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San Clemente is known by residents as the “Spanish Village by the Sea,” a slogan which commemorates the vision of San Clemente founder, Ole Hanson. Since its incorporation in 1928, San Clemente has held onto its small-town charm. Original red-roofed, white-walled Spanish architecture remains the standard, covering 18.45 square miles of pristine coastlines, rolling hills, and heterogeneous neighborhoods. And despite San Clemente’s growth over the years, a relatively big city exudes the vibes of a small hometown.
There is a reason why locals hold San Clemente spirit and Spanish Revival style in such high regard. A sense of community was built into city planning. Before a single structure was erected, Ole Hanson laid out a city plan including restaurants, residences, public parks, equestrian trails, a clubhouse, a fishing pier, and public pools. As one of the first master-planned communities built from totally open land in the United States, the San Clemente retains a unique quality because of its unique development.
As San Clemente has grown, residents increasingly look to the city’s rich history to anchor their sense of local identity. Today San Clemente is home to over 66,000 local residents and 27,000 housing units. But the San Clementean is a person who values community above all else.
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Prior to colonization by Spaniards, the area was inhabited by the Juaneño people. It remained virtually uninhabited until 1776, when Mission San Juan Capistrano was established by Father Junipero Serra, which led both Native Americans and Spanish settlers to establish villages nearby. After the founding of Mission San Juan Capistrano, local natives were conscripted to work for the mission.
Becoming a city
Property rights to the land exchanged hands several times, but few ventured to build on it until 1925, when former Mayor of Seattle, Ole Hanson, an out-of-town major land developer, purchased and designed a 2,000-acre (8.1 km2) community with the financial help of a syndicate headed by Hamilton Cotton. Hanson believed the area’s pleasant climate, beautiful beaches, and fertile soil would serve as a haven to Californians tired of “the big city.” He named the city after San Clemente Island, which in turn was named by the explorer Sebastián Vizcaino in 1602 after Saint Clement. Hanson envisioned it as a Mediterranean-style coastal resort town, his “San Clemente by the Sea.” He had a clause added to the deeds requiring all building plans to be submitted to an architectural review board in an effort to ensure future development would retain red tile roofs and white exteriors. This proved to be short-lived; an eclectic mix of building styles is found in the oldest parts of town.
Hanson succeeded in promoting the new area and selling property. He built public structures such as the Beach Club, the community center, the pier and San Clemente Plaza, now known as Max Berg Plaza Park. The area was officially incorporated as a City on February 27, 1928 with a council-manager government.
Referring to the way he would develop the city, Hanson proclaimed, “I have a clean canvas and I am determined to paint a clean picture. Think of it – a canvas five miles long and one and one-half miles wide!… My San Clemente by the Sea.”
Soon after San Clemente was incorporated, the need for a fire station was realized. The headlines in San Clemente’s first newspaper, El Heraldo de San Clemente June 1928 read: “Building to house local fire department will be constructed by popular subscription and turned over to the city when completed!” Individual subscriptions were received in the amounts from $6.00 to $1500.00 from the citizenry.
Nixon’s “Western White House”
In 1969, President Richard Nixon bought part of the H. H. Cotton estate, one of the original homes built by one of Hanson’s partners. Nixon called it “La Casa Pacifica” and was nicknamed the “Western White House,” a term for a President’s vacation home. It sits above one of the West Coast’s premier surfing spots, Trestles, and just north of historic surfing beach San Onofre. Many world leaders visited the home during Nixon’s tenure, including Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Prime Minister of Japan Eisaku Satō, Henry Kissinger, and businessman Bebe Rebozo. After his resignation, Nixon retired to San Clemente to write his memoirs. He sold the home in 1980 and moved to New York City. The property also has historical ties to the Democratic side of the aisle; prior to Nixon’s tenure at the estate, H. H. Cotton was known to host Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would visit to play cards in a small outbuilding overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Known as the “Spanish Village by the Sea”, San Clemente has long been known for its Spanish style architecture. Downtown San Clemente restaurants and shops are adorned with red tile roofs, cream stucco walls, and dark wood doors and windows. The historic “North Beach” area is home to San Clemente’s Casino Building and Ole Hanson Beach Club, which were renovated in 2010 and 2016. The homes in the area range in style, but stick to the Spanish theme for the most part. The area’s oldest homes are in Southwest San Clemente, directly south of downtown and “North Beach” area, directly north of downtown. The homes in the Southwest Riviera neighborhood include several new constructions in the Cape Cod style, as well as new modern residences. The more traditional, older homes sit in the Lasuen “boot” district. The neighborhood surrounding Lasuens or “Lost Winds” beach is characterized by a variety of styles in both single and double story fashion, with the traditional Spanish style sprinkled throughout, crafting an eclectic atmosphere. The renovations to historic buildings in North Beach have sparked a revival in the area, attracting new residents and business owners.
San Clemente has a Mediterranean climate where temperatures tend to average in the 70s °F. The warmest month of the year is August, with an average temperature of 79 °F (26 °C). The coldest month is December with an average temperature of 64 °F (18 °C). The annual rainfall in 2010 was 10.5 inches (270 mm) and the annual days of sunshine 310.
Interstate 5 runs through San Clemente. The Foothill Transportation Corridor had proposed to connect Mission Viejo to the Orange/San Diego county line, running along the east side of San Clemente and through San Onofre State Beach on its way to I-5. The California Coastal Commission rejected this proposal 8–2. Reasons cited for rejection included: the road’s alignment through a state park, endangered species habitat, and a Native American archaeological site, and the runoff from the road damaging the state park and surf break. The Federal Government rejected the proposal to place the toll road in accordance with the TCA proposal. This decision was viewed as a major defeat for the TCA and great victory for The Surfrider Foundation (which is based in San Clemente), and for assorted environmental groups. TCA has no current extension for the SR 241 corridor through San Clemente.
Additionally, the city is served by trains by of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink’s Orange County Line and Inland Empire-Orange County Line between Los Angeles and San Diego, and which provide beachside service in San Clemente. Despite its small size, the city has two stations: San Clemente station and San Clemente Pier station.
In 2016, San Clemente began offering residents free trolley service. The San Clemente Trolley service provides three open-air (windowless) trolleys that cruise throughout the coastal areas of town and pick people up at designated stops every 15 minutes. The trolley is available Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. The funding for the San Clemente Trolley came from a $1.2 million grant from the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) which the city applied for. The grant will cover most of the costs for the service for seven years. The grant requires the city to fund a portion of the trolley service at $146,000 over the seven-year grant period. The Friends of the San Clemente Beaches, Parks & Recreation Foundation provided a donation of $10,000 towards the funding of the capital costs of the trolley.
San Clemente is known for its many surfing locations, which include Trestles, Lowers, Middles & Uppers, Cotton’s Point, Calafia, Riviera, Lasuens (most often called Lost Winds), The Hole, T-Street, The Pier, Linda Lane, 204, North Beach and Poche Beach. It is also home to Surfing Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal, and Longboard Magazine.
The city has a large concentration of surfboard shapers and manufacturers. Additionally, numerous world-renowned surfers were raised in San Clemente or took up long-term residence in town, including Shane Beschen, Mike Parsons (originally from Laguna Beach).
San Clemente High School has won 6 out of 7 most recent NSSA national surfing titles.
The city is served by Capistrano Unified School District.
Within the city, there are six elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school. There is also one virtual public K-12 school: Capistrano Connections Academy with flexible hours for students. The elementary schools are: Truman Benedict, Concordia Elementary, Vista Del Mar, Las Palmas, Marblehead Elementary, and Lobo Elementary. The middle schools are Bernice Ayer, Shorecliffs, and Vista Del Mar.
Las Palmas Elementary is well known for its dual immersion program.
San Clemente High School has an IB (International Baccalaureate) Program and a large number of advanced placement courses. Students at San Clemente High School have proven to be well rounded and versatile, receiving academic accolades as well as hosting groups ranging from national title winning dance teams to award-winning orchestras, bands, voice groups and one of the nation’s most skilled athletic programs; these groups have even received opportunities to perform at various venues including Carnegie Hall (madrigals and orchestra), various venues in Hawaii (marching band), and many others.
It was also the setting of the 2005 film Brick. The town was chosen because it was particularly close to the director Rian Johnson who lived there and went to San Clemente High School, which was the school depicted in the film. Many of the locations in the film are still identical to the real ones, with the exception of the Pin’s house, which was flattened a week after exterior shooting; the interior was constructed in a local warehouse. The football field has also since been replaced with artificial turf and track. The phone booths used all through the film are mostly props that were placed on location. The movie One of Her Own is based on incidents in and around San Clemente.
San Clemente is served by two newspapers, The Sun Post News (owned by the Orange County Register) and The San Clemente Times. The Sun Post runs twice weekly on Thursdays and Saturdays and The San Clemente Times runs once weekly on Thursdays.
The city is also served by The San Clemente Patch, an online-only news website.