Casa Romantica, the historic bluff-top home of San Clemente founder Ole Hanson, will soon be transformed into a cultural and educational center, to the cheers of preservationists who have fought to keep the property intact.
The California Coastal Commission's recent approval of the city's restoration plans was the final regulatory hurdle for the $6.8-million project.
Restoration of the 8,000-square-foot home--with breathtaking views of the ocean, arched passageways, a garden and murals by artist Norman Kennedy--will begin in April and continue about a year.
When it's complete, the "romantic house" will have new plumbing, wiring, seismic retrofitting, climate control for several small galleries, a small amphitheater and gardens designed by landscape architect Isabelle Greene.
Greene plans to replace nonnative plants with native vegetation, such as salt bush and prickly pear.
Once the renovations are finished, Casa Romantica can begin to serve as a center for the city's history and culture, said Greg Smith, executive director of Casa Romantica Cultural Center. The facility also will finally have the amphitheater that Hanson wanted when he founded San Clemente--his "Spanish village by the sea."
Smith said he hopes that the Smithsonian Institution will send small exhibits to Casa Romantica. He also envisions performances of Spanish guitar music and flamenco dancing, as well as literary events. The 85-seat amphitheater will be perfect for such programs, he said.
Several of the rooms off the arched walkways will be used for art exhibits and community meetings, he said. The Spanish-style courting gate will be left intact, however. The white, metal-barred gate fills an archway and is a replica of those in Spain.
For the people who labored for years to make the Casa Romantica revitalization a reality, the real work is just starting.
"There have been a lot of scares through the years and now . . . it's a fairy tale come true," said Blythe Welton, president of the San Clemente Historical Society. "It's actually the beginning for the casa. . . . Now we don't have to worry about this building being torn down."
That wasn't always the case. Casa Romantica was owned by several local families over the years, and was used for weddings, receptions and, for a while, as a senior citizens home. The city purchased it in 1989 for $2.5 million. But when officials discussed converting it into a restaurant or other private business, preservationists were alarmed.
Neighboring Mansions Replaced by Apartments
Hanson's home was built in 1928 and the area once was surrounded by mansions. But developers bulldozed most of those structures and built massive apartment complexes, dwarfing Casa Romantica.
Dorothy Fuller, 76, a past president of the historical society, lived in Casa Romantica briefly in the 1930s, and remembers carefree days playing on the beach and her parents' parties at the house.
"One of the neighboring homes "was torn down in the dead of night by a local developer to avoid [community] objection. It was a gorgeous home," Fuller said. "We were afraid that was going to happen to the casa, so we were very protective from that point on."
In recent years, the City Council considered a variety of proposals for the site. A plan for a restaurant was scrapped amid opposition from people who wanted to turn Casa Romantica into a community center.
In the meantime, the historical society was busy behind the scenes, raising funds, seeking donations and trying to maintain the home's historical integrity. "It was a struggle," Fuller said.
Then an anonymous donation of $1.2 million came through in March 1999. It was given with the condition that the house be used as a cultural and educational center.
"It's like a whole new world opening up, not only for me but the whole community," Fuller said. "For so long, people have been saying San Clemente lacks culture. What a sad report on our city. [But] now we're going to show 'em."