Henry Segerstrom: Arts centric
That guy Jack, of beanstalk fame? He was small potatoes. If you want real magic from beans, look no further than what has become of the lima bean and dairy empire of Orange County’s Segerstrom family. It morphed into the gold of commercial real estate, and at its 24-karat center is South Coast Plaza. In an age when people list shopping as a pastime, the high-end mall attracts almost as many people a year as the non-shopping National Mall in Washington.
Henry Segerstrom, the grandson of the founding farmer, is the steward of the big switch in the family fortunes, and he’s also shepherded the county’s biggest arts venture, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, now called the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Like South Coast Plaza, it’s all about one-stop shopping, in this case for culture. The center shelters four major performance spaces, and South Coast Repertory is nearby. In a few years the Orange County Museum of Art will call the center home too. All on 14 acres of Segerstrom-donated land, jump-started with Segerstrom millions. And Segerstrom hasn’t just housed art on his family’s land; he’s commissioned it. One example: an Isamu Noguchi garden and its sculptural centerpiece, “Spirit of the Lima Bean.”
Segerstrom lives in Newport Beach, in a waterfront cottage that looks not too different from the venerable, turn-of-the-last-century family farmhouse in Costa Mesa. The farmhouse still stands, a tractor ride away from the family’s 21st century undertakings.
Your family was part of the vast agricultural industry that people associate with historical Orange County. How much land did you farm? Is any of it still under cultivation?
At our peak we were farming about 2,100 acres. We [still] have about 40 acres of lima beans. It’s what we call the home ranch. It was the first piece of property my grandfather purchased.
Will you hate me if I tell you I don’t like lima beans?
No. my sister doesn’t like them either. I don’t know that I could stand to eat them every day, but I like the flavor. We always grew what they call the large limas -- the flavor’s different. Several years ago [my wife] Elizabeth and I were in the Loire Valley. We ordered this meal. The first course came out -- here was a large lima bean in the middle of the salad. Just one!
When you were growing up in Costa Mesa, there wasn’t much around in the way of the arts. How did you get interested in all of that? You know, art comes in many forms. It can come in architecture, it can come in visual arts, so many different ways. Maybe the earliest exposure I had was when I was in grammar school and we made a little aqueduct, a Roman aqueduct. I remember being wonderfully impressed by that. Then there was a down period through high school, but I think it was [the influence of] more exposure later in my life with visual arts and architecture and sculpture.
You started at Stanford in 1940, as World War II was underway in Europe. Then you went into the Army, and then returned to Stanford to finish and get an MBA.
I was debating where to go to school. It was the military academy [West Point], Princeton or Stanford. I made my choice because I wanted to live on the West Coast. I wanted to make my lifelong friends here -- and once in a while, get to [see Stanford play in] the Rose Bowl.
Why did Orange County make the transition from agriculture to the new business/retail when it did?
It was based upon completion of the transportation system in Southern California. In 1950, the first linkage from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Santa Ana occurred with the opening of the Santa Ana Freeway. That was like unleashing a torrent of people who wanted to come down to Orange County and live here and work in Los Angeles. [And] it was about [Orange County] being a separate metropolitan statistical area. Then in 1952, I attended the first public hearing for the 405. Seventeen years later, South Coast Plaza opened -- one year before the San Diego Freeway. When you see a picture, it’s absolutely astounding: We’re building South Coast Plaza, and they’re working on the freeway adjacent to it.
People ask how the world will feed itself when agricultural land is turned into suburbs and cities.
You’ve heard of a man called [Thomas] Malthus? He predicted that the world would run out of food, and so far we haven’t.
I read that a lot of folks lobbied to get the 405 Freeway to come along the route that it now does.
It was going to be located up in Santa Ana, and several large property owners, including ourselves and the Irvine Co., lobbied to have it put nearer the Orange County airport.
Your family company still owns South Coast Plaza and a lot of the commercial land around it, but you sold what is now very valuable land to Sears and to the May Co. for a dollar to get them to commit to opening at South Coast Plaza, right?
Yes; it was one of those things where they had the muscle.
You’ve personally persuaded a lot of high-end stores to come here. Do you like to shop?
I like to shop for shops. I love to visit stores and become acquainted with the ownership and the senior officers. Elizabeth and I were in Paris having dinner [with] this CEO who owns his own company, and Elizabeth said, “Henry’s been pursuing you for 10 years.” And he said, “Fourteen years!” The world of retailing has just so totally changed in the last couple of years. It’s now a global universe. [That] conforms to a strategy that I developed for South Coast Plaza 25 years ago -- not to think of [it] as being a retail center for Orange County but as a retail center for the world.
When I open Vogue and there’s an ad for some designer, it says, “New York, Paris, Tokyo, South Coast Plaza” -- not Costa Mesa but South Coast Plaza. How did that happen?
We worked very hard on that! We wanted to have the singular identity.
Did you have a tough time persuading, say, Tiffany & Co. to come to Orange County?
Yes. [Beverly Hills] became their first [Southern California] store, and I started working on Southern California to be a two-store market. They said yes and then they said no; they vacillated. It’s been a great store. [It’s] the third highest-volume [Tiffany’s] in the world. Imagine that -- passing Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Boston.
Why did you think Orange County should have and could sustain a large arts complex?
I’ve always felt that cultural resources are the mainstay of longevity of a society. I was born in Orange County and thought Orange County deserved the best. The spectacular growth of the South Coast Repertory theater really paced the whole focus. They started on the peninsula and then they moved into downtown Costa Mesa and took over a five-and-dime store and made it into a small theater. I went to a couple of their plays and was very impressed. I guess it was 1978 when [it] was named as the best repertory theater in America. That’s a pretty fast growth pattern.
There’s been a rivalry between Newport Beach and Costa Mesa: Mackerel Flats versus Goat Hill, Fashion Island versus South Coast Plaza, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts versus the Orange County Museum of Art. Now the art museum is moving to Costa Mesa. So it’s like Costa Mesa won, yes?
[He grins.] Yes! I don’t think [the museum is] crying uncle; I think it’s getting a better opportunity for growth.
How has Orange County changed in your lifetime?
There’s two words you can use. You can say we’re sophisticated or we’re cosmopolitan. I reject the word sophisticated because I think it has a hard finish to it. Cosmopolitan has more depth of culture and more worldliness. I think that Orange County is one of the most cosmopolitan and cultured areas of the world. When we were negotiating for the land for the performing arts center, some people said, oh, Orange County is a cultural wasteland. We had the Pageant of the Masters, the Laguna Art Museum, Bowers [art museum] -- for a community of 150,000 people. We had culture. [And] Orange County has developed this campus of art which is unique to the country.
What kind of music do you like?
I like all music, depending on my mood and the day. I have a driver now; a couple of years ago I was driving down the freeway going 80 miles an hour because I like to drive fast, and I thought to myself, Henry, your eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and your reactions aren’t [either] -- what the hell are you going 80 miles an hour for? So I got a driver, and he puts the radio station on the ‘40s [music channel]. I like those old songs.
What don’t people know about you that you think they should?
I was an elected public official for 28 years [on the local water board]. During the six years I was chairman, we were granted a $25-million allocation to build what was at the time the largest ocean water desalting plant in the world. It opened about the time the  Mideast war broke out. Oil went to $10 a barrel, so we couldn’t afford to operate it. We sent it down to Guantanamo Bay and it was put in place to serve the Marine base.
Hearing you talk, I realize I’ve been mispronouncing your name all these years as See-ger-strom instead of Seg-er-strom, as in “leg.” Does that annoy you?
I just wonder how people would think if their names were mispronounced!
What ideas have you brought back from around the world?
A statement I heard at Stanford always struck me: “We are part of all that we have met.” I like that very much. After the war, I’d been injured, and it had made me withdraw a little bit, so I took a public speaking course and happened to read this statement and used it for a class assignment. “We are part of all that we have met.”
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.
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