A little more than a year ago, Bob Palazzola was worried that a piece of Costa Mesa history was doomed to meet the business end of a bulldozer.
But on Tuesday morning, the Costa Mesa Historical Society president watched as his once cautiously optimistic hopes became reality.
Starting at 7 a.m., the Memorial Gardens Building was slowly moved from its longtime home next to the Pacific Amphitheatre to a temporary location elsewhere on the Orange County Fairgrounds. Officials plan to keep the former Army barracks in Lot G on the eastern edge of the 150-acre property until its permanent location and purpose are finalized.
Palazzola, camera in hand, couldn’t help but grin as the building rolled in his direction, supported by beams and no less than 32 wheels.
“I still can’t believe it. It’s surreal,” he said, the moving truck’s deep growling within earshot. “It’s nice to see talk become action in something like this, really. I thought we were really against the odds.”
Palazzola was told last year that the 4,800-square-foot Memorial Gardens Building was going to be demolished, with its historical elements salvaged and somehow repurposed. In its place would be a new entrance plaza for the Pacific Amphitheatre that fairgrounds officials said would better connect the outdoor concert venue to the summertime fair.
But the nearly 70-year-old building — one of the few remaining Santa Ana Army Air Base structures left at the fairgrounds property, which was once a small part of the 1,337-acre base — held a symbolic place of honor in the hearts of many veterans and preservationists. They protested the idea of it being turned to rubble.
After the Daily Pilot reported the concerns, also noting the building’s history and Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach’s interest in the matter, the Fair Board voted in July to save the building. The board later allocated an estimated $112,000 toward the job.
“Be careful. Because it’s an old building, it might fall apart,” Cornell Iliescu of the Noble Cause Foundation, which honors the sacrifice of World War II veterans, told the Fair Board this summer. “I don’t want to be without it.”
The chosen contractor, Cen-Cal Heavy Moving, kept the building intact throughout the nearly two-hour relocation. To accommodate the move, however, parts of the structure had to be taken off when the Montclair-based company lifted the building off its foundation earlier this month.
The temporary loss of its chimney and fire escape, both made of red brick, left the original wood siding exposed.
“We are pleased with how smooth the Memorial Gardens Building relocation went this morning,” fairgrounds Chief Executive Doug Lofstrom said in a prepared statement. “We are looking forward to working within the board of directors’ vision to find a new home for the building at the O.C. Fair & Event Center.
“The staff is looking forward to the planning process to determine the future use of the building and how it will provide long-lasting benefits to the many people who enjoy this facility.”
Palazzola, wearing his Historical Society T-shirt, said the building symbolizes “something from our past, and the past keeps disappearing in so many communities. And that’s a real shame.”
The building, named after a veterans memorial garden that was torn out during the Pacific Amphitheatre’s construction in the early 1980s, has been heavily modified since its construction during World War II. It had varied uses through the years, including housing the first reunion of the Santa Ana Army Air Base in 1972.
For decades, the Memorial Gardens Building was also the regular meeting spot for the Fair Board and its various committees.
The area around the building, though not the building itself, is a California Point of Historical Interest. That state designation and other historical accolades would not have saved the building from demolition, but they did make the fairgrounds’ project susceptible to environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Fair Board member Nick Berardino, a Vietnam-era Marine veteran, hopes the Memorial Gardens Building can become a military museum for the county.
“It’s just a really wonderful thing for all the veterans and myself,” Berardino said. “I’m gonna stay on this project. I’m a former Marine, which is a devil dog. I’m gonna be that Marine Corps bulldog till this project is completed.
“This is just a wonderful journey that we’re all gonna be on together.”