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History in Cardboard Boxes : San Clemente: Group wants to establish a museum chronicling the city’s past in the Casa Romantica mansion.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a dark, musty room, spiders weave their magic across a bed designed for Napoleon Bonaparte. A few feet away, ants crawl on flags and pictures that once adorned the Oval Office in Richard M. Nixon’s Western White House.

The battered cardboard boxes that are piled from floor to ceiling contain more historic pictures and documents, and some of the furniture of Ole Hanson, the former mayor of Seattle who 66 years ago founded San Clemente--California’s first planned community.

Few would guess that some of the items in this unlit, cobwebbed room chronicle the history of emperors and presidents. But although the accommodations may be ignoble, a small group of local history buffs are celebrating anyway, saying that they are closer than ever to setting up a museum to house these historical treasures.

The site is a room at Casa Romantica--the name that Hanson gave the palatial residence overlooking the Pacific Ocean that he built in 1927, two years after he founded the city. The San Clemente Historical Society has long hoped to set up a museum featuring the city’s rich history, and see Casa Romantica as an ideal location for it.

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Until a few weeks ago, the relics were stored in a locker, but a recent rent increase forced the historical society to seek a more permanent home.

Charles Ashbaugh, historical society president, then approached Maureen Gates, who leases the Casa for $10,000 a month from the city to hold weddings and other events. Gates agreed to allow the society to store its treasures free in a vacant section of the 20-room mansion.

“It’s a crime against our heritage that people are not able to see these gems,” said Ashbaugh, 76. “We want to show the whole world what we have, and getting into the Casa finally is like a prodigal son returning home.”

But San Clemente Mayor Scott Diehl cautioned that the group’s celebration may be premature because the city has higher priorities, including balancing its budget, and is not “certain about what will be the outcome of the Casa.”

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After the city paid $2.5 million for the Casa two years ago, its redevelopment agency announced plans to turn the five-acre property into a cultural centerpiece for the Pier Bowl area. But those plans are on hold while the city grapples with more pressing budgetary problems.

Local historians, meanwhile, argue that they risk losing priceless artifacts that have been without a home for the last 15 years if a permanent home is not found soon.

“We are holding history in our hands,” said 67-year-old Lois Divel, a historical society board member and one of the first residents of the city. “But our artifacts are getting lost in the shuffle.”

Ashbaugh said some of the treasures of the city’s past, ranging from place settings used by the Nixons to Hanson’s personal belongings, are scattered throughout the city, locked in boxes, darkened rooms--even stored amid the junk in cluttered garages.

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Local historians contend that a museum would not only draw tourists to San Clemente, but would also educate residents about the city’s colorful history.

Two weeks ago, for example, Ashbaugh found the bronze busts of Richard and Pat Nixon in the dusty garage of a vacant house.

The busts bear the city’s memories of Watergate. During the Nixon years, proud schoolchildren had saved pennies from their lunch money to pay a Laguna Beach artist to make the sculptures, which once adorned two pedestals in the City Hall lounge. At that time, highway signs at both ends of the city welcomed tourists to “San Clemente, Home of the Western White House.”

But at the height of the Watergate scandal, city officials had the busts removed from public view. When Ashbaugh found them, the former President’s bust was lying in an otherwise empty showcase, his distinctive nose resting on a piece of red velvet. The bust of Pat Nixon lay in a separate case, her face pockmarked with mildew.

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Officials of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda said they were aware of the collection of Nixon material in San Clemente, but said they would not actively seek the artifacts.

Library spokesman Kevin Cartwright said Nixon’s San Clemente years “are reflected in our library. The gifts that (Soviet leader) Leonid I. Brezhnev brought when he visited San Clemente (in 1973) are a popular exhibit . . . but we do not have the staff to go looking for all artifacts that show up.”

The busts were taken to Casa Romantica and stored with the other artifacts until the time comes when they can be cleaned and displayed once again.

On the other side of the room in Casa Romantica is Napoleon’s bed, or at least the one that was built for him. Historians say the hand-carved oak bed was built for the French emperor when he agreed to come to the United States to sign the Louisiana Purchase treaty.

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Napoleon never made it, but the bed nevertheless piqued Hanson’s interest, and on a trip to New Orleans in the 1920s he bought it and had it shipped to San Clemente, where it became a fixture at Casa Romantica.

A subsequent owner of Casa Romantica took the bed with her to Washington when she sold the house. Ashbaugh and others tracked the woman down and paid $750 in freight fees to have the bed returned to San Clemente.

The collection depicting Hanson’s past is extensive--from his oversize oak desk to the original aerial photographs that he used to plan the layout of the city.

“During the last move, we found more than 800 pictures in a box that we didn’t know we had,” Ashbaugh said.

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The historical society has also garnered dozens of items left by Nixon when he sold the Western White House to Orange County millionaire Gavin Herbert in 1980.

In addition to the busts and highway signs, other Nixon-era items include a hobbyhorse and other toys of Nixon’s grandchildren, the Nixons’ place settings, official pictures taken during Nixon’s foreign trips, boxes of election memorabilia and some of the former President’s books.

Divel, Ashbaugh and others say that it was in fact a campaign to preserve San Clemente’s history that was responsible for Nixon’s locating his Western White House here. It was Divel’s son, Fred, who was responsible for getting Nixon to live in San Clemente in the first place.

Fred Divel was an 18-year-old communications major at Cal State Fullerton when he attended the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, where he hoped to win political allies in his campaign to help preserve San Clemente in the way that Hanson had always envisioned it, a Spanish village by the sea.

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There, he met Nixon aide John D. Ehrlichman, who suggested that Divel keep an eye open for a house that could be used as a Western White House should “the candidate win.” Divel suggested Casa Pacifica, a 20-acre property owned by the estate of oil tycoon Hamilton Cotton. Nixon paid $340,000 for the property and lived there for 11 years.

Dorothy Fuller, 66, is a historical society board member who is writing a book about Ole Hanson. She occasionally takes groups of schoolchildren and “newer residents” through Casa Romantica.

“It’s surprising how little is known of Ole Hanson and our magnificent beginnings,” Fuller said.

Dorothy Fuller herself is part of the city’s living past. Her father, she points out, was a vice president of the Bank of America, which foreclosed on Hanson’s Casa Romantica in 1932.

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“Ole Hanson cried, and my dad could not hold back the tears after Ole broke down,” Fuller said. “It was especially difficult for my dad because he would always tell us that Ole Hanson was a modern-day American hero.”


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