Claremont Rocks (part 2)

When one considers it, one is struck with the knowledge that the landscape we sit upon is the result of violent forces of nature—the Pacific plate and the North American plate thrusting the San Gabriels skyward, the movement of the many earthquake faults and the torrents of water rushing down from the mountains, turning creeks and dry arroyos into raging rivers. 

Claremont occupies the northwest corner of the Pomona Valley. It is bounded on the west by Pomona and Chino Hills, the south by Corona, the east by Norco, Mira Loma and Fontana, and the north by Rancho Cucamonga, Upland and Claremont. The deposits of soil in the valley proved perfect for farming in Chino and Norco. The soil of the mid valley gave birth to what was once the largest wine-growing region in the world. And the rocky soil of the northern areas proved perfect for orange and lemon groves.

As Claremont developed and the land was cleared to build the town and to plant the groves, the rocks removed from the ground presented the early townspeople with opportunities. They became walls, foundations, pilasters, fireplaces, chimneys, landscape borders, curbs and houses. Vestiges of the early uses are everywhere—stone houses still dot the landscape, retaining walls and rock levees can still be seen, and rock curbs occur throughout the Village.

The rock curbs, sometimes referred to as “elephant toe” curbs, remain in over 40 street fronts in the city. The proper term for these curbs is “split-stone.” The split-stone curbs were the norm for creating curbs after a city ordinance passed in 1909.

Masons would take large round granite boulders and split them in two halves and place them in a trench with the split side facing in and the round side facing the street. They would then hand-trowel the cement mortar around and over the top to create the curb. When one views them, the actual size of the curb is misleading. Fully two-thirds of the split-stone is buried.

Another method of constructing curbs from stones was employed in Russian Village by Konstanys Stys and his son Raymond on South Mills Avenue. They placed boulders next to each other that they had hauled from North Mills Avenue.

Stone architecture was popular in the city from around 1900 until 1930. Local builder, E.E. List was responsible for many of the first stone houses. Most of the stone masons were Mexican-American and lived in the East Barrio.

The majority of all-stone structures are located in north Claremont, typically related to families of the citrus industry and having close proximity to the larger northern stones that were piled along roads after the land was cleared for groves. Remaining structures of former citrus ranches can be seen on Mills Avenue, Padua Avenue, Base Line Road, Pomello Drive, Glen Way and Alamosa Drive.

Besides houses, smaller stones were used for the foundations and fireplaces of many houses built before 1920. Many of these houses are located in historic Claremont, below Foothill Boulevard and east of Indian Hill Boulevard.

There are two methods of constructing stone buildings. One way is to build a wooden frame and then apply the stone to the exterior as a veneer. The Pitzer House, now Sunrise Senior Living, located at Towne and Base Line Road, is an example of this method.

The other method is to build the stone-bearing walls and then construct a frame on the inside. Most stone structures in the city are constructed in this manner. This kind of construction is known as unreinforced masonry, which is susceptible to collapse during earthquakes.  Fortunately, with today’s technology and techniques, these buildings can be reinforced, made safe and saved from demolition.

Two of the best known stone houses were designed by architect, Robert Hall Orr. He designed the Pitzer House and the Johnson House on Mountain just north of Foothill Boulevard. The Pitzer House has been called “the finest stone house in Southern California” by architectural historian Robert Winter. Orr also designed Crookshank Hall on the Pomona College campus and the Johnson Ranch on Base Line.

Born in Canada in 1873, Robert Hall Orr immigrated to the US in 1881. He apprenticed as a draftsman for two years, without pay, with William Weeks, an architect in Salinas, and was then transferred to a paying job in Week’s Watsonville office. By the 1890s, Orr had settled in Pomona and had started his own firm. He was the architect for a number of Claremont’s iconic structures. 

Orr was also the architect of Claremont High School, now The Old School House, at the corner of Indian Hill and Foothill. And if there is one building that stands out in the Village and exemplifies the downtown area, it is the Claremont National Bank at the corner of Yale and Second Street, today known as the Verbal Building. 

Early on, the first Claremont residents used the materials at hand to build a city. Many of the rock curbs have given way to street widening and new construction methods, but the remaining ones are restorable and they help to define the character of the city.

Early stone structures have been restored and included in new developments such as Citrus Glen at Pitzer Ranch at Base Line Road and Monte Vista Avenue, and the Johnson stone barns are being restored as part of a development on Base Line. Another structure has not fared as well. The Baughman House, just south of the 210 freeway on the east side of Indian Hill is deteriorating and appears to be heading for demolition by neglect. 

The rocks that rolled and tumbled out of the San Antonio Canyon have played a major role in the development of the city. They have contributed to the character of the city and give us a tangible, everyday connection to our past. 

As Judy Wright wrote, “Claremont’s early stone structures reveal the ingenuity of our builders who understood and used the indigenous materials in unique ways that continue to please us.”


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