First it was going to be a Mexican restaurant, or used just for weddings.
But after someone showed up with an anonymous $1.25-million donation for the historic Casa Romantica, the 8,000-square-foot home of the city's founder, the San Clemente City Council voted Thursday to turn it into a cultural arts center.
"It was like an angel flying over," said City Councilman G. Wayne Eggleston, who is executive director of the Heritage of San Clemente Foundation, a local preservation group. "It was out of the blue."
The money came from a donor who used the Orange County Community Foundation as a conduit to protect his anonymity, said Judy Swayne, the executive director of the foundation, which supports social, scientific, educational and cultural programs.
"It just so happens I thought this was a nifty idea if it could be accomplished," Swayne said. "People say it's the heart of the city. Let's give it a chance."
When she called the city manager in January to sound him out on the idea, she first had to assure him it wasn't a crank call and that someone indeed had donated the large gift.
The first $1 million of the gift goes to restore the building. Out of that amount, $40,000 and a matching amount of city money will be spent to figure out the details of the restoration. The study is supposed to be completed in three or four months. According to the conditions of the gift, Casa Romantica could include a coffeehouse and a gift shop.
The rest of the gift, $250,000, will be used for an endowment on the condition the city raises an additional $750,000.
At the council meeting where the gift was debated, Swayne turned to the audience and offered this challenge: "It's up to you."
The $50,000 the endowment would bring each year should pay for upkeep of the Casa.
But the measure barely passed, 3 to 2. The council, sitting as the city's redevelopment agency, finally approved it about 1 a.m. Thursday. Mayor Lois R. Berg said she didn't think the council had enough information, and it shouldn't vote on anything after midnight.
Another proposal came from Casa Romantica's tenant of 15 years, Events by Design Inc., which organizes weddings and other special events at the Spanish-style house once owned by Ole Hanson, the city's founder. The house features whitewashed walls, a tiled courtyard and a spectacular view of the ocean.
Events by Design owner Maureen Gates said she is considering a lawsuit. But first she said she's taking out a full-page ad in the local newspaper to express her displeasure.
The city has given Gates a year to leave the property.
Gates proposed spending as much as $750,000 to restore the building over five years and bringing in a nonprofit group to run a museum or store. She currently pays $8,900 in rent each month. The city makes $400,000 a year from her business, counting taxes from those who occupy hotels when they attend weddings at the Casa.
She doesn't think a cultural center can support itself. "They'll lose all that money, and they're going to have to subsidize it," she said.
The city bought the house in 1989 for $2.5 million and still owes more than $1 million on the mortgage. The house needs extensive work, including seismic retrofitting. Swayne said any plan also would include planting gardens to return the barren grounds to their former beauty.
An important part of the foundation's proposal was to ensure the public has access to the property.
Until October, when a new City Council took office, it looked like the owner of the Ruby's restaurant chain would turn the Casa into a Mexican restaurant and build a 2,000-square-foot kitchen next door.
"I always thought the home of the founder should be appropriately used," said Rae LaForce, a board member of the San Clemente Historical Society. "We haven't had a venue for cultural arts, and this will be perfect."