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By Larry Culbertson
The Ole Hanson Beach Club has just undergone a four-year, $5.6 million rehabilitation, and it is beautiful.
How is San Clemente so fortunate to have such an elegant building?
It all goes back to Ole Hanson, the real estate developer who founded San Clemente in 1925. He had conceived an idea for a “Spanish Village,” where the architectural style of all buildings would be Spanish.
Ole had a team of architects designing buildings for his new town. He directed one of his best architects, Virgil Westbrook, to design the Beach Club in 1927. The Strang Brothers, who built many of the early San Clemente buildings, began construction of the Beach Club in December of 1927. Construction was completed in April of 1928. It was completed just five months later—it’s too bad we did not have Ole managing this recent rehabilitation. The Beach Club was formally dedicated on May 27, 1928.
Promotional sales brochures boasted the “Olympic-size” swimming pool to be one of the finest and most equipped in America. Unfortunately, the pool was later found to be a bit short of Olympic length.
The Beach Club was used for tryouts for the 1932 Olympic Games. Champion swimmers and divers who tried out included Johnny Weismuller, Dutch Smith, Duke Kahanamoku and Buster Crabbe. Renowned coach Frank Holborow was brought in to train swimmers and said, “The Beach Club walls are covered with trophies,” according to newspaper accounts.
San Clemente swim team prowess was documented in the Santa Ana Daily Register on Oct. 29, 1928 in the article, “San Clemente Natators Win Coast Crown.” Our team beat the Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Hollywood Athletic Club in the Pacific Coast indoor swimming championships held at the Beach Club.
The most exciting race of the day was the final relay race for women. The San Clemente women, led by Cecily Cunha, won despite intense competition. “The pace was so strenuous that two of the girls collapsed and had to be carried into the clubhouse,” the article read.
By 1980, after 50 years of continuous use, the Beach Club was in need of rehabilitation. Plans were drawn to reconfigure the downstairs from mostly locker rooms to meeting areas, offices, a kitchen and retain some locker room space.
On April 9, 1981, the “San Clemente Beach Club” was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It was the first of five buildings in San Clemente to make the list. This listing enabled the city to obtain grant money for the planned rehabilitation.
In 2012, the Beach Club was again in need of rehabilitation. The poor quality of work done in the 1980 rehabilitation necessitated a much more expensive project this time around. Some previous exterior modifications have been restored to their original specifications. Notably, one of the two round windows on the front of the building had been plastered over and is now back. The locker rooms, office spaces, first aid room, kitchen and meeting room fit together in a logical way. The elevator is a great addition. The pools are pristine and inviting.
The Historical Society was opposed to having doors placed in a decorative-arch feature on the pool side of the building, where doors had not been before. But the city decided adding doors would not hurt the historic integrity.
Ole Hanson’s vision for San Clemente may be expressed better by the Beach Club than by any other single building in town. We thank you, Ole!
Larry Culbertson is a former president and current member of the San Clemente Historical Society and has been a resident of San Clemente for more than 10 years.