Nixon's Western White House (and post-Watergate refuge) hits market at $75 million

Nixon's Western White House (and post-Watergate refuge) hits market at $75 million
President Nixon and wife Pat show California Gov. Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, and Sen. George Murphy the courtyard of the Western White House before a dinner given by the first family on July 27, 1970.
President Nixon and wife Pat show California Gov. Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, and Sen. George Murphy the courtyard of the Western White House before a dinner given by the first family on July 27, 1970.
The resignation letter. Click any image for a slideshow.
The resignation letter. Click any image for a slideshow.

When Richard Nixon formally resigned the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974, he left the White House on Army One for the last time, flashing his trademark V-for-victory sign as he boarded the helicopter.

He was headed home to the California coast: an estate in San Clemente, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, that's now owned by one of his close friends and on the market for $75 million.

Nixon called this place La Casa Pacifica. "House of Peace," he translated for Leonid Brezhnev.

Here, the president and the Soviet leader had cemented their friendship: "All you hear there is the ocean waves. You'll like that," Nixon told Brezhnev. "I like hearing the sound of the sea," agreed Brezhnev — who for his part chose to stay in First Daughter Tricia Nixon's frilly bedroom when he visited, rather than in highfalutin Camp Pendleton lodgings reserved for dignitaries. Their 1973 summit resulted in the first in a series of agreements bent on preventing nuclear war.

The Nixons hosted celebrities at the estate — Frank Sinatra, John Wayne — as well as world leaders. Nixon supposedly asked Henry Kissinger to be his secretary of state during a swim in the pool. Kissinger later moved in next door, and Nixon aides Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman moved in nearby. So much happened here that the estate was nicknamed the Western White House by aides, the press and even Nixon himself.

Some of the Cold War era's most important decisions were made at La Casa Pacifica, including a meeting with Chinese envoy Huang Chen that led to the thawing of U.S.-China hostilities. Nixon hosted South Vietnam's last president, Nguyen Van Thieu, there — and Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda led a march on La Casa Pacifica in protest.

The Nixons had bought the home in 1969 for either $340,000 (according to the Los Angeles Times) or $1.4 million (according to the Wall Street Journal) with the help of business partners. The local finance chairman of his reelection committee, Gavin Herbert, offered to take care of the grounds for them, even though he was also running his family's company, the pharmaceutical giant Allergan, and owned the locally renowned nursery Roger's Gardens.

During and after the Watergate hearings, La Casa Pacifica became Nixon's refuge. "It was quite a therapeutic surrounding for them," the president of the San Clemente Historical Society, Dorothy Fuller, told the Los Angeles Times in its coverage of his death in 1994. "It's just so beautiful and peaceful and medicinal," Fuller said. "It would be a great place for a sanitarium."

Herbert, who had come to know Nixon, told the Times that his keenest memory was Nixon's arrival after the resignation. "We found out 24 hours in advance that he was coming home and the volunteer group got the place in order. I was here and met him at the front door." Nixon looked far more exhausted in real life than he had on television, and soon after fell gravely ill with phlebitis.

"One day, after he came home from the hospital, I came by to see how the gardens were doing, and one of the Secret Service guys asked if I could come up to the office to see him," Herbert told the Times. He was surprised at the reason Nixon had summoned him: "He said, 'Gavin, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?' "

Herbert said he thought La Casa Pacifica's serenity helped Nixon recover. "He regained his physical and mental strength and respect around the world. It was remarkable to see it happen."

But Nixon also would come to see the property as "eerily detached," the Times said, and of course it was hard to melt into the town unnoticed: On a trip to the supermarket, someone spit on his wife, Pat, who began wearing black wigs and heavy makeup when she went out.

In 1980, the Nixons finally left La Casa Pacifica for the relative anonymity of New York, which was closer to their family.

They sold it to their good friend Gavin Herbert and his partners, who carved the acreage into a 15-home gated subdivision with La Casa Pacifica at its core. (Even decades later, Herbert won't disclose the price of that private sale, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the current listing.)

Herbert and his wife kept the Nixon home as their own for the next 35 years, a responsibility they took to heart. "Part of the reason I was able to buy [it] is they knew I would take care of it," he told the Times. In 2009, he entered a 10-year preservation contract with the city that reduced his property taxes by $20,000. "It's like owning a big boat on the ocean. It gets a little rusted," he said at the time. "We have projects going on literally every month to keep the property in order."

But at age 83, he's now letting go — and looking for a buyer who feels as he and his wife have. "We care a lot about who the next caretakers would be," he told the Journal.

Click here or on a photo for a slideshow of Richard Nixon's Western White House — and post-Watergate refuge — now on the market for $75 million.

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