What was the center of James Irvine’s ranching and farming operations nearly 100 years ago exists today in the form of the town’s biggest tourist attraction--Old Town Irvine.
In 1986, the Irvine Co. and several other partners broke ground on a project that would transform many of the city’s historic buildings into a commercial and retail center.
Located near the intersection of Sand Canyon Road and the Santa Ana Freeway, Old Town attracts thousands of visitors a year, mostly travelers going to and from Los Angeles and San Diego.
But for many local residents, Old Town is a living link to the past. Such is the case with the Irvine Historical Society’s Judy Liebeck, who has worked to preserve and save many of the old city landmarks.
“Old Town Irvine is a wonderful place to spend the day and walk around,” said Liebeck. “It is one of the last remnants around that proves to Irvine residents that this city has a past to it.”
The Irvine Ranch, formed by the Irvine family from large Spanish land grants in the 19th Century, raised lima beans and cattle. James Irvine is said to have introduced lima beans to Orange County in the early 1900s. Until the federal government bought the 20,000 acres that is now El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the Irvine Ranch was the world’s largest producer of lima beans, she said.
The society also operates the Irvine Historical Museum, just outside of the Old Town complex. Open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Sundays, the museum features pictures and actual artifacts of the Irvine Ranch. The current exhibit is on the lima bean operations of the ranch.
“There are a lot of old towns in California that preserve everything, which is something they didn’t do in Irvine,” she said. “Instead, most of the buildings dating back to the glory days of the Irvine Ranch have been converted into offices and restaurants--but at least they are saved for future generations to see.”
Among the converted buildings is a two--story general store built in 1911; a two-story hotel built in 1913; a one-story house built in 1915 as the home of the ranch foreman; a blacksmith shop and a silo and granary built in 1947. Several of the buildings, some of which had been moved to the seven-acre complex from other parts of the city, are listed in the National Register of Historical Places.
For some, the collection of shops and restaurants is a good place to entertain friends and family.
“We lived in a lot of other Orange County cities, and it becomes repetitious taking visitors around the corner to a place that they probably have where they live,” said Barbara Ellingsworth an Irvine resident who brought relatives from New Jersey to dine.
“This is kind of unusual, something that makes going out to eat more memorable than going around the corner.”