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Fair Board votes to move, preserve Memorial Gardens Building

Memorial Gardens Building
The Orange County Fair Board voted Monday to relocate the Memorial Gardens Building.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

In a victory for veterans and preservationists, a former World War II-era barracks at the Orange County Fairgrounds will not be demolished.

The Orange County Fair Board agreed Monday to have fairgrounds staff examine relocating the historic Memorial Gardens Building, first to a temporary site and then to a yet-to-be determined, permanent location on the 150-acre fairgrounds.

“This is just a tremendous and exciting effort,” said Fair Board member Nick Berardino, a Vietnam veteran who made the initial motion to relocate the building. “I’m proud to be leading it, and I’m very proud of the rest of the board that has been unanimously in support of doing this. This is going to be quite a project.”

Berardino said he hoped the building would house or somehow be a part of a proposed war museum on the fairgrounds. Such a museum could honor veterans and pay additional tribute to the area’s former identity as the Santa Ana Army Air Base, he said.

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“I’m gonna live up to being a former Marine,” Berardino said. “I’m going to live up to our mascot, which is a bulldog. I’m gonna be a bulldog in making sure this project gets done.”

The structure, built around 1942, was slated to be torn down — with its historical pieces salvaged — after the fair ended to make way for a new entrance plaza for the Pacific Amphitheatre.

Interim fairgrounds Chief Executive Doug Lofstrom gave a preliminary estimate of $55,000 to $60,000 to move the building, though he anticipated other costs adding to that number.

The Fair Board may meet in August to hire a contractor for the job.

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The board’s motion — members Joyce Tucker and Ali Jahangiri were absent, but the other seven board members voted in favor — also directs that an analysis of the project be done under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

Since 1970, the site around the Memorial Gardens Building has been a California Point of Historical Interest, a designation that can require CEQA review before any projects are done there. The state designation, however, would not fully protect the building from demolition.

Lofstrom said a “cursory review,” without a historian’s help, of the 4,800-square-foot building was recently done. Fairgrounds staff said the two-story structure’s siding, flooring, chimney and eaves appear to be original.

The fairgrounds property was once part of the nearly 1,300-acre Army base, which served as training grounds from 1942 to 1946.

“My father-in-law was a World War II veteran,” Supervisor John Moorlach, who supported preserving the barracks, said in an email Monday to supporters. “My folks lived through Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. To say that I’m proud of our veterans is an understatement. Maintaining the historical landmark at the O.C. Fair is great news. “

Some Fair Board members suggested that the county chip in money toward the moving effort. The fairgrounds in Costa Mesa are owned by the state.

David Mansdoerfer, a policy advisor for Moorlach, told the Fair Board to request any funding in writing.

He said “there is an interest” at the county level to help, but it’s still being researched and that the decision would ultimately be up to all the county supervisors.

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Most speakers during Monday’s meeting insisted that the building — named after a 1.4-acre veterans memorial garden that was ripped out in the 1980s to make room for the Pacific Amphitheatre’s berm — remain at the fairgrounds.

The Memorial Gardens Building was one of nearly 800 structures within the air base.

“The building to us is historical,” said Bob Palazzola, the Costa Mesa Historical Society president and an Air Force veteran. “To a lot of veterans and a lot of citizens, it’s symbolic, really.”

Costa Mesa resident Beth Refakes said the Memorial Gardens Building should serve future educational purposes to honor veterans.

“If it weren’t for the base being here, the fairgrounds wouldn’t be here as well,” Refakes said.

Theresa Sears of the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society disagreed with the recent suggestion from Moorlach that, if the building couldn’t be saved from demolition at the fairgrounds, it could possibly be protected and moved to the former Marine Corps Air Station Tustin.

“The Tustin base is its own identity,” Sears said. “That building would be totally overshadowed over there. They’re two different things.”

Berardino also advocated for “local control.”

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“Nobody here is going to be influenced by the developers,” he said. “Our interests are the same; this is gonna happen. What a wonderful salute to all the men and women who served. This is going to be the highlight of anything I’ve done in my career.”

Cornell Iliescu of the Noble Cause Foundation called the Memorial Gardens Building “a sacred building on sacred ground.” His foundation, a Costa Mesa-based nonprofit, works to preserve the “the legacy of the Greatest Generation.”

“Be careful. Because it’s an old building, it might fall apart,” Iliescu told the Fair Board. “I don’t want to be without it.”


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