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From Bean Fields, a Visionary Mall

The other day Werner Escher phoned me and invited me to meet him for lunch and to walk around with him. He said he wanted to show me what his boss, Henry Segerstrom, had in mind for South Coast Plaza and the Town Center, where, of course, they’re building the new Performing Arts Center.

Werner and I have done quite a bit of walking around on Segerstrom’s land since we met 18 years ago. We were careful to keep out of Henry’s lima bean fields. There were lots of them around in 1968, and we didn’t care to get dusty feet.

I first met Werner when I was eating a hot dog and watching the kids riding the merry-go-round. Henry had just put it in the year before in the mall’s then only courtyard. I adored carrousels. The joy of the kiddies whirling around on their horses, and the mothers fussing about, fearful their little darlings would tumble on their ears, deeply amused me. I’ve never digested hot dogs better in my life.

Werner introduced himself. He said he wanted to meet the new Times columnist. I had to get him to spell his name three times before I heard it. The carrousel’s music was brassier, louder and livelier than today. I liked it better the old way. I guess Henry has toned it down to fit into the tonier, more cultural atmosphere of the mall, the nearby Village and Town Center, with its sculpture garden, the plays and orchestra concerts that will happen when the Performing Arts Center opens Sept. 29. Back then, all that culture was only a dream in Henry’s head.

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Some nasty people have called the sculpture, The Spirit of Lima Bean, by the world-renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi, in Henry’s acre-and-a-half sculpture garden nothing but of pile of boulders.

Personally, I like it, although I’m forced to admit that small lima beans seem to have awfully big spirits. I think the sculpture says something important about Henry Segerstrom’s spirit. It’s symbolic of his large thinking and planning. He cultivated his family’s lima bean fields, and in 1966 made them grow a massive retail and cultural center.

The prestigious Urban Land Institute now recognizes Henry’s South Coast development and the Rockefeller Center’s transformation of 22 vacant acres owned by Columbia University in mid-town Manhattan into stores, theaters and gardens as the nation’s two most successful developments because each has created a sense of special place where people want to be.

Werner, Henry’s director of community relations, and I walked around Henry’s sculpture garden when it opened in May of 1982. It’s called “California Scenario,” with its carefully arranged rocks by Noguchi into a meandering stream bed. I thought it would be fun to leap the steam. I misjudged the distance and landed on one of Noguchi’s artistically placed rocks. To my horror, it rolled out of position.

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Henry forgave me and spoke to me at the Japanese tea ceremony honoring Noguchi the next evening. He’s that kind of man.

Since that time, Henry has decorated his project with works of art by such prestigious artists as Alexander Calder, Charles O. Perry, Jean Dubuffet, Henry Moore, Claire Falkenstein and many others, and he’s still buying, particularly paintings. I’ve been careful to control my exuberance when I get near any of his works of art.

The other day’s walk with Werner . . . well, it wasn’t really a walk this time. We met for lunch at John Pohl’s Bistro, one of 36 restaurants on Henry’s old bean field, and we talked so long there wasn’t time for a walk. Besides, Henry’s dream is so expansive it was too much for our city shoes.

“Do you realize,” Werner said, “that the expansion of South Coast Plaza alone will increase its present size of 1.8 million square feet of building area to nearly 2.9 million square feet. Broadway and Robinson’s are coming in, plus 110 new mall shops. Look, South Coast Plaza alone had $440 million in sales last year. The projection is that by the end of 1987 sales will total $735 million, exceeding that of the central business district of San Francisco.”

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“Gosh,” I said. What else can you say but gosh to figures like that? “And with new paintings. That’s a lot more to walk to, isn’t it?”

Exhausted at the thought, we settled back to talk about our children and grandchildren, hoping that maybe one of them would be as full of the spirit as Henry. I told Werner about our newest and ninth grandchild. Her name is Taylor Smith. You never know, maybe a girl will have the spirit. I plan to help it along by giving her a starter pot of lima beans for her nursery.


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