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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- A massive fire destroyed the historic Racquet Club hotel late Wednesday, where Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, and Elizabeth Taylor once lounged.

The fire was still smoldering Thursday. Firefighters are expected to be at the scene all day, using an excavator to remove some damage before starting an investigation into the cause.

"The scene is too unsafe to investigate," Palm Springs Battalion Chief Ron Beverly said at the scene Thursday. "We will remove things from the building and bring them to the outside."

Firefighters cut down several palm trees that were on fire and one palm tree bent over after catching fire.The fire caused minor damage to an adjacent building and floating embers drifted to another building several yards away, causing additional minor damage.

Fire Chief John Allen said the property contains multiple buildings. None were occupied and no injuries were reported.

People who wanted to see the damage came and went Thursday morning, including Dan Whittier, 47, the club's tennis director in 1991.

Whittier said the facility was significant even then, long after its heyday.

"It was the one place you wanted to be invited to play (tennis)," Whittier said. "This is a loss to everyone in Palm Springs ... because this was the birth of Palm Springs."

Firefighters were called to the site at about 9:30 p.m. PDT Wednesday, and the flames were brought under control about 45 minutes later.

Tim Bachman, who lives nearby in a home once owned by actress Joan Crawford, said he looked outside shortly before being evacuated and saw a "big, huge ball of flames."

Residents along nearby streets were evacuated as a precaution, but were eventually allowed to return to their homes, police said.

Opened by actors Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy in 1934, the Racquet Club was known as a Hollywood hangout frequented by the likes of Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. Marilyn Monroe is said to have been discovered there.

In September 2013, the club's latest owner, Judy Dlugacz, who splits her time between the East and West coasts, planned to create an "LGBT and friends" housing project on the site. It was to have been the latest venture of her Olivia Communities company, which organizes lesbian cruises and travel.

At the time, she said her first order of business was to find the right development partner.

But since then not much has come of those plans, although a website for the project, theracquetclub.com, still touts the "historic residences" of the seven Albert Frey bungalows that have been hallmarks of the hotel for more than 50 years.

Rick Smith, who also lives near the site, said there have been problems with homeless people squatting on the vacant property.

Smith said he believes police had been called to check the site for trespassers as recently as two weeks ago.

The Racquet Club was on a city list of the six most endangered historic buildings. The city was working to beef up security and its laws to protect them, particularly after another property, the Palm Springs Community Church, built in 1935, burned in September.

Contributing: Colin Atagi



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Fire destroys Palm Springs' historic Racquet Club hotel

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