Although Richard M. Nixon and the Western White House may have put San Clemente on the map, what most people don’t know is that Nixon wasn’t the first President to visit the sprawling, Spanish-style mansion.
In the city’s first days during the 1920s, financier Hamilton Cotton spared no expense in building an opulent, 10-room villa on 20 acres of choice land overlooking the Pacific.
Cotton held gala parties and invited many important friends. But none was as powerful as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used the Cotton estate as a retreat during his presidency in the 1930s.
Roosevelt used to arrive at the estate by train, which would make an unscheduled stop on the tracks running along the ocean just below the Cotton property.
There, Roosevelt would spend a quiet vacation in San Clemente, unless Cotton had something a bit livelier planned. In 1935, at one such party in Roosevelt’s honor, more than 4,500 guests showed up for a barbecue on the estate, featuring a horse race at Cotton’s private track on the premises.
But more often, Roosevelt would stay to consult with Cotton, who was treasurer of the California Democratic Party, according to Charles Ashbaugh, president of the San Clemente Historical Society.
“Roosevelt would sit and play poker with Cotton and Ole Hanson (founder of San Clemente) for hours,” Ashbaugh said.
The Cotton family eventually sold the villa, and three decades later, the property attracted the interest of Nixon, who made the mansion his Western White House after his election to the presidency in 1968.
For 12 years, until Nixon moved to New York in 1980, the President made San Clemente his home. The house was his summer residence until the Watergate scandal forced him to resign in 1974, when he moved to San Clemente permanently.
Stan Manning, publisher of the San Clemente Sun Post, remembers the Nixon years as “exciting times. Anything he did was news. Before Richard Nixon came, San Clemente was a pleasant, seaside community. After he came, San Clemente was known worldwide.”
Ashbaugh was a regular visitor to the Western White House, where Nixon would hold large parties for heads of state and Hollywood celebrities.
“You’d see these big limousines with movies stars go through the city to his front gates,” Ashbaugh said. “He made quite an impact on this town.”
But not everyone enjoyed seeing the President come to San Clemente. He drew the ire of area surfers, who lost some prime spots when Coast Guard cutters guarded the coast near the Western White House.
But Manning said that many people directly benefited from Nixon’s presence, including several charities in town to which the President contributed financially.
Although Nixon generally stayed within the Western White House compound, area service clubs occasionally would get a surprise.
“I remember once he made a visit to the Rotary Club at the El Adobe,” a restaurant in San Juan Capistrano, Manning said. “Boy, were they shocked!”
Today, the former Western White House is owned by a private citizen who prefers to stay out of the news. However, the city will forever benefit from Nixon’s stay in San Clemente, Ashbaugh said.
“He literally put San Clemente on the map,” he said. “Before Nixon, many maps had nothing between Newport Beach and San Diego except Oceanside. After Nixon, we got on those maps and we’ve stayed there.”