As the ultimate Ole Hanson Home, one belonging to the city’s founder himself, Casa Romantica occupies a unique place in the city’s history. A little more than a decade ago, however, the fate of the home was unsure. It had gone through multiple owners and uses and proposals for different uses of the site before the city. But thanks to an anonymous benefactor, who helped the city turn the building into a cultural center, and the work of a tireless group of volunteers the building has been restored into a place that’s used by people of all ages. This Saturday will mark the Casa’s tenth annual “Toast to the Casa,” fundraiser.
Two members of the original board of the Casa, Guy Varriano and Ruth DeNault, are serving as honorary chairs of this year’s Toast. Varriano remembers that the Casa was always recognized as something significant to the community, but once it ceased to serve as a home, questions about what should be done with it seemed to circulate constantly.
“It became a historical house, but there were eight or nine changes of ownership and served as a retirement home before the city bought the property for $2.5 million,” Varriano said. That initial sale was key, he noted, because the understanding was that the building would remain intact. “That’s why it’s not condominiums,” he pointed out. At that time, the house was being leased out for events, but when the lease expired the city was at a crossroads as to what to do with the property. It was then that the city entertained a number of different ideas for the property, including turning it into a Mexican restaurant, before an anonymous donor stepped to offer $1 million to the city to turn the property into a cultural center.
Wayne Eggleston had recently been elected to the City Council at the time of the donation. The previous council, he said, had actually favored the plan to turn the site into a restaurant.
“Up to that time it was a very contentious issue,” Eggleston said. The night the decision was made, Eggleston said, some on the council wanted to have a study done to determine whether the use of the site as a cultural center was a good idea. At that point, a representative of the donor spoke and said that for the city to receive the money, the council had to decide that night whether or not to accept the funds, or else it would be lost. The council then voted, 3-2, to accept the funds.
DeNault said the way the building had been renovated had, in many ways, helped to salve any hurt feelings with the way the vote went.
“The man who was going to turn it into a restaurant was here and said it was ‘a better and higher use,’” she noted. “We don’t hear from a lot of those folks (who opposed the cultural center) any more. Since we’ve started we’ve been met with total support. From the moment it got off the ground, people have embraced this.”
Once the funds were received, however, the real work had to begin. Varriano said much of the house was in “poor shape.”
“We needed $2 million to allow us to start renovating,” Varriano said. In addition to the money, he noted, improvements and renovations also had to go through a historical architect to verify that everything was in keeping with the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of the time. Additional construction has added an amphitheatre, gardens, and improved deck and a story circle area. The gardens have had a major effect in bringing in volunteers to the house. In addition to fundraising efforts, the Casa has also received grant funding from the state.
“The floors required $40,000 to renovate,” DeNault noted. “There’s been new construction, old construction, just whatever was needed. Early on, we had to walk on boards (to get around during construction). But it’s a heart of the community. Everyone comes here and feels that.”
DeNault credited the staff hired by the initial board with helping to see the building through those early troubles.
“We had a small but good staff,” she said. “We really weren’t worried about it.”
With the foundations secured, the board members said the goal is now to expand the outreach of the organization, to bring more people into the building to enjoy it.
“We’ve expanded our programs over the years,” Varriano said. “We’re averaging about 14,000 per year.” Some programs currently being offered include story time for young children, school group tours, but the board was looking to expand those offerings. “We would like to expand these more as we are able,” Varriano said. “We’ve set our (fundraising) goals higher for this event so that we are able to do that.
DeNault said the Casa board wanted to see more people come in from across the region, not just San Clemente. “We want to introduce friends from a wider area to what we have to offer,” she explained. “We want to expand with more programs for children and youth. Right now we have a lot of older people, tours for senior groups.”
Both said the Casa’s somewhat unique position made it difficult to see as a possible model for future renovations at historic sites, like the Miramar Theatre or the Casino.
“We’re sort of unique in what we offer to the community,” Varriano said. “We’re well known and well accepted by the community.”
DeNault said the Casa’s status as the home of the city’s founder played a part in the way the community supported the cultural center. “Each of those different places has its own life, it’s own impact in the community. Those we’ve been able to reach really identify with this property.”
The Toast event began 10 years ago as a way for local restaurateurs to make an impact raising money for the organization. Varriano said Bill Brummet was the one who originated the idea for the Toast, and helped set it up as one of the biggest fundraisers for the organization. Other key players with formulating the Toast were Tony Carbonara and Bob Novello, Varriano said. This year, he said, should be one of the bigger events the Casa had hosted.
“This was a wonderful gift from local restaurants to the Casa in the early years to give us our big fundraiser of the year and the biggest social event of the year,” DeNault said. “They offered it to us, and it became a beautiful way for people to become involved in a major way. There were many renovations done. Those early years were very busy with new construction.”
This year’s event will feature food from 17 restaurants, wines from 40 wineries and five live bands, and serves as the major fundraiser for the year for the Casa. There will also be a raffle, as well as both a live and silent auction. The event lasts from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Tickets are $175, and can be purchased by calling 498.2139, ext. 10, or by visiting the Casa’s website, www.casaromantica.org.