
Fortunately, a group of San Clemente activists, coupled with generous donations from local residents, were able to preserve the historic house, restoring it to its original glory and converting it into San Clemente’s cultural and historical center.
The Whitehouse of the West
San Clemente became a sought-after getaway not only for weary LA residents, but for weary DC politicians as well.
In 1969, Richard Nixon purchased a portion of the HH Cotton Estate, one of the original Hanson homes. The property was nicknamed the “Western Whitehouse”—a term used for a president’s vacation home. World leaders would come visit Nixon at his San Clemente home, and after his resignation, he made the Western Whitehouse his permanent residence until he sold it in 1980.
Prior to Nixon, the estate also hosted Franklin D. Roosevelt who liked playing cards while overlooking the ocean.