Preservationists claimed partial victory Monday when a developer planning to demolish the abandoned First American Title building in Santa Ana agreed to try and preserve parts of the original Art Deco facade when it redevelops the property for apartments and other uses.
Toll Brothers Apartment Living, Preserve Orange County and the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society struck the deal during a city-facilitated meeting. The developer and the preservationists had sparred in recent weeks as the project at Fifth and Main streets moved through the city Planning Commission.
Preservationists argued that the 1931 building’s original Deco facade — covered by cladding since 1966 — is of historical importance and worth saving. The structure is not on the city, county, state or national registry of historic places.
Toll Brothers agreed to incorporate the original facade along Main Street and much of the portion facing Fifth Street into its proposed multi-use apartment complex. The rest of the building, as well as a second brick structure, will be largely demolished and renovated.
The agreement between the developers and the preservationists is contingent on whether the original facade is intact, which won’t be known until the cladding is removed at a yet-to-be-determined date.
Minh Thai, the city’s executive director of planning and building, said it could take four to five months for the project to move through the entitlement and permitting process, steps that must be completed before the 1966 facade can be removed.
Thai said the building will be demolished if the original facade cannot be saved.
Tim Rush, a member of Preserve OC and the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, called the agreement a “reasonable,” but ultimately disappointing, solution.
“It’s kind of like asking Mrs. Lincoln, ‘Other than what happened, how did you enjoy the play?’ ” said Rush, a member of the city’s Historic Resources Commission.
Rush said the preservationists should have been involved earlier.
“We were notified way too late in this process,” Rush said. “Had we been notified at the beginning, we would have a very different project, and we wouldn’t have had to make all these compromises. We would have had adaptive reuse of the two historic buildings there instead of losing one and most of the other.”
Toll Brothers spokesman John Piedrahita said in an email that the company will continue to work with the preservation groups.
“It is premature to know what is going to be found through the redevelopment process,” Piedrahita said in an email. “Our intention is to preserve historical aspects of the facade that can be utilized in the new project.”
First American was founded in 1889 as the Orange County Title Co. The building at Fifth and Main streets was one of the earliest offices for the company.
“If you look at the pictures of it in the ‘30s, it really is quite remarkable,” said Jeff Dickman, a Santa Ana resident who works with the preservation groups. “First American helped set into place real estate business in the nation, and here they had their humble start right downtown in old Santa Ana.”
First American did not return calls for comment.