The Norconian Resort Supreme
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The Norconian Resort Supreme is a former hotel/resort in Norco (Corona), California, built in the 1920s, largely intact after over 70 years as a naval base and prison. Originally called the "Lake Norconian Club", it opened on February 2, 1929 in this rural community, whose main businesses were poultry, rabbits, and agriculture.
In 1920, after years of land speculation in the San Diego/Julian area of California, Rex Brainerd Clark (May, 1876 – Aug 31, 1955), through his North Corona Land Company, purchased 15 square miles (39 km2) of land just north of Corona. The land was a failed agricultural community known as "Orchard Heights", but Clark renamed this hilly area "Norco", based on its position North of Corona. In less than three years, Clark's engineer, "Captain" Cuthbert Gulley (April 30, 1878 – 1961) (so named for his service in World War I) laid out streets and installed pumps and reservoirs and on May 13, 1923, "Norco" held its grand opening. Sometime in 1925, "Captain" Gulley, while drilling a well, struck hot mineral water, giving rise to the idea of a health spa that would ultimately become The Norconian.
Construction of the resort began in 1926 and consisted of a golf course, immaculate grounds, air field, hiking trails, Lake Norconian with a 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, which remained the only qualifying pools until those that were built in Los Angeles for the 1932 Summer Olympics. The clubhouse architect was 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). The golf course was designed by legendary John Duncan Dunn (Catalina).
The resort was initially a great success, with film and sports stars of the day as regular visitors. 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 set a new record for speed in women's golf, shooting 156 holes in 11 hours and 56 minutes). Norma Shearer shot two films at the resort and could be seen riding the trails on horseback on many occasions. Will Rogers, who also shot several films in the vicinity, regularly utilized the Norconian air field. Tragically, in 1933, famed aviator Marshall S. Boggs (who piloted the first "blind" landing made entirely using radio signals in 1931) crashed and was killed while making a routine approach to this airfield.
The outdoor diving and swimming pools were in constant use for exhibition matches and AAU-sanctioned competitions, and many Olympic-caliber athletes swam and dove there, 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. On Lake Norconian, some of the fastest speedboat races of the day were held, including legendary female racer Loretta Turnbull ("The Queen of the Seas") and her boat "The Sunkist Kid".
Several films were shot at the resort – three in 1929 alone. The site became so popular 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. Before and after the premiere, many of them stayed at The Norconian.
The Great Depression
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. 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 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 located in the city of Corona at that time, but when the City of Norco was established in 1964, the hospital was officially located in Norco as well as the post office which is now called the Norco Post Office. 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. 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 1995, the Navy released a study that concluded no aspect of the Norconian property's resort era qualified for National Register of Historic Places listing. The City of Norco responded to this report by commissioning an independent study of the property's historical significance. This study found that 19 structures, buildings, and features from the Norconian's resort era were eligible for National Register listing. Subsequently, in 2000, these structures, buildings, and features were placed on the National Register as the Norconian Resort Historic District. The City funded report did not include property's World War II and post World War II histories, but recommended they be separately studied. In 2014, the Navy submitted its historic resources survey and evaluation of these two eras to California State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) Carol Rowland Nawi, and the SHPO issued her concurrence with the Navy's report and findings. As it did in the late 1990s, the City of Norco has commissioned an independent survey and evaluation of the property's, Naval Hospital and Naval RDT&E eras.
In 2004, a State of California study concluded that the main hotel building was not in compliance with current earthquake construction standards, and it was subsequently abandoned. Today, this 250,000 square foot Spanish Colonial Revival building sits behind twenty-foot-high chain link and concertina wire fences, crumbling from neglect. Inside, priceless chandeliers, stunning hand painted ceilings, Catalina tiled floors and walls, etc. are suffering the ravages of leaks through washing machine sized holes in the roof. In 2015, the Lake Norconian Club Foundation filed a lawsuit to force State of California to obey its own rules that require state agencies to maintain and protect historic buildings on their properties. Prior to filing its lawsuit, this nonprofit organization had devoted over a decade trying to convince the State to maintain this priceless building.
- "CLUB PROJECT PREVIEWED". The Los Angeles Times. 1929-01-31. p. A1. Retrieved 2012-05-17.
- "Sports Program to Feature Norconian Debut". The Los Angeles Times. 1929-02-02. p. A3. Retrieved 2012-05-17.
- "The Norconian". City of Norco. April 2008. Retrieved 2012-05-17.
- "NORCO DRAWS BIG CROWD AT OPENING". The Los Angeles Times. 1923-05-20. p. V13. Retrieved 2012-05-17.
- The Norconian Resort (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) by Kevin Bash and Brigitte Jouxtel, ISBN 978-0-7385-5559-1
- "American Journal of Nursing", CONVERTING HOTEL TO NAVAL HOSPITAL", September 1942,
- "Corona Daily Independent", 1,241 PATIENTS AT CORONA NAVAL HOSPITAL NOW, December 18, 1946,
- "Los Angeles Times", ATOMIC POWER USED BY SMALL NEW X-RAY UNIT, January 1, 1955,
- "Norco Beacon", NORCONIAN GRAND OPENING, February 1, 1929,
- "Corona Daily Independent", MRS. ROOSEVELT AT NAVAL HOSPITAL, April 26, 1943,
- "Corona Courier", PASADENA MAN PURCHASES ORCHARD HEIGHTS", October 5, 1919,
- "Corona Daily Independent", KEATON SAYS LINKS TOPS", February 8, 1929,
- "Corona Daily Independent", ROLLING DEVILS DEFEAT BONITA LEGION BY 34-22, April 11, 1947,
- "Norco Beacon", MGM HAS BIG DOINGS AT NORCONIAN, June 2, 1938,
- "Los Angeles Times", CORONA HOSPITAL TOPS IN LUXURY FOR SERVICEMEN, August 3, 1952.
- Article on The Norconian Resort Via VividlyVintage.com
- Lake Norconian Club Foundation
-  Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: Norconian Club Airport