Western White House of Richard Nixon is for sale
San Clemente estate is owned by onetime volunteer gardener, Allergan founder Gavin Herbert
By Candace Jackson, April 1, 2015 1:52 p.m. ET
For Gavin Herbert, the retired founder and CEO of Allergan—the nearly $70 billion pharmaceuticals company—it was a lifelong love of gardening that led to his ownership of one of Southern California’s most storied and valuable coastal properties: President Richard Nixon’s so-called Western White House.
Now, it will hit the market for $75 million. Mr. Herbert, 83, is selling the estate after 35 years of ownership and is looking for a buyer who will continue to care for the property. The 5.5-acre estate in San Clemente, Calif., has more than 15,000 square feet of living space over a main house, guesthouses and staff quarters, and 450 feet of ocean frontage.
The property was owned by the president from 1969 to 1980. Photo: Toby Ponnay
Listing agent Rob Giem, of HÔM Sotheby’s International Realty, says the high price tag is justified, even aside from the property’s provenance, as it is the largest stretch of available residential oceanfront south of Los Angeles. Prices for vacant waterfront lots in Orange County typically sell for $5 million to $10 million for a quarter-acre, he says. “It’s one of a kind,” he adds.
In 1969, six months into his presidency, Mr. Nixon and some business partners bought the property, then 26 acres, for $1.4 million from the widow of original owner, Hamilton Cotton, according to reports from the time. He dubbed it La Casa Pacifica.
At the time, Mr. Herbert—who had founded Allergan nearly 20 years earlier—was the finance chairman for the president’s Orange County re-election campaign. A longtime gardening enthusiast, he was also the co-owner of a garden center in Newport beach, where his family lived.
Introduced to Mr. Nixon’s property by H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, Mr. Herbert soon volunteered for the role of head gardener on the property—despite his busy career.
Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, left, visited the Nixons in 1970. California Sen. George Murphy is on right.
“In the pharmaceutical business, new products take 10 years to develop,” says Mr. Herbert. “In gardening, you get instant gratification.”
He stayed on in his gardener’s role even after taking his company public in the 1970s.
The tranquil lot overlooks a popular surfing beach. It has flower and vegetable gardens, neatly trimmed hedges, and palm and cypress trees.
The home is designed in a Spanish Colonial style—white stucco and red-tile roof, and living spaces around a central courtyard with a fountain. An outside staircase leads to an office with a fireplace that Mr. Nixon added. The dining room overlooks the home’s ornamental and English gardens on the opposite side.
A living room in the roughly 9,000-square-foot main house has ocean views. Photo: Toby Ponnay
The main residence was designed in the 1920s by Carl Lindbom for Mr. Cotton, a wealthy local businessman, who was inspired by the mayor’s residence in San Sebastian, Spain. The inside has tiled and wood floors and wood-beamed ceilings; large arched windows overlook the ocean.
The Nixons used the home for family retreats and strategic meetings, hosting guests such as Henry Kissinger and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Mr. Herbert says Mr. Kissinger told him Mr. Nixon asked him to be secretary of state while they were swimming in the property’s pool, which the president had added.
Nixon, a Southern California native, retreated to the home after his resignation in 1974, following the Watergate scandal, and wrote his memoir there. He sold the estate to Mr. Herbert, and partners, in 1980 in a private sale. Mr. Herbert declines to give the price, and it couldn’t be learned in public records. Mr. Herbert and his partners developed the property into a gated subdivision with 14 other homes. Mr. Nixon died in 1994 in New York City.
The 5.5-acre estate has 450 feet of waterfront. Photo: Toby Ponnay
For about a decade after buying La Casa Pacifica, Mr. Herbert lived primarily in Newport Beach. He still has a home there that he shares with his wife, Ninetta. Between the two, they have five children, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Several of their children and grandchildren have been married at the property.
About 25 years ago, Mr. Herbert added an octagonal poolside pavilion, and decorated it with photos of visiting dignitaries. More recently, he remodeled the main house, rebuilding about 30% and putting in a basement. The master suite was expanded to include a bath and closets. He also replaced a living-room fireplace and donated the original to the Nixon library.
Selling it “has been a very hard decision,” says Mr. Herbert. “I think [my wife and I] felt we were caretakers. We care a lot about who the next caretakers would be.”