June 16, 2016

Photo Essay: Lake Norconian, From Resort to Wartime Hospital (and Beyond)

Most people in other parts of the country—or the world—probably don't think of California as very militaristic. But we've got no shortage of armaments here.

There's something very mysterious, or at least exclusive, about the military bases here—particularly the ones that are still active. So I'm usually working on one way or another to get on base (which usually involves taking some kind of tour or visiting a museum).

This time around, I signed up for a 5K Run / Walk so I could visit the Naval Surface Warfare Center Corona Division in Norco, part of the Naval Sea Systems Command.

NAVSEA is, as they say, all about designing, building, and maintaining Naval ships and their systems. But there are no ships here—and no sea, either.

There's just Lake Norconian and its pavilion and boathouse, with no boats to be seen. The 60-acre lake was created to be part of the Lake Norconian Club resort, which opened in February 1929 in the newly-created community of Norco (so named because it was North of the city of Corona).

The entire 638-acre playground for the rich and famous (sometimes referred to as "Norconian Resort Supreme") also consisted of a golf course, an airstrip, a swimming pool, and natural mineral springs—making it incredibly popular with Hollywood film stars and location scouts alike.

But as the Great Depression worsened and the country prepared to go to war (again) in the 1930s and early 1940s, the resort's popularity waned, and the Navy bought it for significantly less than what it cost to build it.

The official transfer of ownership was made on December 8, 1941—the day after Pearl Harbor.

At first, the Navy used Lake Norconian as a Naval hospital throughout both World War II and the Korean War—and kept many of its original features intact, including the pavilion and boat house.

But at the end of the Korean War, any remaining patients were transferred out either to Long Beach or Balboa Park in San Diego, and other Navy divisions (like the Ordnance Laboratory) moved in. The hospital officially closed for business on October 15, 1957.

And at the center of it all has been the 800 square foot hotel of the original resort, with its ballroom, casino, dining hall, and lots of rooms.

With no use for it any longer, the Navy transferred its ownership to the State of California in 1962, when it became the "California Rehabilitation Center," a narcotics addiction recovery center (and, at the time, an alternative to imprisonment).

In the 1980s, corrections pretty much took over rehab, and the luxury hotel became a medium-security state prison for felons.

Although many of the areas of the landmark structure have been abandoned, there are still 3100 inmates at CRC—some of whom get recruited into firefighter training to help out with the Norco Conservation Camp's efforts in fire prevention and response.

One local group of preservationists, the Lake Norconian Club Foundation, have been trying for years to get into that old hotel to fix the water damage and seal the leaks...

...and it's only just recently that it's looked like they'll actually be able to get access to it.

Above: The chauffeurs' and maids' quarters (left) and the Garage / Laundry building (right)

Meanwhile, outside of the correctional facility fence—and within the boundaries of the military base—are other Spanish Colonial Revival vestiges from the original Lake Norconian Club, designed by LA architect Dwight Gibbs...

...many of which are now being used for top-secret science and engineering missions.

Most of the people who are normally on the base aren't actually military officials, but rather civilians and defense contractors who evaluate Naval weapons that have been developed for undersea warfare. (Hence, ships.)

And while there wasn't much activity during my visit, it's clear that security is pretty tight. There were Navy officers stationed at any opportunity I might've had to wander off, including at the World War II-era gatehouse at the Fifth Street entrance.

Of course, that's exactly where I'd want to wander off—right into the old "Corpsmen's Quarters" from 1943-4, where the medical unit staff members resided.

Many of the structures built in the World War II era were designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style by Claud Beelman to match the hotel and are a rare example of a Naval hospital from the time that were built to be permanent. But in favoring function over form, they're less flashy than some of the LA architect's other landmark works (which include The Culver Hotel, the Eastern Columbia Building, and the Park Plaza Hotel).

But when it comes down to it, the historical significance of some of the structures on the property isn't so much about their architecture—say, a box clad in stucco on a concrete slab—but rather what once happened inside of them.

Whether it was used to store animals for lab testing or just a gardener's shed from World War II, that's likely what will determine whether the building is a contributor to the proposed Hospital Era Historic District.

There are actually two historic districts being proposed: the "Resort Era" and "Hospital Era." Some structures—and elements like the lake—are considered contributors to both.

Recreational boating and fishing were a major aspect of both resort life and rehabilitation (mental as well as physical).

And it looks like there are still fish for catching (and releasing) even today.

But those who once frequented Lake Norconian—Clark Gable, Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, Spencer Tracy, and the like—in its Resort Era are a far cry from who you'll find there on the Navy base today (in whichever era this period of time ends up becoming known as).

Many of today's NSWC Corona Division denizens are scientists, engineers, and other technicians who assess the war fighting capabilities of both ships and aircraft and of various defense systems (even theoretical ones) like surveillance, communications (including telemetry), tracking, power, and safety.

And then there are, of course, the inmates.

How long will they all get to enjoy this historic property, while the rest of the world looks on?

Isn't there a certain obligation to share it with the public?

Do we have to wait until the base becomes decommissioned and declassified before we ever really get to see it?

Related Posts:
To the Finish Line
Photo Essay: Boeing Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab, Declassified & Decontaminating
Photo Essay: Ancient Petroglyphs Secured Inside a Navy Weapons Testing Station
Photo Essay: Joint Forces Training Base (Former Naval Air Station), Los Alamitos
Photo Essay: Abandoned Naval Housing, Western Avenue
Photo Essay: Amongst the Abandoned at the Veterans Administration, LA


  1. Thank you for keeping the Norconian history alive. The structure is worthy of the

    effort to save it. Though the state is the 5th largest economy it has no money for such a project. This is sad but a grant from Disney or others should do. Try
    to get the cost from a local contractor for the roof repair.

  2. The correctional officers sneak inmates in the abandon testing villas and force them to fight each other, and do other horrendous things. This place must be shut down. Please hear my cry and keep this anonymous.