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The red front doors and open patio of the home.

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House of black gold

The Clarke Estate was a testament to progressive Southern Californian ideals, until it was obscured by an oil field

In the heavily industrialized town of Santa Fe Springs, in southeast Los Angeles County, there is a hidden wonder. A Shangri-La among the strip malls. The six-acre Clarke Estate features lush grounds of towering bamboo, fragrant citrus trees, and manicured artificial grass lawns. The focal point of the estate, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, is the main house, designed by Irving Gill, a stark white California modernist masterpiece of geometric shapes and smooth finishes. Constructed from 1919 to 1921, it is a testament to the ideals of three progressive Southern California pioneers, who believed the West was the perfect place for culture, art, and new ways of thinking to flourish.

Chauncey Dwight Clarke was born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1858. He was the youngest child of a large, independent-minded family who made their fortune in the distillery business. He moved to Arizona as a young man, in search of better health and a career as a mining prospector. One day, while riding his horse high above the Santa Maria Gold Mine outside of Phoenix, the "young, handsome, dapper" Chauncey met "high spirited, charming and gracious" Marie Rankin. She was the only child of a successful mining engineer. Born in Illinois in 1868, the highly intelligent and rambunctious Marie, called "Todie" by her family, could "ride a horse with as much grace and shoot as accurately as Annie Oakley," one contemporary remembered.

The exterior of the all white Clark Estate from the back yard.

It was love at first sight. After their marriage in 1894, the couple, who shared a "mutual interest in education, comparative religion, travel, public affairs, and philanthropy," were rarely apart. Chauncey ran his family’s distillery, the Santa Maria Gold Company, and other mining ventures. They helped settle the town of Peoria, Arizona, were involved in ranching, and travelled the world, once spending a year in India to study ancient religions.

In 1904, the Clarkes moved to Southern California for Chauncey’s health, and immediately became popular figures in Los Angeles’s burgeoning artistic, intellectual, and philanthropic circles. Marie soon "became a living legend with her enthusiasm and persistence in attaining worthwhile goals," columnist Ed Ainsworth recalled. Referencing her proficiency with a gun, he quipped, "Whenever she set her sights on a philanthropic or cultural target, she always managed to bullseye that too."

In 1914, the Clarkes bought approximately 62 acres of the former Crosbie Ranch in Santa Fe Springs, a rural area then best known for its therapeutic warm sulfur springs and rambling health resorts. James Siemon, a young cousin of Marie’s, recalled visiting the property shortly after the Clarkes bought it, "when the area was open country with homes scattered among orange groves and field crops." The couple took their time mulling over what to build on the land, which would serve as their peaceful country estate.

In 1918, Marie became involved in the Theater Arts Alliance, which was then in the process of searching for land in Los Angeles County to build a world-class outdoor performance facility. In 1919, fellow Alliance members William and H. Ellis Reed discovered the perfect spot, a naturally shaped bowl in Hollywood known to locals as Daisy Dell. Marie and Alliance founder Christine Wetherill Stevenson fronted $21,000 each to help secure the property. And thus, Marie became one of the mothers of the world famous Hollywood Bowl.

That same year, the Clarkes finally chose an architect to build their home at Santa Fe Springs. They picked Irving Gill, another pioneering transplant from the East who, like Chauncey, had come to California for his health. Born in 1870, Gill had already established himself as one of the revolutionary architects of Southern California. His beliefs closely aligned him with Marie, who felt that "on the West Coast of our country lay the unrivaled opportunity for the building of a great civilization."

Old film in a cabinet, and the living room with a ladies portrait above the fireplace.

He shared with the Clarkes a commitment to the ideals of California progressives. The progressive movement, according to historian Kevin Starr, included "an entire generation of Southern Californians—educated, upper-middle-class, Christian and Jewish alike—who had migrated to Southern California because to some degree they were dreaming of establishing here in the Southland a new and better way of American living." In Gill’s 1916 manifesto "The Home of the Future: The New Architecture of the West," he argued for a kind of progressive purity expressed through architecture:

If we, the architects of the West, wish to do great and lasting work we must dare to be simple, we must have courage to fling aside every device that distracts the eye from structural beauty, must break through convention and get down to fundamental truths …. We should build our house simple, plain and substantial as a boulder, then leave the ornamentation of it to Nature, who will tone it with lichens, chisel it with storms, make it gracious and friendly with vines and flower shadows as she does the stone in the meadow.

The house Gill constructed for the Clarkes, his largest residence still in existence, is an almost perfect example of this philosophy. At 8,000 square feet, the stark, poured-concrete structure draws on the tradition of the Spanish courtyard, which Gill believed offered "privacy, protection and beauty." He also drew on the Native American tradition of the stacked mud pueblos, creating an external façade of decks and terraces that is pleasing yet challenging to the eye. The floors were made of the mineral magnesite and stained green; sealants made with egg whites were used to protect them. Ornamentation was used sparingly. Concrete planters in the courtyard boast a pre-Mayan motif, while painted red awnings and doors grace the porte-cochère and the charming diminutive balconies overlooking the courtyard.

Marie, an avid gardener and horticulturist, seems to have supplied the home’s most unique ornamentation: Pressings of local botanical specimens are imprinted all along the walkway and walls, a motif not found in any of Gill’s other buildings. The Clarkes also worked tirelessly on the estate’s landscaping, importing bamboo from Asia and creating lawns for playing outdoor games and entertaining guests. They filled the finished home with books, antiques from Asia and Greece, and film equipment used by Marie, an enthusiastic amateur filmmaker. "Both of them had qualities of mind, a philosophy of life and magnanimity of spirit that made their home a cherished retreat and lasting inspiration for the friends whom they graciously welcomed," the Clarkes’ biographer George R. Martin wrote. "With its gardens, orange trees, and bridle paths, it became one of the show places of Southern California."

4 images of the exterior of the home. Trees lining the driveway up to the property, the front of the house, the front door, and the side of the home.

But this idyllic retreat was to be very short-lived. In 1921, large amounts of oil were discovered on the nearby land of Alphonso Bell. Two years later, the first oil well was drilled on the Clarke property. The tiny country hamlet of Santa Fe Springs was overrun with men looking for work, and the sound of industry could be heard day and night.

Soon the town was "wide open" with gambling, fast talking salesmen and bootleg liquor. Wagons, trucks and trains brought in all the equipment that could be located throughout the area. As fast as the lumber was unloaded, derricks went up to 150 feet; the derrick was used to raise and lower the pipe during the drilling. The noise was unbelievable. Mud, oil, fumes and soot filled the air when the wells "got away" and blew up or caught fire. Some residents moved away, either out of fear for their lives and property, or to find a quiet, clean peaceful life again. Others stayed to lease their land and become rich.

The Clarkes opted for some of both. Chauncey Clarke became a leading figure in the Santa Fe Springs oil industry, which was one of the major oil producers in America during the 1920s. But, unable to deal with the byproducts of the industrialization that made them richer than ever, the Clarkes left their new home in the hands of servants and employees and moved to a large ranch in the Coachella Valley, which they called Point Happy Date Gardens. There they again established a warm and welcoming home, happily growing award-winning dates and attempting to breed Arabian stud horses.

This happiness was not to last either, though. Chauncey died in 1926 after a long illness, leaving most of his estate to his Marie. Marie did not let her sadness over her soulmate’s death slow her down. Known in Los Angeles society as "beloved Todie," she threw herself into charity work, becoming a prominent member of the Three Arts Club, the Women’s Athletic Club, the Ebell Club, the Democratic Party, and the Bel-Air Bay Club. She helped found the annual Pilgrimage Play at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre and served on the board of the Hollywood Bowl for decades, sitting in the same box every season. She could often be found watching tennis matches and philharmonic concerts, or reporting back to friends about her recent travels around the world. She also boasted a unique fashion sense, once sporting a hat featuring "a parade of dachshunds running around the crown," according to a 1942 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Although she made her primary home at Point Happy Date Gardens, where as "Madame Happy" she played benevolent grandmother to the employees of the ranch, she would occasionally open the old house in Santa Fe Springs and project movies off the balcony onto a screen set up in the garden. A brilliant conversationalist, she was known for repeating her favorite sayings, such as "He who is different from me does not impoverish me, he enriches me." She was a tireless patron of Claremont College, which she hoped would become one of the great centers of thought in America. Old age did not dim her interest in the world—in the last months of her life, Marie requested books about the dawn of the Atomic Age.

Marie died in 1948, leaving the bulk of her estate to Claremont College. Like her long-departed husband, her ashes were scattered over the hills above the Santa Maria Gold Mine, where their love story had begun many moons before.

The pool and gorgeous landscaping in the back yard.

Marie left the Santa Fe Springs estate to her cousin James Siemon and two men named Charles R. Martin and Charles C. Keely. Siemon bought out the other two heirs and moved in in 1950. In 1952, he sold five acres of the estate to the city of Santa Fe Springs, which built its government complex, including City Hall, on the property. Siemon, "a horticulturist, art collector, musician, animal lover and gentleman," lived on the estate with his Aunt Stella, virtually unnoticed by the busy industrial town that surrounded them. "People who lived across the street didn’t even know the house was there," he recalled. In fact, it was so hidden and low-profile that for many years it was rarely listed as one of Gill’s works, making it a temporarily "lost" project.

In 1986, the elderly Siemon sold the now dilapidated home to the city of Santa Fe Springs for $2 million, in hopes that it would become a cultural center. However, at his death in 1992, the city had only paid him $200,000; he forgave the city the remaining mortgage of $1.8 million in his will. The city renovated and updated the estate, turning it into a modernized wedding and events facility. Its most recent facelift occurred in 2013, when a Los Angeles County grant of $150,000 was used to improve the grounds and install artificial outdoor turf and new indoor carpeting. Occasionally, in the spirit of Marie, movies are shown to the public on the lawn.

Walking the perimeter of the now purely functional but still lovely estate, breathing the citrus-tinged air, one can temporarily forget the sights and sounds of construction and overwhelming industry that are just out of eyesight—and be, for a moment, in a timeless peace. "It is a grand feeling to have dreams come true," Marie once said about her cultural successes. "An idea based upon a principle, if that principle proceeds from the right sources, is bound to succeed."

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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