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.
Cotton became a leader in the Democratic Party and gained national attention by entertaining Franklin Delano Roosevelt at all-night poker games. The crippled President, who arrived by train, was hoisted by pulley to Cotton’s gazebo, which was conveniently located near the tracks midway up the cliff at the base of the main lawn. The friendship soured, however, after Roosevelt announced that he would seek a third term.
“No man should be president more than two terms,” declared Cotton, who ultimately transferred his allegiance to the Republican Party.
AFTER COTTON DIED IN 1952 at age 71, his wife struggled to oversee the large estate with the help of daughter Lucy. By the late 1960s, the garden walkways had become so overgrown it was impossible to locate them, and the house was run-down. Neighboring mansions were being demolished to make way for condominium complexes.
Such destruction of San Clemente history angered Fred Divel. He was proud that his family had been among the first in San Clemente and was determined to preserve its past, but what he needed was political clout.
In 1968, Divel attended the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, and then went with Richard Nixon’s campaign planners to a strategy session in San Diego. Although he was only 18, his goal was to convince Nixon aide John Ehrlichman he would be invaluable on the campaign trail. Ehrlichman wasn’t encouraging, but he suggested that Divel “keep an eye open for a house that could be used as a Western White House,” and the young man took the assignment seriously.
After shopping around, Divel chose the Cotton estate and talked the housekeeper into giving him a tour. The garden was a loss and the fishpond dense with algae, but the fine old house looked quite livable. Its location--bordered by the sea, Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base and Interstate 5--was ideal, both from a logistical and security standpoint.
Divel photographed the place throughout, pinpointed its location on county maps, obtained an aerial view from the police chief and sent the package off to the Secret Service, which was responsible for checking out locations for security.
Richard Nixon was delighted. The Orange County native loved San Clemente. It was here he had courted Pat Ryan. According to the biography written by daughter Julie, Pat accepted his proposal while sitting in a parked Oldsmobile on a Dana Point bluff that afforded a romantic view of San Clemente beaches. What sweeter triumph than to present her with a charming villa in that classic Spanish village by the sea?
Although somewhat surprised, 90-year-old Victoria Cotton graciously accepted Nixon’s offer of $340,000 for her home and the 20 acres surrounding it.
Nixon’s daughter Tricia had her doubts. The rooms of the Cotton house were dark and musty, with Spanish-style furniture, heavy damask drapes and wrought-iron bars on the windows. Awnings and overgrown hedges blocked the light and view.
“It was something out of the past,” Tricia Nixon later recalled. “The house had such a strong personality that I doubted if we could ever make it our own.”
But Pat Nixon was equal to the task. Working with Jerry Alsobrook, interior design director for Cannell & Chaffin, the First Lady managed to transform the vintage villa into a comfortable contemporary home.
Purists were horrified when the hardwood interiors were painted a sunny yellow, but it gave the place the air of warmth and hospitality she sought, and she was careful to leave the hand-painted Mexican tiles unscathed. Since the Nixons did not have great personal wealth, she ordered their old furniture reupholstered.
The unpretentiousness of the First Lady’s choices astonished veteran members of the Washington press corps who were accustomed to Jackie Kennedy’s sophistication and Lady Bird Johnson’s unrestricted budget. But Architectural Digest, in its winter issue of 1970, devoted 16 pages to the Western White House and lauded Pat Nixon’s “sensitivity to design.” The President built at nearby Camp Pendleton a duplicate of his Washington Oval Office and a large compound to house staff. Nixon’s California vacations would be working vacations.
SAN CLEMENTE, WHICH had never recovered from the Depression and the loss of Ole Hanson’s leadership, had the dubious distinction of being known as the sleepiest community in Orange County, and residents were slow to grasp the potential of a resident President.
The woman who ran the Welcome Wagon sent greetings as she would to any new San Clemente homeowner, but no one turned out to welcome the President when he arrived in March, 1969, to try out his new house.
“There goes the neighborhood,” grumbled a neighbor in Cyprus Shore who recalled the bitter campaign Nixon had waged against Helen Gahagan Douglas in California’s 1950 U.S. Senate race. The City Council approved by only one vote the President’s request for a permit to build a radio tower, and the surfing community was up in arms because presidential security was threatening to block access to the big waves just off Cotton Point.
Yet, Orange County was, after all, a Republican stronghold, and when the whole Nixon family arrived for their first extended stay in August, 1969, the GOP mustered its troops. Twenty thousand gathered at Orange County Airport, accompanied by a 16-piece brass band from Disneyland, an 80-piece band from Santa Ana High School and 1,500 Young Republicans waving miniature flags.
The national press corps and their retinues filled the local hotels and restaurants and monopolized the pay phones. The San Clemente Chamber of Commerce discovered that a presidential party was good business and anted up $100 for an official reception at the Coast Guard station.
Nixon helped allay the fears of surfers when he grinned broadly and asked the crowd if anybody wanted to borrow the new Hobie surfboard that Tricia had given him for Father’s Day. And he hinted that he was willing to share his beach as well.
Thus began the honeymoon. The city renamed Via del Fronte (front street) that led to the Cotton estate Avenida del Presidente (the President’s avenue), and the Nixons christened their house Casa Pacifica (house of peace). They attended Community Presbyterian Church in San Clemente and patronized the local taco stands and El Adobe Restaurant in San Juan Capistrano.
When Fred Divel’s newly formed San Clemente Historical Society issued gold medallions, Nixon bought one in person from member Charlie Ashbaugh. When the chef of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles made the President a cake for his 58th birthday, Nixon shared it with youngsters from Concordia Elementary School and posed with fifth-grader Naomi Gonzales, who shared his birth date.
The President promoted the Caldwell Brothers, a local singing group, inviting them to perform with Bob Hope at the White House in Washington. With Charles (Bebe) Rebozo at the wheel, he rescued a stranded motorist on the road to Elsinore.
When not in residence, Nixon opened the Western White House support facility to government employees, colleges and nonpartisan civic groups for meetings, seminars and symposiums. His beach was available to surfers when the family was out of town. In addition, Nixon saw to it that a neighboring military beach at Camp Pendleton was converted into San Onofre State Beach, and many other such beaches throughout the United States were made public, creating 50,000 acres of parklands in the process.
But what really put Orange County on the map were the dignitaries Nixon invited to share his hideaway.
The San Clemente Sun Post announced the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in a front-page headline: “First Foreign Leader Ever in San Clemente.” There followed the Skylab astronauts, dozens of Hollywood stars, President Luis Echeverria Alvarez of Mexico, Chinese envoy Huang Chen, a reunion of former Vietnam POWs, President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam. And Tom Hayden appeared with mobs of protesters.
By the time Leonid Brezhnev arrived in July, 1973, everyone had become blase about dealing with world leaders, although the Russian chief of state made a lasting impression.
He insisted on accommodations in the President’s home rather than a suite in the luxurious compound reserved for visitors at Camp Pendleton. The Nixons, who had no guest room, moved him into Tricia’s bedroom with its fragile wicker furniture and blue- and lavender-flowered wallpaper, and Russian security guards were housed in Julie’s room.
Brezhnev’s visit to Casa Pacifica still holds special significance for Nixon. “Many famous guests visited us during the time we lived at Casa Pacifica, but the house is particularly famous because both Brezhnev and Roosevelt slept there,” Nixon said.
“When James Roosevelt (son of President Franklin Roosevelt) first came to Casa Pacifica, he said that he recalled being there during the campaign of 1932 when Ham Cotton was the Democratic National Treasurer and Roosevelt came down on the train from Los Angeles and spent the night at Casa Pacifica.
“They played poker with other guests in the upstairs study where I met with Brezhnev, (Andrei) Gromyko, (Anatoly) Dobrynin and (Henry) Kissinger in that midnight session in 1973.”
But within a year, Nixon’s circumstances had changed dramatically. The trail of burglars who broke into Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate complex led to Nixon, and a full-scale investigation explored every facet of his life.
Threat of impeachment forced Nixon to resign in August, 1974. About 5,000people turned out to greet the family when Air Force One touched down at El Toro, but there were also bumper stickers reading: “Don’t Blame Me--I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas.”
Pat and Richard Nixon kept a low profile at Casa Pacifica, but illness dogged them: Nixon fell victim to phlebitis; his wife suffered a stroke. And, in February, 1980, 5 1/2 years to the day since they’d left the White House for Casa Pacifica, the Nixons announced they were moving to the East Coast to be closer to their grandchildren.
GAVIN HERBERT, DONALD M. Koll and George Argyros formed a partnership to buy the estate--for an undisclosed price--and Herbert got possession of the house in the transaction.
Herbert had become a close friend of the President while serving as co-chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. At the time Nixon chose to make Casa Pacifica his retreat, Herbert volunteered to help upgrade it. The affable chairman of Allergan Inc. was, by avocation, a gardener, and gardening was an area in which the Nixons needed help.
In April, 1970, the General Services Administration had announced that the government would not pay for maintaining the flower beds at San Clemente, and Nixon had to take on landscaping expenses, which he could ill afford.
“Contrary to popular belief, Nixon had only one full-time gardener, and he stopped working at 4 o’clock every afternoon, no matter what. If we brought potted plants for an event, we took them back immediately thereafter because no one would water them,” Herbert recalls.
“I got volunteers, groups of people to help. I sent crews from Roger’s Gardens. I was sort of head gardener for a few years, and I grew to like the peace and quiet of the place.”
After Herbert purchased the house, it took him five years to clear away the overgrown jungle the Secret Service had encouraged for security reasons. He built a network of natural stone walkways and added new statuary and a Civil War cannon.
A few reminders of the Nixon era remain, including the flagpole by the front door and the bulletproof glass windscreen around the pool. Pat Nixon’s initials are set in small stones in a garden, and Nixon’s yellow golf cart awaits restoration in a nearby shed. A “money tree,” which Pat Nixon brought as a seedling from the White House magnolia tree depicted on the $20 bill, now stands 25 feet high.
Herbert’s tribute to old ties is a giant podocarpus bush shaped like a GOP elephant on the main lawn. Extensive vegetable gardens thrive off the beaten path. Two greenhouses provide exotic flowers. Four full-time gardeners oversee the grounds.
For additional living space, Herbert and his wife Ninetta built by the swimming pool a charming little house replicating Casa Pacifica and installed tennis courts a stone’s throw away. “There are half a dozen grandchildren to entertain,” Ninetta Herbert says. “We spend a lot of time here.”
Although the Herberts occasionally open their grounds to charity functions, the interior of their home is off limits.
“Nixon’s office is the same as ever,” Gavin Herbert says. “But we did take up the carpet. It’s a hardwood floor.”
“We have not changed the basic plan, but we have redone the interiors,” says Ninetta Herbert. “Tricia’s frilly room isn’t frilly anymore.”
Ninetta Herbert chose a light, airy country look for the pool house and followed through in redoing the gazebo, keeping it simple and furnishing it with wicker chairs.
The Herberts spend at least as much time outdoors as indoors. Both are avid gardeners, and they also raise chickens, geese and quail.
Retiring to their favorite spot on the estate--two ornate wrought-iron chairs by a rustic fishpond on a promontory overlooking the sea--they talk happily about time spent here away from the rush and bustle of city living.
Surfers glide through the waves just off their point, and beyond, an occasional whale swims by at a leisurely pace. Wild parrots sometimes chatter from the trees, and a pair of peacocks wander at large. There were coyotes before the grounds were fully fenced. There are still plenty of opossums and raccoons, and a heron keeps stealing koi from the pool. The thick stand of Monterey cypress trees, planted here by the Cottons in 1925, is one of the finest cypress groves in Southern California. The old Secret Service guardhouses are filled with hanging flower baskets.
Los Desechos may be forgotten, but today Casa Pacifica is lovelier and more tranquil than ever.