Nearly a decade after the conclusion of World War II, folks in Orange County decided that a small corner of Costa Mesa should be dedicated to those who didn’t make it back home.
A 1.4-acre memorial garden — planned in 1953, erected the following year and dedicated to all who served — was built at the Orange County Fairgrounds.
In its heyday, the Orange County Memorial Garden had its fair share of plants: weeping willows, jacarandas, hibiscus and the like.
The once-quiet garden, though, is long gone, but the former Army barracks next to it — known these days as the Memorial Gardens Building — has been in the area since 1942. Through the decades the building has been fixed up and modified. It has hosted meetings and served purposes large and small.
But the site’s 34-year status as a California Point of Historical Interest may not save the building from a planned demolition later this year.
Extensive renovation work for the adjacent Pacific Amphitheatre — whose excavated dirt berm looms closely behind the Memorial Gardens Building’s front entrance — is anticipated to effectively drive out the old for the new at the end of this year’s fair.
It’s a future that some who care about preserving local history — especially something that was dedicated to veterans — hate to see happen, though fairgrounds officials say it was the gardens that had the most historical significance, not the building next to them.
One of some 800 others
The Memorial Gardens Building is a short walk from the O.C. Fair & Event Center headquarters off Arlington Drive. The garden’s two-story, 4,800-square-foot structure — with its brown stucco walls, white window trim and red roof — is not particularly picturesque. Its plainness, however, likely stems from the fact that it was just one of many buildings built quickly as the nation prepared for war.
In the 1940s, the Memorial Gardens Building was one of about 800 structures within the Santa Ana Army Air Base (SAAAB) complex, whose 1,337 acres took up a sizable chunk of modern-day Costa Mesa, including the fairgrounds. The base opened in 1942 and was decommissioned in 1946.
Through the decades, the buildings found new uses or were torn down as Costa Mesa grew. A few have survived, notably the Memorial Gardens Building — and that’s long been a good thing, said Chris Jepsen, president of the Orange County Historical Society.
“There are very few remaining in-situ remnants of SAAAB, and this was probably the nicest of the bunch,” he said.
A better, connected entrance
The site of the Memorial Gardens Building — currently used as a meeting hall, office and archival storage location — is the planned location for a second Pacific Amphitheatre entrance plaza.
As part of the fairgrounds’ $25-million master plan, approved in 2003, Pacific Amphitheatre’s nearly $18-million renovation is expected to make the setting more intimate, connect the venue to the fair and possibly mitigate the neighborhood noise concerns, officials say.
Traditionally, amphitheater attendees, most of whom come from the fair, had to walk around the venue to get to the entrance facing the parking lot. The new plaza would help concertgoers avoid that walk and more directly connect the venue to fair activities.
The plaza, which will complement Pacific Amphitheatre’s existing box offices and entrance from the parking lot, will be constructed within nearly three acres of “reclaimed” land, formerly the venue’s dirt berm. The excavation process began in February to rebuild the area into a more festival- and park-like setting.
“It’s not a berm removal,” Gary Hardesty, the fairgrounds’ acting chief technology and production officer, said during an informational meeting in February. “It’s a berm enhancement, a berm modification, to allow us to be a more intimate setting, to allow us more of a sound modification.”
The changes will reduce the amphitheater’s capacity from 18,500 to 8,500.
According to conceptual drawings of the plaza, it will have new box offices, planters, walkways, reflecting pools and light beacons “visible from afar.” Ornamental orange trees, references to the county’s agricultural roots, are also planned.
Also of note is a new lobby that has a “wall diamond” pattern and “visually emerges” from a waterfall. The lobby, which will be enclosed to act as a sound break, may also be used for private functions.
And what of the 1940s-era Memorial Gardens Building, to be demolished after the conclusion of the fair in August?
“We’re going to tear it down carefully, identify everything from World War II and save those parts,” Hardesty said.
Those parts will be re-purposed “in a meaningful way in order to pay homage to those who served here when the building was constructed,” said fairgrounds spokeswoman Robin Wachner.
The Orange County Wine Society, which regularly uses the building for its functions, will be relocated to a temporary facility, Wachner said.
“There are discussions for another, more permanent structure down the road,” she said.
The structure has been changed significantly since its early years. Over time, renovation work has been done to the windows, interior walls, flooring and kitchen, Wachner said.
“There’s not much that’s left that’s still original,” Hardesty said.
The site around the Memorial Garden Building was designated a California Point of Historical Interest in 1970 as recognition of it once being part of SAAAB and containing a veterans garden. The area is one of three places in Costa Mesa to receive some form of state-issued historical designation.
The designation, however, grants limited protection for the building. According to the state Office of Historic Preservation, if a Point of Historical Interest is “threatened by a project,” environmental review may be required under the California Environmental Quality Act.
An environmental impact report based on the fairgrounds’ 2003 general plan downplayed the remaining SAAAB structures’ historical significance.
“Field surveys establish that all the buildings have been substantially altered from their original design,” according to the EIR. “Buildings of this type and period are relatively common on military bases, including at the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station and Camp Pendleton. Therefore, these buildings have not retained their historic integrity and do not represent unique examples of their type.”
The site’s historical recognitions relating to SAAAB are local as well. In 1976 the Orange County Historical Commission and county Board of Supervisors labeled it Historical Site 16. In 1996 the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized SAAAB’s construction as a Local Historical Civil Engineering Landmark, one of about 13 in Orange County.
Each historical designation plaque for SAAAB, the gardens and building are on display. Fairgrounds officials say the plaques will be relocated.
And, according to Costa Mesa Historical Society lead volunteer Art Goddard, even if there were a concerted effort to save the Memorial Gardens Building, there’s always that big question of money.
Or, as he put it, “the difference between the desire of preservationists and what resources are there.”
“People lament these things being torn down, but then there’s the money and who’s gonna do what with it … then that’s usually quite often the end of it,” Goddard said.
Should the Memorial Gardens Building be demolished, a few original SAAAB structures at the fairgrounds will be left, including the building that houses the Baja Blues restaurant. The flagpole near Centennial Farm is also original.
Fairgrounds officials in recent years have tried to incorporate SAAAB’s history into various capital-improvement projects.
The Cadet, a SAAAB-related publication, earlier this year published an article by Jason Jacobsen, director of planning and presentation for the fairgrounds, that told of the efforts.
“We want to ensure the public is aware of [the fairgrounds’] history and we have been working on several projects that will help preserve it and educate patrons along the way,” Jacobsen wrote.
He specified The Hangar, the large exhibit building, the Main Mall area that incorporates SAAAB’s logo, and bronze plaques commemorating SAAAB and Orange County Fair history.
Markers are also being placed throughout that property that will “bring back some of the street locations from the days of SAAAB,” Jacobsen wrote.
Fair Board member Nick Berardino, a Marine who served during the Vietnam War, is planning to discuss with the board adding a war museum to the fairgrounds.
“I hope we take it to the next level and have something that’s gonna share not just memories and a respectful memorial, but also share and teach, particularly for young people, a little bit about our history,” Berardino said. “It can waken them to the type of sacrifices, in a very tangible way, that the men and women of this county made to create the kinds of freedoms we enjoy.”
‘Without any kind of power’
Historical Society President Bob Palazzola, who also heads the society’s SAAAB section inside its museum in downtown Costa Mesa, has worried about the building’s potential for a while. He expressed his concern in the June 2012 edition of the Fairview Register, the Historical Society’s monthly publication.
“The SAAAB site and the remaining buildings are a significant part of Costa Mesa’s history,” Palazzola wrote.
After talking to fairgrounds administrators, Palazzola told the Daily Pilot that he was informed that the Memorial Gardens Building couldn’t handle relocation, nor would doing so be cost effective.
“First the gardens went, and now the building is slated,” he said.
“For a lot of us, it’s very sad,” Palazzola added. “Without any kind of power behind us to do anything about it … there’s nothing we can do, basically.”
Jepsen, with the Orange County Historical Society, commented that with a property as “vast and valuable” as SAAAB, “no one ever expected much of it to be saved for posterity.”
“But this particular structure, with its memorial gardens and many historical plaques, was long assumed to be one building that would be saved as a reminder of the base and the tens of thousands of brave souls who trained there,” he said. “Several generations of people who cared about the base’s history put their eggs in this one basket, so it’s disappointing to see that basket discarded.”