By Larry Culbertson
The San Clemente Historical Society is asked about the Miramar Theater more than any other single issue. At our meetings and when we set up our booth at public events, people ask why the building has been sitting unused and neglected since 1992. Some people proclaim it is an eyesore and say it should be bulldozed. Many others say they love the building and long to see it return to its former glory. Rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of a historic building is difficult and expensive. A project has to be respectful to the historic integrity of the resource and make economic sense to a developer.
It is important to understand the significance of the Miramar to the history of San Clemente. Opened to the public in 1938, the Miramar was originally called the San Clemente Theater. It was designed by the renowned theater architect Clifford A. Balch. With its 44-foot-tall tower topped by the flared arched façade, the Miramar is one of the most iconic buildings in San Clemente.
Before the freeway was completed in 1960, El Camino Real was the primary route into San Clemente. Visitors from the north were greeted by the Miramar Theater, the San Clemente Beach Club, the Casino San Clemente, the Aquarium Restaurant (now Ichibiri Japanese Restaurant) and the San Clemente Bowling Center. According to the Historic Structures Report that the city of San Clemente commissioned in 2013, “This cluster of historic buildings has been studied as the core of a possible historic district that would serve to protect the historic resources while providing a more coherent approach to defining the area’s role as a gateway to San Clemente.”
The Miramar Theater and the Bowling Center have gone through several changes of ownership since 1992. Projects have been proposed that would have either drastically altered or called for the demolition of the buildings. The Historical Society has vehemently opposed any project that would harm the integrity of any of our historic resources.
The San Clemente Historical Society has a policy of not supporting any particular business plan. Our primary concern is the preservation of the historic resource, not how it is used. We realize that historic buildings cannot always be used for their original use. Adaptive reuse is frequently the salvation of a threatened historic resource.
The Miramar Theater and Bowling Center have been owned by Mark Spizziri and the Miramar Theater LLC since 2006. The previous owner had proposed to demolish the historic buildings and replace them with far denser new construction. Mr. Spizziri indicated that he planned to work with the existing buildings.
Conrardy Design Group has submitted a proposal to the city to rehabilitate the Miramar Theater, which would become a performance and event center. The area of the old Orange Julius building would become restrooms for the event center. The Bowling Center would become a high-end culinary food court. The asphalt area north of the Bowling Center, where a Texaco gasoline station stood for many years, would become an outdoor dining area.
The Historical Society has been following the permitting process of this project with a critical eye toward ensuring that required preservation standards are being followed. So far they have been.
We are sponsoring a presentation on the Miramar Theater on Sunday, Dec. 11, from 3-5 p.m. at the Community Center, 100 N. Calle Seville. A brief presentation on the history of the theater by our president, Raad Ghantous, will be followed by a presentation on the proposed project given by Mr. Jim Holloway.
Larry Culbertson is the vice president of the San Clemente Historical Society and has been a resident for more than 10 years in San Clemente.