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Mansion’s Walls Speak of a Romantic Past : Art: Preservationist finds two damaged but exquisite works by a renowned muralist in a San Clemente landmark due for restoration.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For nearly 65 years, they’ve quietly existed in the shadows of a grand old mansion.

Tucked away out of sight in the outdoor courtyard of the historic Casa Romantica, they’ve survived decades of sweltering heat, countless storms, even a host of wild animals that took over the vacant house in the 1940s after its original owner, Ole Hanson, lost his property during the Great Depression.

So when historical preservationist Don Allen Shorts recently stumbled upon the two obscure murals, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Here, in the dark, musty corners of this once-lavish villa, lay the beautiful works of one of California’s foremost muralists of the 1920s--Norman Kennedy, an artist renowned for the work he did for Hollywood movie stars as well as for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

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The two scenes, one depicting Spanish galleons at anchor in a bay, the other an idyllic marketplace, capture a California long before it was scarred with housing tracts and freeways.

But to Shorts’ horror, he found that the murals were rotting, the paint crumbling like flaky biscuits.

“The community is completely unaware of what they have,” said Shorts, 61, a resident of Ventura who routinely travels throughout California searching for historical pieces of art. “If I do anything, it will be to make this community aware of these treasures.”

Now, after years of neglect, attention has finally fallen on the rare murals, painted at a time when mural art was uncommon, long before President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal put hundreds of artists to work painting scenes in buildings around the country in the 1930s.

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But with the city’s plans to restore the Casa Romantica largely on hold because of litigation, time is wasting. The longer the city waits, the more tattered the murals will become.

“They are deteriorating rapidly,” said Dorothy Fuller, president of the San Clemente Historical Society. “They were fairly renewable a year ago, but now I’m really concerned.”

In an effort to save the dirty and torn murals, Fuller is planning a fund-raising campaign with the San Clemente Arts and Crafts Club to collect the estimated $10,000 needed to restore them to their former splendor.

“This would be a move toward saving what culture San Clemente has,” Fuller said.

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Few people in the city administration know of the murals’ significance, said Jim Holloway, director of community development.

Since the city Redevelopment Agency bought the historic home in 1989 for $2.5 million, plans for the house have undergone a number of revisions, including use as a museum, a vacation resort and, most recently, a restaurant.

“A painting of that caliber is worth saving,” said Michael Kelly, 45, a Ventura artist and international fine art and cultural development consultant who is trained in the skill of mural restoration. “There are very few murals like that in California--it’s not an area where pre-World War II murals exist. They definitely have significant value.”

The murals were commissioned in 1928 by Ole Hanson--the famed founder of San Clemente--to adorn the stucco walls of his new, 20-room bluff-top home so often visited by movie stars and millionaires.

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Hanson wanted the best artist, and so requested Kennedy, a well-known muralist who had done work for a number of silent-screen stars, and who had painted murals for many buildings, including the now-defunct United States Building & Loan Assn. in San Diego and a bank in Ventura.

His work was described in news accounts as “brilliant” and “seething with creative genius.” But in 1930, Kennedy moved to the East Coast to pursue a successful career as a magazine illustrator, and with him went the memory of his work.

“Kennedy is one of the better muralists,” Kelly said, adding that he is just now being rediscovered. “If he becomes published, more widely known, his paintings could become quite valuable.”

According to Kelly, who helped restore the centuries-old murals of the royal Marlborough House in London, the paintings need a lot of work--and soon.

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“The weather in California is harsh on paintings, with its salt air, hot days, cool evenings,” Kelly said. “What kills a painting is the sharp degrees of change in the weather, going from dry to humid.”

Holloway said that restoration of the house, which could cost up to $800,000, will include repair of the murals. Once that is done, the city hopes to turn the house into a restaurant in the style of Las Brisas in Laguna Beach.

The litigation holding up restoration involves the city and a restaurant in the Pier Bowl shopping area adjacent to the mansion, whose operator contends a mansion-restaurant would draw people away from his business.

Holloway defended the idea of a restaurant. “If you want to preserve our history and culture, you’ve got to find an economic use that’s viable to generate the kind of income that will help pay for itself. A well-run restaurant could do that.” He added that the city hasn’t gotten into a detailed analysis of the project yet. “I just wish we could go faster.”

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In any case, Fuller, who has been supporting the idea of turning the house into a full-fledged museum, believes the discovery of Kennedy’s works will help the cause of saving the Casa Romantica, San Clemente’s most symbolic landmark.

“If we can create enough attention, then I’m sure we can get more support for the house, too,” Fuller said.


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