History & Timeline
The Norconian was built by Rex B. Clark (see image to the right) in Norco, California, the town he founded. In the early 1920′s, Mr. Clark, a brilliant businessman, buoyed by a wife with millions or dollars, purchased 15 square miles in the middle of nowhere with the idea of founding a community where people could live off the land they owned by developing chicken and rabbit farms and all manners of agriculture. While drilling a well in 1924 a “hot mineral spring” was discovered, and Mr. Clark, who believed in doing things “big”, announced he was going to construct the greatest recreational resort ever built on the west coast, perhaps in the whole United States, and then did it.
On February 2, 1929, The Norconian Resort was given to the world with a star-studded grand opening. Complete with boating, an airfield, horseback riding, mineral-baths, tennis, golf and swimming; the resort simply astounded; the image to the left is the original brochure for opening night and the image below shows the crowded parking lot with man old cars. The Olympic pools attracted some of the greatest Olympic swimmers and divers of all time. Several films were shot at and around the Norconian, and celebrities flocked to the resort. Greta Garbo and Clark Gable were frequent guests, Will Rogers and Wallace Beery regularly flew into the Norconian Air Field; Buster Keaton, Bing Crosby and even Babe Ruth could be found on the championship golf course. Major motion picture studios, The Lions Club, Kiwanis, Rotary, The Shriners, The American Legion and dozens of other organizations held gigantic picnics on the lush grounds, as well as some national, state and county conventions.
Unfortunately, the Norconian never made a nickel. Opening just months before “Black Tuesday”, the depression hit the resort hard. Another mark against the “millionaires playground” was its location. Norco of the 1920′s was known for lettuce and chickens, meaning once you stepped off the resort’s manicured lawns; there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the small town. Worse yet, the depression was equally devastating to the promising community with many farms and ranches going belly up, and, perhaps driving through such poverty to enjoy a weekend in luxury may not have been appealing.
By 1941, the Norconian was up for sale and the asking price was $2,000,000; less than half of it’s cost to build. The United States was quietly preparing for war and the Navy came calling; the resorts plentiful water supply, top of the line power plant (see image to the left) and room to expand provided a perfect location for a hospital. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Norconian Resort became the United States Naval Hospital.
Unlike so many wonderful and long gone resorts, theaters and other structures built during this golden age of architecture, we can still look up and see the red-tiled towers, walk across the marble floors, touch the exquisite tile work by the light of the original chandeliers and fixtures, gaze at beautiful murals and paintings, and find our image in mirrors that still bear the initials of the Lake Norconian Club. Almost the entire resort complex still exists despite two decades as a naval hospital, 60 years service as a top-secret naval warfare testing center, and 40 years as a prison. Unfortunately, after surviving for 80 years and despite it’s prominent position on the National Register of Historic Places, the days of The Norconian Resort Supreme may be numbered due to officially sanctioned neglect and destruction, politics and an uninformed, and, perhaps, an uncaring public.
Perhaps World War II was the old “playground to the stars’” finest hour. The Naval Hospital was an exemplary facility making extraordinary advances in the treatment of tuberculosis, malaria and polio. Wheel chair basketball may well have been born at the facility, or, at the very least was given a huge boost on the wheels of the fabulous “Rolling Devils”. Wounded veterans from Pearl Harbor, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and other distant Pacific battlefields recovered in luxury at the Naval Hospital. Hollywood once again called. Movie star Kay Francis was in charge of moral and troop entertainment, and many of the stars who once were guests at the resort, now spent their weekends visiting patients. After the war, the patient load dropped and the hospital closed in 1949 only to re-open again in 1951 to receive wounded from the Korean war. In 1957, despite heavy public outcry and a moderately heavy patient load, the hospital closed for good.
In 1951, the National Bureau of Standards moved into the empty isolation wards on the eastern portion of the old Norconian golf course. The best minds in the country were brought together in the interest of national defense to work primarily on guiding and fusing missile systems. Since then, many name and mission changes have occurred on this base described by Congressman Ken Calvert as “crucial to our nation’s security”. The experimentation and evaluation of all manner of weaponry carried out in that 400-acre, heavily guarded facility has saved countless US soldiers lives. The image below is an recent aerial photograph showing, the hotel (left center), the Naval complex (top), the prison complex (bottom) and the lake.
In 1963, 94 acres of the old resort became the Californian Rehabilitation Center. Using the former hotel building, the Navy built a hospital wing, gymnasium, chapel and patient barracks. The State of California, in an unprecedented effort, attempted to circumvent heroin addiction.
Today, “CRC” is a Level II correctional facility; a medium security prison housing at times as many as 5000 inmates guilty of a wide variety of crimes. Inside, some truly extraordinary prison officials and officers, despite horrific overcrowding, lack of funding, public disinterest and even scorn, keep the public safe, and continue to man programs that offer even the most wretched a way out of drug addiction.
In 2002, the state of California deemed the old hotel building seismically unfit and despite the buildings history, architecture, landmark status and multiple recommendations to the contrary, deemed a retrofit too expensive and ordered the old hotel abandoned. Despite the mandated protections in place to preserve national treasures, a twenty-foot high fence was put up around the building, the water and power turned off and the building was officially designated a “black building”, a structure sealed up and left to die from the inside out. In the dark, rainwater seeps over breathtaking paintings, chandeliers, and stunning tile. Raccoons and feral cats roam the empty hallways and defecate on the marble floors. Just as planned, the “shining white monument to health”, is dying.
The most intriguing aspect of the Norconian Resort Supreme may not be it’s fabulous history, magnificent ceiling paintings, the wonderful art deco and mission revival/Mediterranean Style architecture. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the former “playground to the stars”, is that it still stands, and no one seems to know it. Time is running out as rainwater, and a lack of funding, is killing this magnificent, and one of a kind, historic site.
On the Navy controlled side of the old resort, thanks to the efforts of countless Navy and civilian officials, the lake still remains, as do the pavilion, old chauffeurs quarters and garage. Unfortunately, Navy budget cuts have severely limited the resources needed to maintain these treasures also on the National Register, and their fate is in limbo.
It would appear at this time, that only an informed and interested pubic, on a local, statewide and national level, willing to lobby our elected officials, can save this complex of some of the finest and most extraordinary structures ever built.
REX BRAINARD CLARK – Born in 1876, in Detroit, Clark was the son of an actuary, sang in the church choir and was ambitious. He married Grace Scripps, but did not get along with his new father-in-law, the powerful, newspaper founder James Scripps. Barred from the Scripps family business, Rex Clark started a large stationary store but after some noted success went bankrupt and suffered a nervous breakdown. To help her husband recover, and perhaps, escape the glare of her father, Grace Clark took her husband west to La Jolla, California to stay with her uncle the famed publisher E.W. Scripps. The Clarks loved California and decided to stay. Upon his recovery Rex demonstrated a talent for land speculation and development. Eventually Rex and Grace, with their three children Rex, William, and Ellen, settled in Julian, California to raise cattle, apples and start a freight company. It was in Julian where Clark began his longtime affair with Emma “Jimmie” Snyder and her move to Los Angeles prompted yet another Clark Family relocation to Pasadena and the acquisition of Norco.
GRACE MESSINGER CLARK – It was likely Grace Clark’s Scripps family inheritance and trust fund that, in part, or perhaps entirely, financed the building of Norco and the Norconian Resort. An adventurous individual, she was the first woman to drive an automobile in Detroit and Sierra Street in Norco was so named for her founding membership in the Sierra Club.
CAPTAIN CUTHBERT GULLEY – “Bert” to his closest friends, served in the Engineers Corps during World War I; afterward he was forever known as “Captain Gulley”. Serving as Norco’s Chief Engineer on and off for over 40 years, he was responsible for laying out the streets of fledgling community and between 1921 and 1923 completely upgraded the area water system installing new pumps, lines and reservoirs.
G. STANLEY WILSON – Designed the Pavilion, chauffeurs quarters, laundry and garage.
DWIGHT GIBBS – Designed the main hotel and bath house.
A.B. HEINSBERGEN – Designed the interiors.
1920 – Rex Clark through his development company, THE NORTH CORONA LAND COMPANY, purchases Orchard Heights; 15 square miles of semi-successful farm land. Clark himself purchases 600 acres on which he plans to build a home away from home – “The Lodge”. Clark’s residence was actually located on the second largest property in Pasadena; only the Huntington was larger. Clark’s plan was to sell 1-10 acre parcels to individuals who wanted to enter the poultry, rabbit or agricultural endeavors.
1923 – Orchard Heights has been renamed Norco and holds a grand opening on May 13, 1923. Norco is an enormous success soon becoming the poultry capitol of California. Lettuce, melon and alfalfa output soon leads California and at times the nation. The Norco Store and Grill is the site of multiple regional meetings
1924 – Hot mineral water is discovered on Clark’s personal property and the idea of a resort is born.
1926 – Clark announces he will build the greatest resort in America.
1928 – March/April. – the tea room is the first part of the resort to open. Edison, new to Norco (as is electricity), outfits the first all electric commercial kitchen in Riverside County.
October. Lake is finished (required one month to fill)
May 22, 1928 – Pavilion Opens. 1st event; Regional Meeting Of the Riverside Chamber of Commerce. The Norconian Resort is built primarily with materials produced and/or manufactured in Norco. Workmen represent every state in the union and payroll hits highs of $25,000 a week. The power plant is most modern in California, perhaps nation, and goes into operation mid-year. Oak Knoll Nursery in Pasadena is purchased and moved in its entirety to Norco; establishing the largest nursery in Riverside County. The golf course is finished in December. The course is designed by legendary golfer and designer John Duncan Dunn.
May 20, 1928 – The American Olympic Diving and Swimming Team participates in the grand opening of outdoor pools. At the time, The Norconian pools are the only outdoor competition pools in Southern California. Cecily Cuhna sets the world record for the 400 meter swim on that day. The Pacific Coast Championships in diving and swimming are held at the resort. For the next decade plus, all Olympic athletes who competed as divers and swimmers at the Olympics of 1928, 1932, 1936, and the cancelled 1940 events; trained, competed and exhibited at the Norconian. Olympian Duke Kahanamoku was a Norconian regular who gave surfing Demos in the Lake.
1929 – February 2, 1929; Grand Opening (a huge event). In attendance: local, regional, statewide and national dignitaries, Buster Keaton, Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and more. Work is begun on the chauffeur’s quarters, laundry and garage. The Corona Theatre Opens August 29, 1929 with the film “New York Nights”. Buster Keaton, John Barrymore, Charles Chaplin, Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Irving Berlin and dozens of other stars attend the opening. They all bunk at the Norconian.
1930 – 1941 – Completed resort consists of hotel, complete bathhouses with male and female identical bath complexes (two indoor pools, steam rooms, etc), competition diving and swimming pools, air field, lake, golf course, walking and riding trails, tennis courts, full service laundry, garage, service bays, gas station, dining room, ballroom, lounge, café, tea room terrace, lake pavilion/casino, gardens, acres of green grass. Will Rogers is a regular guest at the hotel, using the air field to arrive and depart. Amelia Earhart using the Norconian air field to practice landings and take offs. The Lake is the site of several speedboat races with the greatest drivers of the day competing. Several films were shot at, or in, the surrounding area of the Norconian; “Top Speed”, “Their Own Desire”, “Love in the Rough”, “Walking on Air”, “Test Pilot”. The site was a haven for movie stars who dropped in to use the baths, golf course, etc. A short list; Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Joe E. Brown, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Johnny Weissmuller, etc. Sports Stars were also regulars; Babe Ruth, Helen Wills, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, and others. MGM held their company picnic at the site in 1938, Fox in 1940 and Disney in 1938. “Gone with the Wind” premiered in Riverside at a sneak preview, but, the execs, director and writers stayed at the Norconian that night.
November 1941 – The hotel closes.
1941 – 1957 – The United States Naval Hospital in Corona opens December 8, 1941. First Patients are Pearl Harbor survivors. Captain Jensen is first commanding officer and is himself a survivor of Pearl Harbor. Film Star Kay Francis is in charge of moral. Hollywood stars, formally guests of the Norconian now regularly entertain patients; George Raft, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Etc. Many radio shows aired from the site, including the Jack Benny program. The Corona/Norco chapters of the USO, Navy Mothers, Navy Auxiliary, American Legion, etc. set records for visits and bond fundraisers to the hospital. At WW II’s peak there are 5000 patients. Isolation wards are built on the eastern portion of the golf course to care for Marine and Navy tuberculosis and malaria patients. The first usage of penicillin to treat these illnesses occurs on this site. The site was the designated polio facility on the west coast. This was one of the first places the polio vaccine was used in the nation. A gigantic hospital wing was added to the hotel in 1943, prompting a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was a secret visitor who in his last days found comfort in the baths. Soon a chapel, additional barracks, gymnasium, nurse and corpsman quarters and a theater were built. The stained glass in the chapel is commemorative of heroes. The hospital was a pre-eminent facility for rehabilitation of wheelchair bound soldiers. Advances in prosthetics, recovery and rehabilitation were phenomenal. The Rolling Devils was likely the first organized wheelchair basketball team in the nation and was considered unbeatable. The Hospital closed in 1949 only to re-open a few months later for the Korean war. In 1950, many of the most intelligent people in the world were assembled to test weaponry. Decades and many name changes later, this top secret lab is known as the Naval Surface Warfare Assessment Center. The hospital closed for good in 1957.
1962-1963 – 94 acres is given to the California Department of Corrections and the Californian Rehabilitation Center is born (the first State backed drug addiction treatment program in the nation). In March 1962, the federal government donated the facility to the state to use as a narcotics center. To help ease overcrowding in the 1980s, CRC began housing felons as well as civil narcotic addicts.
2000 – 19 structures are placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
2002 – The former hotel is abandoned. The Navy and prison continue operations.