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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Lure Of The Coastline : Quiet Days For Casa Pacifica

October 16, 1988|LAEL MORGAN | Morgan is a free-lance writer who covered the Western White House as a Times staff writer in the 1970s.

Richard Nixon's former Western White House is now a haven of tranquility, one of the most elegant, well-manicured showplaces in Southern California.

The site of Casa Pacifica, known to old-timers as Hamilton Cotton's estate and to most of the world as Richard Nixon's Western White House, on early maps was part of an area identified as Los Desechos (leftover land).

Now owned by Gavin Herbert, pharmaceutical executive and owner of Roger's Gardens, a well-known nursery, Casa Pacifica ranks among the most elegant, well-manicured showplaces in Southern California. Its early history, however, gives no hint of promise.

Because the surf-strafed peninsula was too steep and overgrown to graze cattle or sheep, Los Desechos remained unclaimed for years after Spanish land grants formed valuable ranchos around it.

Its first private owner, Felipe Carrillo, nephew of Pio Pico, California's last Mexican governor, received Los Desechos as a gift from his uncle, but cared so little for it that he did not bother to claim ownership after the Mexican War. By default, the land became government property, and it was 35 years before an interested buyer appeared.

John Forster, an English seaman who had come West in 1833, adopting Spanish customs and marrying Pico's sister, acquired a large neighboring spread, and his son, Marcus A. Forster, purchased 1,500 acres of Los Desechos in 1883. The Forster family acquired the remainder in 1887, and when Spanish adventurer Cornelio Echenique married into the family just before the turn of the century, he received Los Desechos to give him status as landed gentry.

Later, Echenique, in partnership with Los Angeles wine makers Max and Herman Goldschmidt, acquired an additional 10,500 acres to the north. The property was divided after World War I, with the Goldschmidts taking Los Desechos. When their fortunes waned with Prohibition, the Goldschmidts sold the land to a 46-man syndicate headed by Hamilton Henry Cotton.

Among Cotton's friends was Ole Hanson, son of Norwegian immigrants, former mayor of Seattle and a successful speculator. Hanson dreamed of building the most beautiful city in California. He had passed through Los Desechos at the turn of the century and was haunted by its wild beauty. In 1925 he talked Cotton into backing a Spanish-style village on the site, and Cotton chose a 70-acre plot on the point above the Santa Fe Railroad tracks as the site for his own home.

Cotton had been a cotton broker in Chicago before coming to California and marrying Victoria Domingues de Carson, a wealthy heiress from a Spanish land grant family. He did well in oil and real estate, went on to become a director of Bank of America and traveled widely.

While touring Spain, Cotton and his wife fell in love with the home of the mayor of San Sebastian and purchased his blueprints. Carl Limblom, a young Scandinavian architect who had just designed the Spanish-style civic buildings in Santa Barbara and was working with Hanson in his real estate development, was hired as builder. The 10-room house, with its rich, dark woodwork and roof tiles shaped over the knees of the workmen, was built in 1926 and 1927 at a cost of about $35,000. Cotton purchased a tile factory to make the tiles used in the interior of the house and hired talented craftsmen to custom-build the furniture.

Cotton's daughter, Victoria, recalls arriving straight from an East Coast boarding school and thinking that she had come to the end of the world. The treeless landscape had been denuded in the building process and, aside from the sprawling white stucco compound with its red roof, there were no signs of civilization. In fact, rumrunners were using the peninsula as a drop-off point because of its isolation.

Gardeners transformed the grounds of the Cotton estate into a flowery, tree-shaded oasis with delightful rambling walkways, and in 1927, the little villa found its way into Architectural Digest (as it would again 43 years later).

Just to the north, Ole Hanson completed his beautiful village by the sea,naming it San Clemente and endowing it with a luxurious clubhouse and a beach house. Such well-known personalities as Charles Lindbergh, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanamoku patronized the shops and hotels. Cotton built a half-mile track on which to run his fine race horses, and a sports-fishing fleet was based at the village's 1,200-foot-long pier.

Cotton, who stood about 5 feet, 5 inches tall, occasionally appeared in town with his pet boa constrictor or played golf with his daughter Victoria's husband, Lionel (Tubby) Ogden. Lucy, the Cotton's second daughter, raised chickens on the estate and sold eggs door-to-door.

The family occasionally chartered a train to bring guests down from Los Angeles, entertaining them in two palm-frond-covered cabanas, each of which could accommodate about 200 guests and a dance band.

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