Inland Empire gem is in need of polishing
Stepping into the dusty gloom of the former Lake Norconian Resort, it is not hard to realize it was once the opulent playground of some of Hollywood’s biggest names. The brass chandeliers still hang from the soaring hand-decorated ceilings, and the floors still sport black and white marble and Catalina tile.
Yet the Norconian, built in 1929 on 700 acres in what is now Norco in Riverside County, lasted less than a decade before going out of business. It was reborn as a Navy hospital and then housed a medium-security state prison until 2002.
These days, government officials and preservationists have been trying to decide what could be done with the Mission Revival building and its grounds, which include a man-made lake. Preservation is complicated because part of the acreage is being used by the state for the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco and another part by the Navy for weapons research. The state owns the former hotel building, plus the acreage that contains the remaining part of the prison, while the federal government owns much of the rest.
Meanwhile, the tucked-away site and its storied history largely have escaped notice.
The resort “went up before Norco even existed,” said Kevin Bash, 52, a local teacher, documentary filmmaker and a leader in the effort to preserve the site. “I’ve lived here my whole life and never knew its history until a few years ago.”
During its brief heyday, the Norconian belied the mood of much of a nation gripped by the Depression.
Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced there. Olympians Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller splashed in the outdoor pool. Bing Crosby and Babe Ruth golfed on its rolling course.
The Norconian was built by businessman Rex B. Clark amid lettuce fields and poultry farms, according to Bash, chairman of the Save the Norconian task force and author of the recently published book “The Norconian Resort.”
Clark was born in Detroit in 1876. He married Grace Scripps, the daughter of newspaperman James Edmund Scripps. Bash said Clark and his father-in-law never got along, and the young businessman eventually brought his bride to California, where she had prominent relatives. Among other things, the family founded Scripps College in Claremont and Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.
In 1920, buoyed by his wife’s financial support, Clark bought 15 square miles of land in then- remote Riverside County.
His dream was to build a community where people could farm and live off the land. Setting aside 700 acres for himself, he named his development company the North Corona Land Co., later abbreviated to Norco.
Four years later, while drilling for water, Clark’s workers struck a vein of hot, mineral-rich spring water. As the therapeutic waters bubbled to the surface, Clark took a new look at the land and envisioned another Palm Springs. He hired architect Dwight Gibbs, whose work included the Pasadena Playhouse and Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, to build a 250-room recreational resort.
The interior was designed by famed Dutch artist Anthony B. Heinsbergen, who created the ornate murals on the ceilings of Los Angeles City Hall and the Biltmore Hotel.
On Feb. 2, 1929, the doors of the resort opened to “only the most desirable people,” with proper recommendations, Clark told the newspapers. Tuxedo-wearing guests included Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The four-story hotel, built for $4.5 million, offered boating on the freshly dug lake, horseback riding, mineral baths, tennis, golf, swimming and an airfield.
Clark apparently did not bother to hide his prejudices.
“My father was a very biased person,” Ellen Clark Revelle, 97, of La Jolla said in a recent interview. She said he barred Jews and members of other ethnic groups from his resort.
Clark also was a stickler for hygiene, his daughter said.
“My father had this thing about cleanliness,” Revelle said. He demanded that guests wear only the bathing suits he provided.
“Everyone had to take a shower in the nude in front of an attendant before entering the water. Things like that kept the clientele down,” Revelle added.
To keep guests coming, Clark staged star-studded aquacade galas featuring motion picture stars and Olympic medalists. He held “fly-in parties” that attracted Hollywood’s glitterati, notably Will Rogers and Wallace Berry. Amelia Earhart landed on the airstrip and Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku entertained the crowds by skiing on a surfboard, according to Bash’s book.
The fame didn’t hurt his resort, but the 1929 stock market crash did. His monument to health was labeled “Rex’s Folly” nearly eight months after it opened because of declining trade.
In 1932, lawsuits, liens, the IRS and very little cash reserve closed the resort. Three years later, Clark reopened it -- with what money source, no one is sure.
Among the ranch’s rolling hills and peaceful lake, Clark found a new source of revenue, playing host to company picnics for MGM, Fox and Disney. Now there were no restrictions for Jewish movie moguls. In 1938, after making “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Disney threw a cast party that became the stuff of legend. Apparently, Walt Disney was “mortified” at his employees’ shenanigans at that event, according to Bash. “Skinny-dipping and all.”
But the resort slipped back into hard times. By late 1940, when the best rooms could be had for a mere $3, down from $22, the Norconian closed, citing “labor troubles.”
“It was just too big,” Revelle said, to keep open and operating.
World War II brought a new incarnation to the hotel. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Clark deeded it to the Navy to use as a hospital.
During and after the war, Hollywood stars, including Claudette Colbert, Kay Francis and Constance Bennett, came out to Riverside County to don evening gowns to entertain patients, and Bob Hope and Red Skelton told jokes. The hospital pioneered prosthetics, wheelchair basketball and other rehabilitation programs, while distinguished visitors, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller, inspired patients.
In 1943, as the first lady met with patients, her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, secretly used the soothing mineral waters. “They closed one of the two mineral baths just for him,” Bash said.
The Navy added hospital buildings to the site, including a vast complex of 15 one-story buildings to treat respiratory patients. Today these buildings house the top-secret Naval Surface Warfare Assessment Center, where scientists and engineers test and analyze the effectiveness of weapons.
After nearly two decades of treating military patients, the Navy closed the hospital in 1957, citing “budget constraints and few patients.”
In 1963, the old Norconian and several of the newer outlying buildings were turned over to the state, along with 94 acres, becoming a combined prison and drug treatment center for inmates.
Prisoners serving drug sentences stayed in the same lavish rooms where John Barrymore, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, Judy Garland and Irving Berlin once slept. When the “hotel” part of the prison closed in 2002, the building’s condition spiraled downward, like an aging star.
Deemed by the state to be too expensive to maintain, it stands behind 20-foot barbed-wire fences, beyond dilapidated grounds.
The Norconian was listed in 2000 on the National Register of Historic Places, but the fate of the building and surrounding property is in limbo.
“It’s a national treasure, sitting there rotting,” Bash said.
Norco is trying to get federal money to save the hotel and preserve its grounds as parkland, but it won’t be easy, Bash said.
The preservationist said he feels an added connection to the place:
“Clark died on Aug. 31, 1955, the same day I was born.”