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World War II icon to be razed for concert venue in Costa Mesa

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A onetime Army barracks that was later dedicated to those who served in World War II is slated to be demolished to make room for the expansion of a popular Orange County concert venue.

The Memorial Gardens Building is scheduled to be demolished later this year to clear space for a new entrance plaza to the renovated Pacific Amphitheatre at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

"For a lot of us, it's very sad," said Bob Palazzola, president of the Costa Mesa Historical Society. "Without any kind of power behind us to do anything about it … there's nothing we can do, basically."

The old building was once one of about 800 structures within the Santa Ana Army Air Base complex, whose 1,337 acres took up a sizable chunk of modern-day Costa Mesa, including the county fairgrounds. The base opened in 1942 and was decommissioned in 1946.

Through the decades, the Army buildings found new uses or were torn down as the city grew. A few have survived, notably the Memorial Gardens Building.

In its heyday, the old barracks looked out over a sweeping memorial garden dedicated to veterans, particularly those who served in WWII, a place filled with  weeping willows, jacarandas, hibiscus and other plants. But the garden was ripped out years ago.

The amphitheater renovation is part of a larger $25-million improvement effort at the fairground. The work will actually decrease capacity at the amphitheater – which will shrink from about 18,500 to 8,500 – but will succeed in better connecting the concert venue to the county fair and making it more intimate.

According to conceptual drawings of the plaza, it will have new box offices, planters, walkways, reflecting pools and light beacons "visible from afar." Ornamental orange trees, references to the county's agricultural roots, are also planned.

But the 1940s-era Memorial Gardens Building will be sacrificed, probably in August after the conclusion of the summertime county fair.

"We're going to tear it down carefully, identify everything from World War II and save those parts," said Gary Hardesty, the fairgrounds' acting chief executive of technology and production.

Even though the old barracks and the former Santa Ana Army Base were designated as a Point of Historical Interest, that distinction carries only limited protection for the building.

According to the state Office of Historic Preservation, if a Point of Historical Interest is "threatened by a project," environmental review may be required under the California Environmental Quality Act.

An environmental impact report based on the fairgrounds' 2003 general plan downplayed the remaining air base structures' historical significance.

Chris Jepsen, president of the Orange County Historical Society, said with a piece of land once as vast as the old Santa Ana Army Air Base, no one ever expected much of it to be saved for posterity.

"But this particular structure, with its memorial gardens and many historical plaques, was long assumed to be one building that would be saved as a reminder of the base and the tens of thousands of brave souls who trained there," he said.

"Several generations of people who cared about the base's history put their eggs in this one basket, so it's disappointing to see that basket discarded."

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bradley.zint@latimes.com

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