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California Sued Over Old Movie Star Hangout

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - California's prisons department is letting an 85-year-old resort patronized by Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and others fall into ruin, the nonprofit Lake Norconian Club Foundation claims in court.

The Lake Norconian Club opened in 1929 in Norco, a small inland city north of Corona, in Riverside County. Buster Keaton, Spencer Tracy, Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey were among its many patrons. The club's private airstrip was used by Amelia Earhart for practice landings and takeoffs.

The Lake Norconian Club on Monday sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Office of Historic Preservation, in Alameda County Court.

The foundation claims that by failing to maintain the resort, the state has created conditions akin to "demolishment by willful neglect."

There's a lot of history in the lakeside resort. The Lake Norconian Club closed as a hotel in 1941 and was transferred to the U.S. military, which used it as a naval hospital for up to 5,000 patients until 1957.

The first use of penicillin to treat tuberculosis and malaria occurred at the hotel-turned-hospital; it also was one of the first hospitals to use the polio vaccine.

The property includes a huge hotel, a ballroom, dining room, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a manmade lake, an airstrip and a golf course. Nineteen of its structures were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

The property was transferred to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 1957, which used much of the hotel space for administrative offices until 2002. Next to the hotel, a rehabilitation center was built that houses more than 3,000 inmates.

The foundation says the prison was slated to close in 2013 but state legislation has delayed the closure.

The foundation's complaint calls the prison "crowded" and quoted Department Deputy Director Bob Sleppy, who said the prison is "hard and very costly to renovate and doesn't meet a lot of our new standards."

But as tax money continues to be channeled into running the prison, the foundation claims, the state failed to complete minimal repairs to the hotel roof or clear the rain gutters.

Large holes in the roof often result in a foot of standing water in parts of the building and "feral cats and raccoons" have taken up residence in the building, according to the complaint.

The foundation claims that "when the prison is eventually closed, restoration and rehabilitation of the historic hotel and the entire Lake Norconian resort will be of local, statewide and national import."

The foundation's attorney, Susan Brandt-Hawley, said the foundation believes the Department of Corrections has the money to maintain the resort but "chooses not to."

The foundation seeks an injunction ordering the department to "take immediate action to maintain the structural integrity of the Lake Norconian Club."

Brandt-Hawley said that if the department fails to maintain the property, the Foundation would prefer to see ownership transferred to another party.

Many Hollywood celebrities repaired to inland Riverside County resorts during the Prohibition era to party down away from the scrutiny of Los Angeles city and county police. A similar old resort, by nearby Lake Elsinore, also patronized by first-generation Hollywood elite, is a complete ruin.

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