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Lost Landmark: The Clark House Fire

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When George H. Clark visited the boomtown of Fairview in the spring of 1889, he declared the area “the prettiest place I have ever seen.” In a matter of weeks he sold his business interests in Chicago and purchased over 100 acres in what would later become Costa Mesa. He then set about building a house that would rival the beauty of the landscape.

The result was a grand three-story mansion boasting airy arched verandas, striking decorative shingles, intricate scroll work, ridge poles, a bay window, and stained glass. The interior overflowed with rooms, including a large reception hall, parlor, dining room, library, butler’s pantry, kitchen, four bedrooms, a bathroom, and servants’ quarters. Two features stood out: the massive fireplaces heating the parlor and dining room and the luxurious polished redwood running throughout.

The house quickly became a local landmark, with area pioneer Harvey Holden remembering it as “the most beautiful of all the houses in Fairview.”

The ranch stretched northwest from modern-day Baker and Fairview to roughly Harbor on the west and Gisler to the north, and sat across from the McClintocks and Yales. The ranch was home to the Bingham Creamery, a dairy, tennis courts, and a small cottage for the grandparents. The former executive exchanged the silk and tea trades for a new kind of stock, cultivating English walnuts and French prunes, white Adriatic figs and lusty-looking grapes, and goats and cattle. In 1891, Mr. Clark registered a newly calved Holstein-Friesian cow, “The Duchess of Fairview.”

Life on the mesa had its setbacks. The Fairview boom went bust. George’s father died and his wife left for Chicago to give birth to their second son, never to return. He lost $2,000 when the Fairview general store, which he owned, burned down, uninsured. And his plans to run an electric train from Santa Ana to Newport Beach never materialized. He left the area in 1902 in search of better education for his sons, eventually settling in Los Angeles after marrying his second wife, Elysabeth Clarke, his sons’ former schoolteacher, prominent educational activist, and daughter of Fairview founder A.L. Clarke.

Over the years the old house saw a variety of tenants, including Vernie Graser, Charles Borchard, and even the famous McClintocks, who spent a year in the house while they awaited the construction of their new Spanish-style home.

By the 1950s the property was owned by another local magnate: merchant, rancher, and real estate broker Ernest A. Watson of Tustin. His son Don moved into the house with his wife and children.

On Christmas Day 1953, we are told, the Watson family went out, leaving the tree illuminated. The lights shorted and sparked a fire that flared through the wooden house. Neighbors noticed dense smoke billowing from the chimneys around 3 p.m. One witness, the young nephew of Maureen McClintock Rischard, ran to his mother to alert her. As she called the fire department, the boy and his father rushed across the street, rescuing three palomino horses locked in a corral next to the growing inferno.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rischard was herself driving to the ranch. Approaching Baker from Newport Avenue, the fire loomed over the landscape some two miles away. She and her husband arrived to find the mansion — where she had passed a year of her childhood, playing dress-up in fancy clothes — engulfed in flames. They stood and watched, powerless. They took one last photograph before the former icon collapsed in front of them.

It took firefighters from Costa Mesa and Santa Ana Gardens two-and-a-half hours to extinguish the blaze. Only a nearby barn and garage were saved. As for the house, it was a total loss. “Mrs. Watson’s sterling silver was just a clump,” Mrs. Rischard recalled. “It was that hot a fire, with all that wood.”

Fittingly, perhaps, the loss of the boom-era landmark occurred during the frenzy of another boom. “New Subdivision Maps Swamp Planners” reads one 1954 headline. Within 18 months of the fire, ground was broken on one of the first modern planned developments in Costa Mesa, the Halecrest tract, and the Clark ranch welcomed a new kind of pioneer.