SAN CLEMENTE : Group's Heart Set on Casa Romantica

The San Clemente Historical Society this week presented city officials with a plan to purchase historic Casa Romantica, but city officials say it's too soon to make a decision on what to do with the property.

The group, which has long wanted to turn a portion of the palatial mansion built 66 years ago by the founder of San Clemente into a museum, is proposing to buy the home for $2.5 million--the same amount the city paid when it purchased the 20-room residence three years ago.

Historical Society President Charles Ashbaugh said the group would finance the purchase by leasing the property from the city for $200 per month for two years, and by selling a portion of the land surrounding the home to a hotel developer for $1.5 million.

"The city has been dragging its feet on what to do with Casa Romantica for two or three years already," Ashbaugh said. "It just goes on and on. We feel frustrated and have come up with what we feel is a solid, workable plan."

City Manager Michael W. Parness said Friday that the historical society's proposal is ill-timed since the city is in the process of developing a specific plan for the entire Pier Bowl area, which is adjacent to Casa Romantica.

"I know they're frustrated," Parness said. "But the City Council has not made any commitments to anyone and I don't think (the council) would consider it while they are in the process of developing a plan for the area. Once a plan for the area is approved, then we can start getting serious and start talking about the kinds of things that can be done down there."

The 5,800-square-foot mansion--built by Ole Hansen, the onetime mayor of Seattle who founded San Clemente 66 years ago--is currently being leased for $10,000 a month for weddings and other events by Maureen Gates, who agreed to let the society store its treasures in a vacant section of the building.

Ashbaugh and other members of the society, who fought last year to have the mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are eager to open two museums there filled with historic pictures, documents and other precious memorabilia. One museum would be specifically dedicated to former President Richard M. Nixon, a former resident of the city, Ashbaugh said.

"We don't want this building to be destroyed under any circumstances," Ashbaugh said. "It's a tribute to Ole Hansen and a monument to our city. It's the oldest and most important building in town."

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