Where art nestles with history

Skeith De Wine's Smallest Art Gallery in California is tucked under the stairwell in the Santora Arts Complex basement.
(Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times)

Come sundown the first Saturday of every month, tree-lined 2nd Street in Santa Ana is jampacked with crowds — sipping cappuccinos at the Gypsy Den cafe, downing cocktails at Lola Gaspar or pigging out at Memphis at the Santora’s crawfish boil while listening to live music on the promenade.

Others are busy gallery hopping. This is, after all, Santa Ana’s Artists Village.

Santa Ana has long taken a back seat to Newport Beach and artsy Laguna as a weekend destination, but first-time visitors to the Artists Village downtown will be surprised by the wealth of independent restaurants and bars, shops and galleries — not to mention the historic buildings along the way.

According to local historian Tim Rush, who gives tours the first Saturday of every month for the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, more than 6,000 historic buildings lie throughout Santa Ana in architectural styles that include Victorian, Craftsman, Beaux Arts, Moderne, Mission Revival and Spanish Rococo. Rush’s number seems improbably high (another historian said the city has 2,000 historic buildings), but then wonderful architecture does seem to be at every turn.


“When Santa Ana became the county seat in 1889, it was the capital city of the area, drawing commerce and wealthy merchants,” Rush said. “My grandmother, who lived in Garden Grove, always went to down-town Santa Ana to shop in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That’s where all the best shops were.”

The Artists Village is often defined by Broadway on the west, Spurgeon Street on the east, 1st Street on the south and 4th Street or Santa Ana Boulevard on the north. The Art Walk, 7 to 10 p.m. on the first Saturday of every month, is “a great place to see emerging artists and to buy art,” said David Spivak, director and chief curator for the Grand Central Arts Center, a Cal State Fullerton project on Broadway.

A favorite place to start is the Churrigueresque (Spanish Rococo) Santora Building, built in 1928 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The former commercial structure houses 2 1/2 floors of paintings, sculpture, ceramics and jewelry. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, Daniger’s Tea Room on the second floor feted Hollywood celebrities such as William Holden, Lucille Ball and Jack Benny. GCS, a shop adjacent to the ornate cast concrete entrance, sells a quirky combination of T-shirts and other hipster streetwear, as well as local artists’ paintings in the backroom gallery.

Downstairs, check out the Smallest Art Gallery in California (under the stairs) as well as the DIY ArtBar’s cozy digs where “shots” of paint, brushes and canvas are set out for Art Walk. Those who want to create their own mini canvases ($12 for the kit) can connect with their inner artist. Don’t miss the whimsical mural of the Santora Building just outside the ArtBar, painted to celebrate the building’s 84th anniversary this year, as well as the sunburst terrazzo floor lobby.


One caveat: Although nearly all Santora Building galleries are open for the Art Walk, they have irregular hours and are often closed during the week. Best to check ahead.