French Park, a residential neighborhood northeast of downtown Santa Ana, is an architectural wonderland -- a place where historic homes are spared the wrecking ball or given a safe haven.
Built from the late 1890s through the 1920s by some of Orange County's most prominent movers and shakers, the community has a cornucopia of home styles, including Victorian, Craftsman, Colonial Revival, English Tudor and Spanish Colonial Revival.
The area was designated a local historic district in 1984 and renamed the French Park Historic District. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, one of two such listings in Santa Ana.
After William Spurgeon, J.H. Fruit and James McFadden formed the Western Development Co. around 1877, they persuaded the Southern Railroad to extend its line from Anaheim to Santa Ana. By the time the tracks were laid, the company had plotted a 160-acre tract called Santa Ana East.
George Wright purchased a triangular-shaped area in this subdivision for his new home. The property eventually became Flatiron Park, known today as French Park.
When Miles Crookshank, president of Santa Ana's First National Bank in 1889, built his large Colonial Revival house on North French Street, it set the stage for more Colonial Revival and Craftsman bungalows to be built along the street. The area became Orange County's answer to Nob Hill.
To house military families during World War II, many of the large homes were divided into apartments and rooming houses.
As original owners passed away, investors purchased a number of homes and turned them into income properties; a few Victorians were actually torn down as the neighborhood experienced years of decline.
French Park's architectural renaissance began when a group of residents with the energy and passion to revitalize the neighborhood organized and formed the Historic French Park Assn. in 1980. Over the last 28 years, the association has worked with the city of Santa Ana to identify, restore and, in several cases, move vintage homes into French Park that were in danger of being torn down in other parts of the city.
On a rainy winter afternoon in 1989, Debbie McEwen spotted a "For Sale by Owner" sign on an old Colonial Revival home on Washington Avenue. Looking for signs of life, she tiptoed up the porch steps, flipped up the mail slot and spotted cardinal wallpaper and antiques. It piqued her curiosity so much that she set up an appointment to take a closer look. Within a couple of months, McEwen owned the five-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot home, which was built in 1899.
At the time, the Historic French Park Assn. and the city of Santa Ana were busy saving and relocating homes. "Within the first year I lived there, four houses -- a combination of Victorian, Colonial Revival and Craftsman -- were moved into French Park," said McEwen, who is currently serving as association president. "It was an exciting time."
McEwen credits Santa Ana City Manager David Ream with realizing the value of preserving the area's historic homes instead of tearing them down and building more multifamily developments.
In recent years, the association has organized historic home tours. Jeff and Ann Dickman, who own a two-story Craftsman, opened their house for the tour last year. "There was one guy who came back four or five times," Dickman recalled. "He just wanted to look at the artistry of how the home was designed and built."
The area is a hidden treasure comparable to Old Towne Orange, said Sandy DeAngelis of Seven Gables Real Estate. "It's a tucked-away neighborhood that not everyone knows about," DeAngelis said.
Although there haven't been many houses on the market lately, she said those that have been listed usually are extensively remodeled and enhanced. "In most cases, owners want to bring the home back to its original glory," she added.
Of the six active listings, a four-bedroom, three-bathroom Victorian on French Street is priced at just under $900,000. Built in 1895, it features a newly remodeled '50s retro kitchen with all new appliances.
French Park students may attend James A. Garfield Elementary, which scored 626 out of a possible 1,000 on the 2007 Academic Performance Index Base Report, then move on to Sierra Intermediate, which scored 605, and finish at Century High School, which scored 584.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times