SANTA FE SPRINGS — The design on the courtyard's concrete floor was once coated with hundreds of egg whites to preserve it. The producers of the film "South Pacific" wanted to use thick clumps of bamboo in the backyard as a movie set. A vault hidden in a hallway was built to hold gallons of whiskey during Prohibition.
These are some of the tales told about the estate of Chauncey and Marie Rankin Clarke, a six-acre property that includes a two-story home designed in 1919 by noted California architect Irving Gill.
The City of Santa Fe Springs bought the home and grounds last year for $2 million, with the intention of making the property available for public use.
The City Council last month approved spending $1.5 million to make the lush grounds and distinctive home an appropriate setting for weddings or business gatherings. The restoration and refurnishing of the home is expected to be completed next summer.
"I don't think there's another place like it in Southern California that's available (for rental) to the public," said City Manager Don Powell.
The Clarkes built their estate, now nestled behind the City Hall complex on Telegraph Road, near the sulfur springs for which the city is named. The original estate encompassed 60 acres. Construction of the cream-colored home took about two years, starting in 1919. But the Clarkes lived in the house only 1 1/2 years because of the noise and construction that began when the oil boom hit Santa Fe Springs in the early 1920s. The house was staffed by servants until Marie Clarke's death in 1948.
Smooth, Simple Lines
John Loomis of Thirtieth Street Architects in Newport Beach is overseeing restoration of the Clarke house for the city. In a videotaped interview made by the city to record the history of the estate, Loomis said architect Gill used "the Mission style, removing ornament and decoration, which he felt were Band-Aids for mistakes."
Gill, who died in 1936, designed a number of houses and public buildings in Southern California. The architect favored smooth, simple lines, Loomis said, evident in the combination of arches and corners that graces the Clarke home.
A circular driveway leads to the home's arched entrance, with eight-foot Oriental-style double doors opening on a 3,000-square-foot courtyard.
Concrete pillars and planters of Mayan design line the courtyard, accented by red doors, red balcony railings and red frames of triple-arched windows on the second floor. Leaf imprints scattered on the walls and are believed to have been taken from trees on the estate.
The floors of the courtyard and home are made of the mineral magnesite and colored by a green stain. Jim Siemon, 83, who inherited the Clarke estate and sold it to the city, said egg white was used in a glaze to preserve the courtyard's color.
Siemon's mother was a first cousin of Marie Clarke, and he was one of three people to whom she left the estate when she died. Siemon bought out the other two heirs and lived in the house from 1950 until last year, when he moved to San Francisco.
In 1952, he sold most of the property to the city, which used the parcel for its Town Center complex, including City Hall, a library, an aquatic center and a performing arts center. He sold the rest last year.
The estate was so hidden by vegetation that "people who lived across the street didn't even know the house was there," said Councilwoman Betty Wilson.
The Clarkes imported bamboo stalks from Asia, some of which have grown to eight inches in diameter, but turned down a request for their estate to be used for "South Pacific," Siemon said.
Vault for Whiskey
Inside, the 7,200-square-foot home features an L-shaped first floor with no walls between the dining area and living room. Chauncey Clarke's fortune came from his family's distillery business, later sold to Hiram Walker, so Clarke insisted on a vault in the home where he could store his fine whiskey and gin, Siemon said.
The city has converted offices near the front of the home into dressing rooms for bridal parties. The second level includes bedrooms and a library.
The city's $1.5 million also will include $195,000 in furnishings, $434,000 in improvements on the house, $104,000 in site work, $105,000 in lighting and underground electrical service, $140,000 for a walkway connecting the estate to the Town Center, $90,000 for restrooms, $44,000 for trash compactors and $120,000 for earthquake reinforcements.
The City Council is still debating its policy on how the estate should be used, but has ruled out political events or fund-raisers. For Santa Fe Springs residents, the rental fee will be $400 to $500 per event, plus a $500 deposit, Powell said. Non-residents will pay $2,000 rent and a $1,000 deposit.
About 10 weddings were held at the Clarke estate last summer, in addition to a few city receptions and luncheons. "Once we get the whole thing done, we expect it to be used almost every weekend," Wilson said.
Despite the rental income, officials say the estate has been an expensive acquisition, costing the city $100,000 a year to maintain.
"We'll always lose money on it," Powell said, adding that the estate is viewed as "another park-like facility available to residents and people who own businesses here."