Tuesday, September 1, 2009


When I tell someone that I am from Orange County, they usually look amused and ask if people are actually as trashy as "The Real Housewives" on TV. Well, there are plenty of shallow, out-of-touch people who drive Hummers with stickers on the back of Calvin kneeling before a giant cartoon cross. There are plenty of Republicans, plenty of "professional" surfers, plenty of brand new stucco tract homes, plenty of malls, plenty of bad, overwrought cuisine... but there is also a interesting and rich history that many locals themselves don't know much about.

All of California was once part of the Spanish Empire. When the Spanish came up from Mexico to colonize, the Catholic church was at the forefront of the effort. They founded a chain of outposts called Missons up and down California. Near San Clemente is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776. Once Mexico gained independence from Spain, the church's land holdings, including the Missions, were divided up among private rancheros. There is an extensive record of life in Mexican California written by Richard H. Dana. My elementary school was named for him, as was the town of Dana Point.

Even decades after the US conquered the west, most of Southern California was still large cattle ranches and huge family farms. Development came slowly at first, and the towns of Santa Ana (the new county seat), San Juan Capistrano and Newport Beach were sleepy rural retreats a day's travel from burgeoning LA. The Los Rios district in San Juan Capistrano is a picturesque remnant of a late 19th and early 20th century neighborhood in Orange County.

The oldest house in California occupied by a single family is the Rios Adobe, built in 1794. It forms the heart of Los Rios district.

My town, San Clemente, was founded in 1925 by former Seattle mayor turned developer Ole Hanson. It was designed to be a vacation retreat from LA or San Diego. All the buildings were designed in a Spanish Colonial Revival style popular in California in the 20's. Hanson built a pool and beach club, theatre, dance hall, pier, and laid out the streets of the entire town. The depression stopped development, and most of Orange County still remained a sleepy farmland until World War II, when the defense industry brought an influx of arrivals from out the midwest (including my grandparents) and the freeway system allowed the suburbs to expand down from LA.

One of the original Hanson homes, Casa Pacifica, was owned by Richard Nixon. It is a spectacular example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture.

Casa Pacifica is situated at the southern most point in town, and right at the edge of Orange County at the boarder with Camp Pendleton Marine Base, which stretches for miles down the coast, development free, until San Diego. Here, Nixon retreated after Watergate, and walked on the sand in his hard black dress shoes, thinking about what an evil person he was.

1 comment:

  1. Never realized that bit about Nixon. Reading Fortress of Solitude by Lethem, which mentions Nixon walking on the beach--just got to that part! Great history thank you...