San Clemente Historic Tour

California, San Clemente Guide (A): San Clemente Historic Tour

San Clemente - "The Spanish Village by the Sea." Come see how Ole Hanson, the city’s founder, made his dream a reality as we explore San Clemente's major landmarks. We'll start on historic El Camino Real, work through the city's main shopping district to the pier, and end at North Beach where some of Ole's Hanson most popular public buildings still remain.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: San Clemente Historic Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Clemente
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 2.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.1 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: El Camino Real   Ole Hanson's Office   Hotel San Clemente   Casa Romantica   Semper Fi Park   Beachcomber Motel   The Pier & Fisherman's Restaurant   Coastal Beach Trail   Metrolink Station   Aquarium Cafe - Ichibari's Restaurant   Casino San Clemente and Miramar Theater   Ole Hanson Beach Club  
Author: Scott Weber
Author Bio: Scott's a native Californian and loves to write about his favorite places and friends. He lived in San Clemente for 25 years and enjoys exploring the southwest every chance he gets.
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El Camino Real

1) El Camino Real

We begin this tour at the corner of Avenida Del Mar and El Camino Real, also known as “The Royal Road” or “The King’s Highway.” For centuries, El Camino Real has been associated with the twenty-one missions and four presidios built by the Franciscans between 1769 and 1823, but many roads were built under the Spanish crown and they were all considered a camino real. Fortunately for us, this is one of the Royal Roads that connected Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside to Mission San Juan Capistrano to the north. If you’ll notice the unusual bell-shaped streetlights, these are replicas of the bell markers that were placed in 1902 to mark one of the State’s first highways. The bell hangs from an 11-foot high shepherd’s crook to represent a Franciscan walking stick. 450 of these bells were originally placed along El Camino Real. The State of California took over the bell maintenance in 1932 and all the bells have been replaced with new cast-metal bells. The Franciscan’s however had an easier method, they threw mustard seeds along the path to keep them on track. Ever since the mission days, anyone traveling between Los Angeles and San Diego had to pass through this intersection. Presidents, thousands of Marines, millions of travelers, and even a nuclear generating station have all left their imprint here.
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Ole Hanson's Office

2) Ole Hanson's Office

It’s also no coincidence that this intersection was chosen by the founder of this seaside village to be the hub of his dream-come-to-life; “San Clemente, the Spanish Village by the Sea.” In 1926, the building that Baskin and Robbin’s Ice Cream now occupies was Ole Hanson’s land sales office and the first structure built in town. Hanson had not only surveyed the first phase of his cozy little beach community, he’d cut roads and staked out lots. All that was left was buyers. He ran ads in the Los Angeles newspapers promising anyone a free lunch if they’d come look and listen to his sales pitch. And not only did people come, they bought 1,200 lots in the first six months and a city was born. Although Hanson’s original office is now an ice cream parlor, the building that wraps around it and the Bartlett building directly across Del Mar fully illustrate the architectural style and attention to detail Hanson mandated of every structure built in town. The Bartlett Building was the second building constructed in town and has been at one time or another the Administration Building, general store, city newspaper and now a surf shop. Go into any of these buildings and enjoy the marvelous spaces created by the original architect J. William Hershey. The large and oft times arched windows, hardwood floors, and beam and truss work are a joy to look at. Before we leave this intersection I want to point out that many of Hanson’s original commercial structures still exist up and down El Camino Real. San Clemente has long been known as the half-way point between Los Angeles and San Diego, and many of the businesses adjacent to this intersection are remnants of that era.
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Hotel San Clemente

3) Hotel San Clemente

The Hotel San Clemente was built in 1927 to house potential homebuyers and tourists. It’s a majestic three-story example of the architecture that pervades the city. Originally it had sixty rooms with four commercial businesses on the street, but in the 1960’s, it was converted into 47 apartments. The main lobby and the outside Spanish tiled patio are still a popular place to have lunch and people watch. The building also supports four darling retail shops on the street; each with big arched windows that look out to the patio and street. On the up-street side of the hotel is Standford Court Antiques, also known as the Taylor Building. Built at the same time as the hotel, this building was for a long time the town’s main retail anchor. Ace Hardware used it for decades until the landlord and the hardware store owner got into a fight over the lease. Sound familiar? Well, the landlord won, Ace Hardware closed down, and now Standford Court Antiques has had a home since 1990. Check it out. There’s plenty of old memorabilia for sale. And a quick note before you get to the next sight, this is San Clemente’s main shopping area so take your time as you make your way down the street. The first Sunday of each month, the city hosts a crafts fair on Del Mar, and every Sunday on the lower block, local food growers sell their produce in an open-air market.
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Casa Romantica

4) Casa Romantica

The minute you enter the grounds of Casa Romantica, you know you’re in a very special place. This home was built in 1927, and given that Ole Hanson had been the primary driving force in home sales and land development, he chose the best of the best to build his own home. Carl Lindbom, who also designed Casa Pacifica, the home President Nixon used as the Western White House, designed this seven-bedroom, seven-bath masterpiece. Built around a gorgeous floral courtyard, Casa Romantica sits perched above the pier bowl area with an unmatched ocean view. When you walk out onto the rear veranda, you’ll know why Hanson picked this spot to build his own home. Extensive restoration has been done to the property and now it’s used every weekend for weddings, receptions, and other gala events. There is a small fee to tour the premises and I suggest you do it. The view alone is worth the price. Casa Romantica and the Cultural Center are closed on Mondays, but it is open every other day from 11:00 to 4:00. Admission is only a few dollars for adults and children under 12 are free.
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Semper Fi Park

5) Semper Fi Park

This park and monument were established in November of 2005 to honor the Marine Corps and the sacrifices they’ve made in service to our nation. Bill Limebrook and Lauren St. Vincent designed the 12-foot high, bronze statue of a marine in Dress Blues saluting the American Flag. The City donated the land the park sits on, thousands of donors gave money for the monuments, and hundreds of volunteers leveled the lot and landscaped the area with indigenous plants. It’s fitting that such a monument was erected here. As much as the relationship between Camp Pendleton and the City has often times been difficult, the marines we’re for some a welcome consumer and helped keep San Clemente afloat in some of its tougher economic times. Camp Pendleton was established in 1942 and they had a training facility just south of town. Many Marines and their families did and still do make San Clemente their home. Major services are held here on Memorial and Veteran’s Day and shouldn’t be missed as the 1st Division Band plays a medley of patriotic music.
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Beachcomber Motel

6) Beachcomber Motel

This classic old motel is truly a relic of the past and can be seen in many of the old photos of the pier area. Where in Southern California can you find charm like this? Built in 1947, it is considered to be the oldest running business in town. There are fifteen bungalows and each one has its own patio, kitchenette, ocean view, and all are within walking distance of the beach and restaurants. The view rivals that of the Ritz Carlton. It’s important to remember, until the interstate freeway was built, anyone traveling to San Diego or Los Angeles had to drive through San Clemente, the halfway point. Plenty of motels and cafes survived off of travelers. The Beachcomber is one of the exceptions that survived the changing times. You can still get a cozy vacation bungalow and at affordable price.
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The Pier & Fisherman's Restaurant

7) The Pier & Fisherman's Restaurant

The original San Clemente Pier was 1,200 feet long, 24 feet wide and was completed in 1928. It’s been on the losing end of two head-to-head battles with the Pacific Ocean and has been rebuilt twice. The most recent renovation added steel pilings so it looks as though Mother Nature will have to ramp up her next attack if she expects a victory. In the early days, the reefs between Cotton’s Point to the south and Dana Point to the north were rich with lobster and abalone. Sport fishing has always been popular, but over-fishing has depleted most of the south coast of all but a few species of bass and rockfish. In recent years, new kelp beds have been planted offshore to regenerate the fish community, but success is still uncertain. The buildings at the base of the pier, where the Fisherman’s Restaurant now resides, once housed the San Clemente Boat Club. The completion of the Dana Point Harbor in 1971 put a swift end to San Clemente’s fishing enterprises. When the pier bowl district was renovated in 1982, the now obsolete Boat Club was evicted to make way for something more profitable to the city. And so, of course, they built a bar. The Fisherman’s has continued to grow in popularity every year and the huge decks are a great place to relax and watch the blue Pacific. Inside the bar are some great old photographs of the area.
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Coastal Beach Trail

8) Coastal Beach Trail

Assuming the Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar hasn’t weakened your resolve to walk to North Beach, the Coastal Trail begins just north of the Pier and will give you ample opportunities to photograph San Clemente’s beautiful coastline. The trail was completed in 2008, but not without an environmental fight. The building with the clock tower is home to the lifeguards. San Clemente has five miles of the finest beaches in the county and 2.2 million visitors come every year to enjoy a variety of beach activities. Special events held on or near the pier include the Ocean Festival, concerts, and a July 4th fireworks celebration. And it’s not uncommon to see surfers carving up waves near the pier. Speaking of surfing, San Clemente has produced its share of world-class surfers and it’s also the surfboard manufacturing capital of the world. Local High School students can opt to use their first period to surf and satisfy the physical education requirement. I suppose a sun-tanning class will be next. Mid-way to North Beach the trail takes a gentle bend at Mariposa Point. On low tides you can see a popular fishing reef about a quarter-mile out. Closer to shore, is the “Mariposa” surf spot and to the north is “two-oh-four.” This spot got its name from the mile marker by the train tracks. As you might have guessed, most surf spots are named after shoreline landmarks. The large landmass to the north is Dana Point and on a clear day, you’ll see Catalina Island just west of the point. Oh, and don’t be alarmed if a train comes by. There’s usually one every hour.
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Metrolink Station

9) Metrolink Station

The Metrolink Station was built in 1995 to service the expanding population moving into the rapidly growing back hills of San Clemente. Metrolink trains stop here eight times a day going north and south. Amtrak stops at the pier twice a day. Trains have always been vital to the growth of San Clemente. Without the Southern Pacific line from Los Angeles to San Diego, many of these coastal communities might not have made it. Ole Hanson certainly depended on the trains to bring homebuyers and building materials to town. This whole North Beach section of town was vital to the towns growth. San Clemente is flanked by the ocean to the west, Cleveland National Forest to the east, and Camp Pendleton to the south, and due to its unique geographic position, has always struggled economically, so every economic opportunity was maximized. The train brought tourists, and the tourists brought money, and the merchants weren’t about to let a good thing get away.
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Aquarium Cafe - Ichibari's Restaurant

10) Aquarium Cafe - Ichibari's Restaurant

This building has gone through a multitude of owners and transformations. This was originally the Aquarium Café and was built in 1929. It was just a counter with 12 stools, a handful of booths, and several saltwater aquariums. The original owners, Mr. and Mrs. Servus no sooner got the doors open than the stock market crashed. Mr. Servus was so distraught he hung himself. His wife continued to run the restaurant. It was then tuned into a drive-in diner. This location was and still is at the primary northern entrance to San Clemente. Until the freeway was completed, anyone traveling to San Diego had to pass through town. The building has been enlarged, and for most of its existence, was the Anchor Inn, with a trademark neon anchor on the roof. The building was spared from destruction in the 1980’s when torrential rains overflowed the storm drains and washed away the Italian restaurant next door.
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Casino San Clemente and Miramar Theater

11) Casino San Clemente and Miramar Theater

The Strang Brothers built the Casino San Clemente in 1936. Prohibition ended in 1933, and with the population growing in the south county, the Casino San Clemente sounded like a good idea. It featured a bar overlooking the beach, a patio, and a circular floating ballroom. Over the years it has hosted a multitude of functions, but in its early years there were dinner shows, dance reviews, big bands, and even a few live radio broadcasts. Even Judy Garland sang here once. After WWII, rumor has it there was even a private gambling hall. In 1972, Sebastians Playhouse turned it into a dinner theater. The building has recently been restored and is available for viewing most days. Go in if you can. The ballroom is a true piece of history. Although it’s listed as a historical site, the building is available for weddings and other events.

The theater and bowling alley next door didn’t come until 1938. Depression times were still tough, but the town needed a theater. Oddly enough, the movie industry has always fared well in down times. I guess a break from reality is a welcome diversion. As of 2010, the theater is in complete disrepair. All options have been debated, but its fate is still undecided. The advent of videotape players and the Cineplex pretty much sealed the Miramar’s fate. It hasn’t been used since the 1990’s. And that long thin building in the back was a bowling alley. It hasn’t been used in over forty years.
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Ole Hanson Beach Club

12) Ole Hanson Beach Club

The Beach Club was built in 1927. It’s probably the most elegant of all the building built by Ole Hanson. It is a very popular place for wedding receptions, banquets, classes, as well as being used as the city’s primary swimming facility. In earlier times, regional tryouts for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics were held here. Ole Hanson was a very generous man and he knew if his dream city was going to succeed, he’d have to build all of the facilities himself. And he did. He built the Beach Club, community center, baseball field, library, hospital, pier, tennis courts, and the golf course. Shortly after the city incorporated in 1928, he sold these facilities to the city for one dollar each. To this day, residents can play at the municipal golf course at a reduced rate. Although Ole Hanson didn’t build every old structure we’ve seen, his name is used to describe the style. Of the 500 structures built on his watch, more than 200 still remain. This ends our trip. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour as much as I’ve enjoyed doing it. So for now, so long, and thanks for visiting San Clemente.