It takes a stretch of the imagination to see the front entrance of the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana as a work of art.
But, in fact, it once was. A towering white-and-gray marble building, the courthouse is the subject of heated debate over artistic integrity and compromise.
Civic leaders and city and county officials agree that the dried-up basin of cracked concrete tile out front is an eyesore in dire need of repair. They just can't agree on how best to restore it.
Some prefer refilling the basin with water to preserve the pristine vision of the building's renowned architect, Richard Neutra, creating a tranquil, shallow pool with glistening water surrounding two large boulders. Others propose filling in the basin with either reflective tiles that simulate water or a garden with a pedestrian walkway.
So far, the county appears to be tilting toward the garden idea, which would cost half as much and has the backing of the courthouse Facilities Committee. The Board of Supervisors already has approved hiring an architect to explore landscaping the spot.
Those who walk past the basin each day want to see some kind of improvement, and soon.
"It's embarrassing every time I come in to work and see the empty pool," said Judge Fred Horn, assistant presiding judge of the Superior Court in Santa Ana and a member of the Facilities Committee.
Horn is one of thousands of visitors, jurors, court employees and others who flow in and out of the courthouse on Civic Center Drive each day. All that is left of the architect's original scenic design are the two boulders sitting at the center of the basin. The area is generally used for smoke breaks or recess.
"I'm glad to see the county will do something about it," Horn said. "We've finally got the county to commit some funds to beautify the front of the courthouse."
But the facilities panel faces opposition from the Civic Center Commission, an advisory group on development and restoration projects, made up of appointees from the city, county and civic leaders. That commission has strongly recommended restoring the basin to its glory days as a reflecting pool.
"It's a dry pond that looks as ugly as sin," said Ann Avery Andres, a member of the Civic Center Commission who has worked on the project for the last year. "The commission opposes the landscape proposal because we want the water to be there."
Avery Andres has seen how cost-cutting measures can compromise artistic values. Neutra had included a similar pool at the south end of the courthouse that is now filled in with a garden of lush tropical plants, flowers and a pebbled pedestrian path.
The garden, similar to the one now proposed out front, is attractive, Avery Andres admits. But it's no reflecting pool.
"The pond reflects the building and seems to extend it to infinity," Avery Andres said. She said the Civic Center panel voted a year ago to keep the pool as integral to the original design.
In the Tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright
Neutra was among a handful of leading architects, including Rudolph Schindler and Raphael Soriano, who adapted the modernist tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Neutra, who emigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1923, died in 1970. He is said to have studied under Wright. Remnants of his vision are found in a few other Orange County buildings, including the Huntington Beach Library, Orange Coast College and a cluster of church buildings in Garden Grove.
Restoring and maintaining a the reflecting pool would cost $900,00 to $1 million, said Bob Wilson, director of management services for the Public Facilities and Resources Department. Garden landscaping would cost $400,000 to $500,000.
"My understanding is that there were a number of attempted fixes to refill the pool in the past that have been less than satisfactory," Wilson said. "It's not as simple as caulking the pool." The pool leaked water into the basement parking garage after previous repairs.
A final decision will be made by the Board of Supervisors, which will consider the matter late this summer or in the fall.
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An empty concrete basin is the object of a battle between preservationists and officials in Santa Ana and Orange County. Proposals include restoring the basin and returning it to its original use as a reflecting pool, or filling it in and landscaping the area.
Source: Orange County Superior Court