At 25, Lake San Marcos Proves Doubters Wrong

Times Staff Writer

It was back in the early and mid-1960s, and a few real estate daredevils thought that maybe, just maybe, North County showed some promise as an untapped residential wonderland waiting to happen.

And indeed, some of the proposals had merit.

There was, for instance, Rancho Bernardo, a concept for a “new town” in the boondocks up old Highway 395 from downtown San Diego, where innovative master planning would transform pastures into what would ultimately be considered by some as a prototype, Disneyesque suburbia, with its homes and golf courses, clean industry and shopping centers, community recreation centers and landscaped road medians.

The plan would work, the developers said, because it would be a nearly self-contained community with no reliance on San Diego amenities and support services. It was state-of-the-art San Diego life style at its finest, promoters said.


Then there was blue-blood La Costa, which pitched its ocean climate, Pacific panoramas and world-class resort and golf course near a major freeway connecting San Diego and Los Angeles.

There wasn’t a lot of doubt that it, too, would take hold: accessible California resort living at its sexiest best.

On the Other Hand

Then, there was that crazy little development in San Marcos, the creation of a Riverside County builder who had constructed 6,000 tract homes from Ontario to Banning to Hemet and who thought he would try something a little different for his swan song and go out with a project that would get ‘em talking.

A project built around a pond, down the street from a county garbage dump.

Around a pond? Near a landfill? In San Where? Between Vista and Esconwhat? Yeah, sure, Frazar.

“You can only identify and prove the true visionary by the number of skeptics and cynics that surround him, and Gordon Frazar was surrounded,” said real estate analyst Sanford Goodkin.

“The builders in L.A. were asking themselves, ‘What’s he doing down there?’ And the builders in San Diego were saying, ‘What’s he doing up there?’ Gordon was building between the two major markets, in a desert.”

But they’re not laughing any more at Gordon Frazar, and so what if the folks who live there call it, affectionately, “The Compound.” It seems Gordon Frazar & brothers pulled it off: Lake San Marcos, the place that Gordon built.


It was, he said, the first master-planned lakeside community in the United States. It was one of the first in the nation to market condominiums. And it was one of the first in Southern California, if not the country, to install underground utilities and cable television lines for its residents. Other developers said it would never take off; real estate writers were flown in--literally, right onto the lake--to take a curious look at the place, and just about everyone wondered about the same thing: Who would want to live there, 10 miles from nowhere?

25th Anniversary

Next Sunday, July 5, marks the 25th anniversary of the day Frazar closed escrow and, in a joint venture with Glendale Federal Savings, began the $56-million project. Excuse him if he croons a little. He liked his work well enough to stay there himself, and today his is one of about 1,800 homes in the development, 1,500 of which his company built.

“I don’t know if you could build this kind of a place today because of all the environmental restrictions and bureaucratic red tape. You’d have to sell the homes for $500,000, $600,000 or $700,000 for it to pay for itself,” said Ron Frazar, Gordon’s son and now the president of the family company, Citizens Development Corp.

These days, the lakeside homes resell for upwards of $250,000 (a lakefront home originally sold for $30,300 to $39,500 in 1963, and from $41,500 to $61,300 in 1971); other new homes away from the lake sell for $160,000.

Lake San Marcos was never intended to be a bedroom community for commuters heading to work in San Diego. It was designed to be a retirement community, and it flaunted its bass-stocked lake and two golf courses to tourists and Los Angelenos.

“It wasn’t easy for ma and pa in Iowa to pick up and move out here, but after a few of them did, it began to attract like people. After three or four years, word of mouth did most of the work for us,” Gordon Frazar said.

The centerpiece of the community is its 1-mile-long, man-made, privately owned lake. It started as little more than an agricultural pond, created in the late


1940s when the previous landowner dammed San Marcos Creek with a 50- foot-high wall of concrete so that he could water his onion, tomato and walnut crops year-round.

Creating the Lake

Frazar drained the little lake within two weeks of buying 1,500 acres of the property surrounding it, then dredged it to make it wider and deeper, with finger inlets to increase the number of lakeside homesites. Today, the lake’s surface area is 80 acres--about twice its original size.

The lake is home to blue heron, swans, catfish, bass and 100 or so small boats, including scores of covered, flat-decked, pontoon “party boats” for happy-hour putting about. Nothing larger than a 9.9-horsepower engine or motor is permitted; there has been water skiing on the lake only once, for a national competition.

The lower half of the lake will not be developed with home sites, Frazar promises; its shoreline features picnic grounds and barbecue facilities for family and group parties.

Frazar also built the regulation-length golf course, a shorter executive course, a clubhouse, a lakeside restaurant, docks and a commercial complex for lease, facilities for small business conventions and a 104-room hotel managed by Gordon Frazar’s daughter, Susan Siemers. This is an all-in-the-family place.

Frazar has retained ownership of just about everything--right down to the fish in the lake--and even rejected a county-built bridge over the lake to connect the roadways in favor of a privately built one, so that he would not legally be required to offer public access to the lake.


Frazar even declined to set up a homeowners’ association. “I don’t want 1,800 captains running my ship,” he says. Instead, homeowners pay Frazar’s company an annual lease fee for access to the lake, which he maintains.

Residents Smitten

Local residents don’t seem to mind playing by Frazar’s rules because they say they’re smitten by the place.

“I moved here by accident,” said Dorothy Fernlund, who until 12 years ago lived in Chicago. “We came here on vacation and played golf every day for a week. When it was time to leave, we looked at a few homes and decided on one, and that was that. That’s how so many people came here--they drove through or came here for vacation and the next they thing they did was to look up a realtor.”

Rollie Karter said he discovered Lake San Marcos when his parents, who live in La Jolla, took him to the lakeside restaurant for dinner. “That was on a Tuesday night (eight years ago) and by Saturday we bought our place,” said Karter, who had lived in Houston.

Howard Said said former neighbors of his in Los Angeles moved to the community and later invited him down to look it over. “There was nothing else like it that we could find in San Diego or Orange County,” said Said, who moved to Lake San Marcos 12 years ago.

Gordon Frazar got into home building because of a longtime interest in carpentry. After spending six years as a fabricator with Lockheed Aircraft in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and then a stint with the Navy in World War II, he landed a job with a home contractor before striking out on his own in 1952.


He headed the family company, which included brothers Don--who specialized in the sales and marketing end of the business, and Robert--whose focus was on-site construction. Together, they built 50 homes here, 60 homes there, all around Riverside County.

Frazar began looking toward retirement in the early 1960s. He wanted to go out with a flurry, and he approached the Irvine Co. in Orange County with a residential project. He was rejected, he said, because he had no track record showing that he was capable of handling such a large job.

So he went to his favorite banker and persuaded him that the San Marcos project would work.

“I’d seen that retirement communities could work because of what Sun City in Arizona had done. And I knew what people could do around water because of what had been done around San Francisco,” said Frazar, whose 69th birthday was Saturday.

“So I knew that if I combined some concepts, it wouldn’t fail. And instead of promising people who were buying homes that I was going to do this and do that in the years to come, and expect them to buy into my promises, I built the lake and the golf course and the restaurant first so they could actually see it. Then it was just a matter of them deciding they liked what they saw.”