By K.P. Sander and Randi Hauser
Norco – Once Upon a Time, there was a beautiful resort. The year was 1929. The setting was an exquisite property located in the countryside north of Corona, California.
A handsome prince named Rex Clark built the resort, and on the property there was a statuesque hotel, a pavilion and beautiful manmade lake, a clubhouse with pools, an airstrip and a golf course. No expense was spared in the grandeur of the facilities, with the finest of tapestries, stone, marble, paintings and ornate fixtures adorning at every opportunity. The ballroom, dining room, guest rooms and swimming pools were all enticing, and designed with art deco and Mediterranean style architectures.
Christened the Lake Norconian Club Resort, the property attracted the elite: Hollywood stars, notable sports figures, a vast array of dignitaries, and world-class athletes all enjoyed its charms. Even Amelia Earhart used the resort’s airstrip to practice her piloting skills. It was one of the darlings of its era.
The Lake Norconian Club enjoyed success until the Great Depression, and by 1933, the beautiful property was all but closed down. Clark was struggling financially, but the resort was able to make somewhat of a comeback in 1935. Despite some spectacular moments – like the legendary Walt Disney Studios bash to celebrate the success of the 1938 release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the Club closed permanently in 1940.
Just like its compatriot, the Queen Mary, the Lake Norconian Club left behind its glamorous past at the onset of World War II and joined the military. The Club became a 5,000-patient naval hospital, after being purchased by the U.S. Navy in 1941. Rather than entertaining its guests, it cared for them, at times in pioneering ways with the first uses of penicillin, as well as the polio vaccine. Many of the stars who frequented the resort came back to boost patient morale through entertainment at the hospital.
In 1957, the hospital closed its doors, but a Naval Assessment Center remained on the property. 94 of the resort’s acres were given to the State of California. A state-funded addiction treatment rehabilitation center was initially opened in the old clubhouse, but it morphed into a high security prison containing 5,000 “worst of the worst” inmates.
Fast forward to the present, and you will find the Lake Norconian Club Foundation working diligently to save the magnificent hotel building, and the national treasures that relic still tries to protect. In 2000, 19 structures were deemed worthy of Historic District/National Landmark status. By 2004, the main hotel was considered seismically unfit and abandoned. Priceless chandeliers now phantomly light the way for wild animals; exquisitely painted ceilings and tiled floors lie water-damaged and rotting.
In 2013, the Navy – in consultation with the California State Historic Preservation Office – stated that no additional structures were eligible for salvage, despite efforts by the City of Norco and others toward the contrary. The Navy now maintains one portion of the property, and the Department of Corrections the remainder.
On the Naval side, the buildings that did make the cut for the National Register – the pavilion, chauffeur’s quarters and garage, as well as the lake itself – have been cared for by countless Naval and civilian officials, but due to budget cuts their fate hangs in the balance. The other side of the property is currently a medium security prison, with as many as 5,000 inmates at any given time.
The Lake Norconian Club Foundation, for one, is not going to stand by and watch the willful demolition of this exquisite property by way of neglect. The Foundation filed suit on Mon., Nov. 17 in an effort to protect the precious historic resources that have been “mismanaged by the Department of Corrections.”
According to the Lake Norconian Club Foundation’s website, the lawsuit was filed in Alameda County, where the Attorney General maintains an office. They are seeking compliance with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and other historic preservation laws to avoid additional deterioration of the resort.
Furthermore, the suit seeks an injunction for the removal and safekeeping of the hotel building’s stunning historic fixtures, tapestries and artifacts currently at risk. The Foundation alludes to a very slow and painful death for the building, from the inside out; deserted behind 20-foot tall fences and locked gates, but still looming proudly with hope.
“In the dark, rainwater seeps over breathtaking paintings, chandeliers, and stunning tiles. Raccoons and feral cats roam the empty hallways and defecate on the marble floors.”
Foundation President, Linda Dixon, states on their website, “We have tried for so many years to work cooperatively with the Department of Corrections to achieve protection of the magnificent Lake Norconian Club…It’s as if Hearst Castle were being allowed to decompose. This must stop now.”
Lawsuits come at a price, and to help raise funding in all of its continuing efforts toward the preservation of the Lake Norconian hotel, the Foundation hosted a great fundraising event on Sat., Feb. 14 at Nellie Weaver Hall in Norco.
Taking us back to the time when the Lake Norconian Club resort opened, the “Moonshine & Valentines” 1920s Speakeasy occasion was the bee’s knees. The atmospheric details – as organized by Diane Markham (Community Outreach and Events Coordinator for the Foundation) – were unlike any other. From guests in full 1920s costumes to a swing band that played all night, the event made guests feel like they were back in the Roarin’ 20s. The night concluded with stories of the Norconian Resort during the Prohibition Era from local historian, Kevin Bash.
Dixon, in an interview at the Moonshine & Valentines event, said the most important goal of the foundation is to preserve and protect the Lake Norconian hotel.
“Since 2002, we have been trying to get the roof repaired and the building mothballed until such a time there is a determination if and when the prison ever closes,” said Dixon. “The hotel is on the national registry, and because it is on state property, they are mandated by law to mothball the building, take care of it, and preserve it. All through these years they have allowed it to become demolished through their neglect.”
Dixon says the lawsuit is in the mediation phase night now, and it is coming along “beautifully.”
“They [Department of Corrections] know the value of the building and the historic property, so that’s where we are right now,” she continues.
When asked about the future of the hotel, Dixon waxes enthusiastically, “The goal is that the hotel will never go away. It is part of our history; and it’s just a phenomenal history and we can’t ever, ever let that go!”
For more information, visit http://www.lakenorconianclub.org/.