Restoring Glory to a Temple of Gloom in Santa Ana

Times Staff Writer

When the swank Twin Palms restaurant in Newport Beach closed its doors, the Junior League of Orange County found itself considering alternative locations for its annual fund-raiser.

One of the choices was downtown Santa Ana, a suggestion that left some members cold.

"The location was an issue," league member Erin Keller said. "We really had to sell to our members."

But once the league's 500 guests had settled inside the Santa Ana Performing Arts and Event Center, once a Masonic Temple, they were won over by the velvet draperies, red alabaster, chandeliers, vaulted ceilings and hand-carved doors.

Chalk one up for Jason Kordas, whose job is to attract the movers, the shakers and the well-heeled to an area that often -- in his view -- gets a bad rap.

Kordas is the general manager of the center, a 1930s-era building on Sycamore Street that has been restored to its grander days.

In a way, he's an ambassador for a once-blighted urban core in the county's most populated city.

"People see this as the other side of the tracks, and we have to work to make them see this differently," says Kordas, who works with partner Paula Westbrook. "It's going to happen but it takes time."

Developer Mike Harrah spent $11 million restoring the former lodge, which includes large rooms for rent, a lunch restaurant called Athena and a weekend cabaret called Tibbie's, all set in mahogany walls, antique flowered carpeting and ornate banisters and moldings.

Harrah owns 2 million square feet of downtown space, including art galleries, restaurants, parking lots and office buildings and has been a key player in reshaping Santa Ana's old core.

But the hall, which once was slated to be an indoor flea market and another time was set to be knocked down, is perhaps his greatest restoration coup.

The hall opened two years ago, and Kordas was hired to run the operation.

In the last year, about 300 groups have held events there.

"It's amazing. There is nothing like it in Orange County. It doesn't have an ocean view, but it has style and grace," said Irvine resident Natalie Vishny, who after her son's bar mitzvah at the facility asked Kordas if she could work for him to promote the building. "Once you go inside the building, you fall in love."

Some worry the downtown retro trend could scare off well-established businesses that cater to immigrants. Louis Pescarmona, a jewelry shop owner, says the hall doesn't fit in the nearby Mexican shopping district.

A fancy meeting hall "seems incongruous with what we have here," he said. "It bothers me."

Kordas uses the uniqueness of the building to lure skeptics who otherwise might not come to Santa Ana. Along the way, he figures he helps elevate the city's image.

Santa Ana, with the help of Harrah, has spent years working to develop an artists center in a part of downtown that was once filled with boarded-up buildings and decay.

"The role of the Santa Ana Performing Arts Center is making a visible impact on the type of events we are seeing in downtown Santa Ana, whether it's people from Newport Beach coming to Athena or having Tibbie's relocate there," Councilman Jose Solorio said. "It's a magnet for the city."

Kordas, a veteran caterer, remembers when his employees were afraid to work downtown jobs in the early 1990s. But that has changed.

After overcoming their initial doubts, Junior League members became quick converts.

"People were stunned," Keller said. "They were blown away with the beauty of it."

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