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.

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They Were Here Before Us

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It was a warm day in July 1769. A small band of soldiers were slowly riding north. They stopped on the bluff overlooking the ocean to refresh themselves. Perhaps they looked towards the Pacific, thinking to them- selves the area would make a great harbor someday. Turning inland, they noticed a band of about five hundred Indians quietly going about their daily lives. Don Gaspar de Portola led his small band of soldiers slowly riding northward, never to return. The Indians lived where the Diego Sepulveda Adobe is today. The tribe was known as the Tongva.

As a docent at the adobe, I tell visitors they are standing where the Indians were in about 1750 and earlier. Also, I point out the display we have about the Tongva lifestyle. Tongva means “People of the earth”. The people lived mainly on small animals, deer, fish, and ducks, and also fruit, berries, and nuts. Both men and women wore grass skirts and animal skins with elaborate jewelry made of shells, seeds, and beads. Hunting was done with bow and arrows, snares, and throwing sticks. Their housing, called wikiups, was made of willow branches and woven mats of tule rushes. Should the wikiups become infested with vermin, they were burned down and rebuilt some distance away.

Want to learn more? Visit the Diego Sepulveda Adobe to view artifacts, speak to our docents, and discover more about our community’s native peoples. The contributions of the Tongva to Costa Mesa history should not be overlooked.

Dave Gardner
President, Costa Mesa Historical Society

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Read more about the article Nat Rochester, Costa Mesa War Hero
Nat Rochester leads the color guard at the "Homecoming of Company L," April 6th, 1918, on 4th Street in Santa Ana. Source: "The Story of Company L: Santa Ana's Own", 1958.

Nat Rochester, Costa Mesa War Hero

In the Argonne Forest, October 8, 1918, Sergeant Nathaniel N. Rochester became one of the first Costa Mesans to die for his country.

Nat, as he was called, moved to what was then Harper in 1908 at age ten. His parents were artists, but he was drawn to patriotic duty, like the great-great grandfather for whom he was named, the Revolutionary War colonel and founder of Rochester, New York.

He enlisted with Company L, “Santa Ana’s Own,” in 1916, and briefly patrolled the Mexican border against Pancho Villa’s raids. The Company mobilized again in 1917 when the US entered the Great War, and was stationed first in San Luis Obispo, then at Camp Kearny.

Nat returned home for the last time in April, 1918, taking a place of honor among the color guard at the “Homecoming of Company L,” considered one of the largest parades ever held in Santa Ana.

The company was deployed to Europe that summer. Nat was transferred to Company B, 308th infantry, and sent to the front.

Nat’s letters home contained his inveterate cheerfulness. He urged his mother, when he learned he would be fighting on her birthday, to celebrate by waving Old Glory. The supreme sacrifice, he said, “would be like skipping a grade in school.”

In October 1918 Nat’s division advanced quickly but reinforcements were delayed, allowing the German army to surround what would become known as the “Lost Battalion.” 554 soldiers fought for six days against overwhelming odds, with little food or ammunition, and water only reached under enemy fire. Only 194 men were rescued. The rest were captured or killed.

On the last day of the siege, October 8, Nat was shot and killed, a month away from his 21st birthday. He died, it is said, furiously working the bolt of his rifle, saying: “Don’t surrender.”

When his family and friends learned the news, they vowed to commemorate their beloved Nat. A tablet was unveiled with great ceremony at the Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, where it remains in a place of honor. His mother dedicated a book of poetry to him, From Star to Star, in print today. And his father campaigned to memorialize fallen heroes in the names of city streets.

So on this Veteran’s Day, or whenever you’re on Rochester Street, take a moment to remember Nat, the cheery lad from Costa Mesa who sacrificed everything for his country.

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