The Norconian Resort Supreme very likely was the finest and most comprehensive resort built on the west coast of the United States in the 1920s and until recently almost completely forgotten despite the fact that it remains almost intact after over 60 years as both a naval base and prison. Spectacularly luxurious, this 700-acre (2.8 km2) “gleaming white palace” opened on February 2, 1929 and was a direct contradiction to its immediate surroundings: Norco, a very small (pop. 1,500) but successful poultry, agricultural and rabbit center located in Riverside County, California.
The resort was the creation of Rex B. Clark, who was also the founder of Norco. In 1920, after years of successful land speculation in the San Diego/Julian area of California, Clark found himself the owner of 15 square miles (39 km2) directly north of Corona (NORth/COrona – NORCO). The acreage was a failed agricultural community known as “Orchard Heights”, but soon Clark renamed this hilly area “Norco”. Clark’s able engineer, “Captain” Cuthbert Gulley, in less than three years laid out streets and installed pumps and reservoirs, and on May 13, 1923, “Norco” was born.
Rex Clark hailed from Detroit, Michigan and was married to Grace Scripps, daughter of powerful newspaper man James E. Scripps, founder of the Detroit News. Rex Clark was the only son-in-law not allowed into the Scripps family business, owing, according to family members, to his very conservative political views. Barred from the newspaper business, the entrepreneurial Clark started a large stationery store in downtown Detroit. After initial success, the business went bankrupt, and Clark suffered a nervous breakdown. Grace Scripps packed up her family and relocated her ailing husband to La Jolla, California to stay with her aunt Ellen Browning Scripps. Clark soon recovered and became one of the first to develop La Jolla. Eventually, the Clark family set up a home in Julian, California where Rex bought and sold property, operated a freight company (for which he built the largest single pour concrete barn in the nation and which still stands) and grew apples. In 1919, the Clark family relocated to Pasadena and purchased what would soon become Norco.
Sometime in 1925, “Captain” Gulley (so named for his service in World War I), while drilling yet another well, struck hot mineral water, and the idea of the Norconian Resort was born.
The resort construction began in 1926 and consisted of a magnificent golf course, immaculate grounds, air field, hiking trails, lake, lake pavilion, chauffeurs’ quarters, garage, power house, laundry and a truly spectacular “Clubhouse” which consisted of a first class hotel, two indoor bath complexes, ornate ballroom, dining room and lounge and the first outdoor AAU qualifying swimming and diving pools in Southern California.
The clubhouse architect was no less than Dwight Gibbs (Carthy Circle Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse Interior), the outbuildings were designed by G. Stanley Wilson (Riverside’s famed Mission Inn), all the interiors were created by A. B. Heinsbergen (Pantages Theatre chain) and the golf course was designed by legendary John Duncan Dunn (Catalina).
Initially, the resort was a tremendous success, with the biggest stars of the day as regulars. Several films were shot at the Norconian, and it was not unusual to see Buster Keaton or Babe Ruth on the golf course (in 1938 actress Lona Andre established the women’s world golfing record by shooting 156 holes of golf in 11 hours and 56 minutes). Norma Shearer not only shot two films at the resort but on many occasions could be seen riding the trails on horseback, and Will Rogers, who also shot several films in the vicinity, regularly utilized the Norconian air field.
On a tragic note, in 1933, famed aviator Marshall S. Boggs (who piloted the first blind landing made entirely using radio signals in 1931) was killed in a plane crash making a routine approach to the resort.
The outdoor diving and swimming pools (the only AAU qualifying pools in southern California until the outdoor pools were built in Los Angeles for the 1932 Olympics) were in constant use for exhibition matches and AAU-sanctioned competitions, and many Olympic calibre athletes swam and dove in the Norconian waters, including Mickey Riley, Buster Crabbe, Esther Williams (destined for the cancelled 1940 Olympics and movie stardom), Sammy Lee, Dorothy Poynton, Georgia Coleman, Duke Kahanamoku, Arne Borg and many others. On May 20, 1928, the Norconian pools’ grand opening was held (the resort opened in stages), and 18-year-old Cecily Cuhna (heir to the Cuhna fortune) set the world record for the 400-meter swim. Speedboat races featuring the fastest racers of the day were regularly held in the Lake Norconian and steering “The Sunkist Kid” legendary female racer Loretta Turnbull (The Queen of the Seas) was a regular.
Several films were lensed at the resort with three shot at the Norconian in 1929 alone. The Norconian impact was so great that Fox Studios built complete Norconian sets in the sound stages of Hollywood. Norma Talmadge’s first talkie, New York Nights, premiered in nearby Corona (and quickly killed her career) with dozens of Hollywood stars in attendance, including Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, D. W. Griffith, Clara Bow, Irving Berlin, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and dozens of others. Before and after the premiere, the Norconian was where these stars hung their hats. Literally dozens of photos depicting all of the above have been discovered over in recent years.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression quickly killed the Norconian’s amazing success, and by 1933 the resort was closed. Rex Clark, on a personal front, was divorced from Grace Scripps and struggling financially. Norco was in the midst of a seven-year drought, and the agricultural success of the 1920s was all but a memory.
In 1935 the resort suddenly reopened, likely due to a cash infusion from Rex Clark’s former wife’s trust fund. The fabulous Norconian sputtered along with some tremendous landmark occasions.
In 1938, Walt Disney Studios, to celebrate the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, threw a party that has become the stuff of legend.
Disney historian Jim Korkis follows up on my post about the SNOW WHITE wrap party and sends in this excerpt from an interview he did with Disney animator/director Bill Justice. The entire Justice interview can be found in the third volume of WALT’S PEOPLE.
Jim Korkis: Tell me a little about the “Snow White Orgy” at the Norconian.
Bill Justice: In 1938, “Snow White” was a huge hit. You can’t believe how big it was. Walt and Roy announced that they were going to throw this huge, incredible “thank-you” party for everyone who worked for them. Wives, husbands, children, friends…all of them were invited to a weekend at the NORCONIAN HOTEL on Lake Norco (a desert resort near Palm Springs where Walt would later have his Smoke Tree Ranch hideaway).
All costs from the rooms to food and drink and in fact whatever we wanted to order would be taken care of by Walt. You know at the Studio, there was a strict dress code in those days for employees. Men came to work in jackets and ties although they were allowed to take them off when they sat down at their drawing boards. Women were not allowed to wear pants, and sober-colored skirts and blouses weren’t very appealing. The ink and paint girls were separated from the animators. The Disney Brothers had sent out a memo that if you were in animation you weren’t supposed “to dip your pen in the company’s ink and paint” which was their way of saying, “behave yourself with the ink and paint girls.” If you told a dirty joke within earshot of Walt, you might get fired. He didn’t put up with any of that stuff.
So, anyway for two years, all of us had been under terrible pressure, working long hours day and night to finish “Snow White.” When I came on at the end of production, I still felt that stress. When we arrived at the Norconian Hotel there were pools to swim in, tennis courts, a golf course, music, and plenty of food and alcohol and something just snapped.
An animator picked up an ink and paint girl and dumped her into the pool fully clothed. Followed by others jumping in and all hell broke loose pretty quickly.
Swimsuits flew out the windows. There were naked swim parties, people got drunk and were often surprised what room they were in and who they were sleeping next to when they awoke the next morning.
Freddie Moore walked off one of the upper floor balconies thinking he was on the ground floor and ended up in a tree fortunately. You know, he was one of my idols. I never saw Freddie Moore do a bad drawing. As my wedding gift from my wife, Kim, I got a sketch of a woman’s head wearing a hat done by Freddie.
Walt was horrified at the shenanigans. He and his wife drove home that next morning. He never referred to that party again and in fact if you wanted to keep your job, you didn’t mention it either when you were working at the studio. We never had a party like that again.
The same year MGM tossed their own party at the Norconian, and in 1940 Fox studios followed suit.
During this era, Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Basil Rathbone, Stan Laurel and other stars regularly visited the Norconian, as did sports stars Lou Nova (boxer), Helen Wills (tennis), local star Jess Hill (USC coach and star, New York Yankees) and the ‘ol Pitt football team of 1935.
Nevertheless, for a decade the resort had been in constant jeopardy of closing amidst back taxes, mechanic’s liens, labor issues and creditors. The resort after a name change to “Clark’s Hot Springs” in 1940 closed for good.
In September-October 1941, the United States Navy purchased the resort, and on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, the resort was commissioned the United States Naval Hospital in Corona (the hospital was actually in the town of Norco, but the post office was Corona-based, hence the name). Almost immediately, the Navy held up payment, and Rex Clark spent four long years in court fighting for the $2,000,000 promised by the federal government. He eventually won the suit, but it is unclear exactly what the amount of the judgment was.
The first patients arrived from the Pearl Harbor attack and were housed and treated in the luxurious rooms of the former resort. The facility was quickly altered and expanded to include isolation wards (the hospital was the designated national tubercular and malaria treatment center for the United States Navy as well as the Naval Pacific Coast Polio facility), a 200,000 sq ft (19,000 m2) ward addition (which was christened by Eleanor Roosevelt), a marvelous chapel, complete theater, gymnasium (where wheelchair basketball was born on the wheels of “The Rolling Devils”), a nurses quarters, corpsman quarters, etc. At the hospital’s peak (1945) over 5000 patients were being treated. Many firsts occurred at the hospital; first use of penicillin for tubercular patients, first air transportation of Naval patients across the United States with final destination in Norco, first uses of polio vaccine outside of Pittsburgh, first hand-held X-ray machines, as well as advances in prosthetic devices and occupational therapy. Actress Kay Francis was in charge of hospital morale, and she saw to it that many of the stars who frequented the resort now entertained the patients; including The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Jack Benny, Harry James, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Kay Kyser, James Cagney, Clark Gable and dozens of others.
The hospital closed temporarily in 1949 and re-opened in 1950 for the Korean War. During this brief closure the Naval Weapons Assessment Center was born and soon became one of the finest top-secret think tanks in the nation and a leader in the Cold War victory. The hospital closed for good in 1957, but the Naval Assessment Center remained. In 1962, 94 acres (38 ha) in the north were given to the state of California, and on that site was born the California Rehabilitation Center, the first state-funded addiction treatment program in the nation. This voluntary program (addicts had a choice of prison or CRC) moved into the old resort clubhouse, the northern wards, north wing, chapel, gymnasium, nurses quarters, etc. Unfortunately, there was a battle of attitudes; correction versus rehabilitation and corrections won. The prison quickly moved from low security to high medium and 5000 of the worst of the worst reside within truly historic walls.
In 2004, the main clubhouse was deemed seismically unfit and abandoned. Officially, the state of California has determined to allow one of the great examples of Mission Revival Style architecture to crumble by neglect. The 200,000-square-foot (19,000 m2) building sits behind twenty-foot-high rotting fences. Inside, priceless chandeliers hang from stunning, handpainted ceilings; Catalina floor tile has feral cat droppings and water slowly destroys this one-of-a-kind building.
In 2000, nineteen structures, buildings and features were deemed worthy to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Currently, the Lake Norconian Club Foundation is working to expand the national register to include US Naval Hospital buildings erected between 1941-1957 and to elevate the entire Lake Norconian Club Historic District to National Landmark status. Further, representatives of the National Trust have visited the site, and there is hope that the former Norconian Clubhouse will be included on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered buildings list for 2008-2009. Media nationwide has covered the tragic fate of this majestic building, and the hope is it will be saved before it is too late.
Rex Clark died on August 31, 1955 and merited an obituary in the Los Angeles Times. He left behind an estate of just over $2,000,000 and is buried in a crypt at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California.
If you were famous or rich during the 1920’s and 1930’s this was the place to be. It is such a beautiful building and so much history has been hosted on the grounds. I bet it would be chilling to play some old big band era songs while touring the old building. We’ll meet again, by Vera Lynn and Sentimental Journey, by Les Brown and Dorris Day. Unfortunately it has been made part of the correctional system. Although fortunately it is most likely the reason it has not been torn down. But even so it is sad to see it just sitting there slowly deteriorating. Someday someone will come along and restore the great star struck structure to its former glory. But that day has yet to come. So silently she sits. Waiting for the days that people can grace her halls again. Waiting for visitors that will appreciate her for her wonderful architecture and beauty. I hope someday they will furnish rooms and allow people to stay in a one of a kind former luxurious establishment such as the Norconian Resort Supreme.
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Thanks for reading,