Nixon's legacy still divides city

Times Staff Writer

It can be a curse, the neighbors discovered, to move onto the well-heeled, palm-festooned San Clemente lane next to Richard Nixon's former home.

Christopher Arndt and Maureen Doyle despised what local historians describe as the former Western White House's security wall, which bisects their backyard. The couple whittled a door into the red-tile-capped barrier to reach the rest of their property.

Their next-door neighbor, Richard Osman, loathed the wall too. He told a contractor to rip out the 8-foot-high partition that cut across his yard.

And a neighboring gated community, which begins near where the wall -- or what's left of it -- ends, got riled after Arndt, Doyle and Osman punched their way through the barrier.

While the spat deepened and became mired in lawsuits, the San Clemente Historical Society entered the fray and asked the City Council to label the remaining portions of the once-1,500-foot wall a historic structure.

It's hard to assign blame to one person in this bitter and somewhat bizarre dispute, in which accusations of suburban subterfuge have riven a bluff-top neighborhood where homes sell for $2 million. But like many things in Orange County's southernmost city, its roots can be traced to its most famous resident: Richard Milhous Nixon.

Nixon's presence in San Clemente still lingers over this 18-square-mile coastal city. There are small reminders: The road adjacent to Interstate 5 is called Avenida del Presidente. And the former Western White House is a centerpiece on tourism websites despite having been converted to a private residence tucked behind two gated communities and lush bougainvillea.

Decades after the president left town, his legacy is still strong enough to divide San Clemente's upper crust, whose fight over the wall has spilled into courtrooms and City Council chambers.

"Without the Nixon connection, there would be nothing to fight about," observed Councilman Steven Knoblock.

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Asked to scour the Southern California coast for a presidential hideaway, a 19-year-old Nixon campaign aide stumbled upon the home in San Clemente, the "Spanish village by the sea." The city's best-known inhabitant in the mid-1960s, according to Time magazine, was a red-headed patrolman known as "Red Rider" for his prolific ticket-writing.

In 1969, Nixon bought the estate, modeled after a country home in San Sebastian, Spain, from the wife of a former Democratic Party bigwig. He christened it La Casa Pacifica, swapped the tennis court for a swimming pool and wrapped much of the estate with a C-shaped wall, according to the historical society. The buffer shielded Nixon's home while he entertained celebrities and world leaders, and after he resigned his office in 1974, some residents displayed signs telling the former president to "Hang In There."

In 1980, with the Nixons heading to New York, pharmaceutical company Allergan Inc.'s Gavin S. Herbert and his business partners bought La Casa Pacifica. Herbert, a major Republican donor, kept the house as his own. The remaining land was carved into a small gated community called Cotton Point Estates on the San Diego County line.

During construction of Cotton Point, the wall didn't appear to hold historic value to Herbert. Workers razed much of it, court papers said, but didn't knock it all down.

As a result, the wall interrupts a few backyards, turning portions of some into a de facto greenbelt between Cotton Point and Cyprus Shore, the neighboring gated community.

In 2000, Arndt and Doyle, who are attorneys, bought a lot in Cotton Point for just under $1 million. The couple disliked the fact that their property on the other side of the "decrepit stucco wall" attracted dog-walkers, skateboarders, golfers and dead animals that neighbors had dumped.

"It's like the Wild West down here, frankly," Doyle fumed.

The couple said that their homeowners association, which ended up suing them, had exposed them to lawsuits by letting people tramp across the lawn outside the wall. This wasn't the first time the association made them seethe.

A few years back, the couple said, the association had conspired to make that part of their property a small dog park. The first strike: a dog-waste-bag dispenser -- installed without consulting them -- on their lawn outside the fence. The second: signs spread across the green, encouraging dog walkers to "Push In, Pinch a Bag and Pull It Out." The dispenser was eventually removed.

In April, the couple put up a wrought-iron fence to enclose the lawn on the other side of the wall and carved a gate into the wall itself. The homeowners association asked that the fence be taken down and the wall patched.

Then Doyle's neighbor, Osman, knocked down his stretch of wall, leading to another lawsuit by the homeowners association. The demolitions also led the neighboring community to sue.

In court papers, Osman's attorney described the wall on a lot he bought for just less than $2 million as "littered with alcoholic beverage containers, used condoms and trash" and battered by "paintball and pellet gun 'wars.' "

Osman, an attorney who moved to San Clemente from the Bay Area and is building a large home that will include a courtyard and movie theater, is convinced that his homeowners association, which he describes as right-wing, barred him and his neighbors from revamping their properties because their politics tilted left.

"This is worse than 'Animal Farm,' " said Osman, referring to the George Orwell novel. "Remember how the pigs take over the farm, and then the pigs start exempting themselves from their own rules? That's how it is."

Bob Adams, president of Cyprus Shore Homeowners Assn., characterized the litigants as folks who "were told no by their association, and they told [the association] to go to hell."

Osman pegged another instigator of the squabble: "My theory is that this neighborhood was poisoned by Nixon."

The other player in the saga, San Clemente's historical society, was created after the president came to town. The surge of national publicity about the Western White House helped lure developers who began bulldozing older buildings.

One night in 1972, the Bartow Mansion, then pictured on Chamber of Commerce letterhead, was demolished to make way for condominiums. The resulting furor led residents to mark more than 200 edifices as historic, including the beach club of Ole Hanson, founder of the city, and his office, which sits atop an ice cream store. Spats over the town's appearance have only intensified as new development swelled San Clemente's population 20%, to about 60,000 people over the last five years.

The dispute over the Nixon wall dovetailed with a local push to preserve smaller items that contribute to San Clemente's character, such as red-tile sidewalks and wrought-iron gates. At the society's behest, the City Council placed Nixon's wall on its agenda.

The wall, said Mike Cotter, president of the historical society, "was built by the president -- the most famous and powerful person in the world -- to protect him, making it historic about five seconds after it was built."

The anti-wall faction pointed out in court papers that the barrier hadn't aged even half a century, the usual benchmark for declaring something historic. Osman's attorney wrote that the historic designation "is an unhistoric new invention" concocted to win lawsuits -- after all, the neighborhood's developers hadn't asked that the wall be preserved. The litigants question whether the wall was even built to guard the president.

"Nixon's house is a source of pride that isn't going to go away if you knock down a wall," said Knoblock, the councilman, who is still considering whether it deserves protection.

In November, the council unanimously voted to hire a consultant from Historic Resources Group in Los Angeles to determine the wall's historic value.

One factor will be the wall's role in helping people understand the significance of La Casa Pacifica, where Nixon sought middle ground with communist leaders, explored options for ending the Vietnam War -- and whose name, in an ironic twist, given recent rifts, means "the house of peace."

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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