Henry Segerstrom, South Coast Plaza and arts center pioneer, dies at 91

Henry and Elizabeth Segerstrom joined Bishop Tod D. Brown in this 2002 photo at the proposed Roman Catholic Christ Our Savior Cathedral Parish. The site was once a lima bean field owned by the Segerstrom family. Henry Segerstrom died Friday at age 91.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Henry Thomas Segerstrom, a farmer who transformed a family lima bean plot into South Coast Plaza and then used his fortune to help build Orange County’s most significant performing arts center, has died.

Segerstrom died Friday afternoon at his Newport Beach home after a brief illness, South Coast Plaza spokeswoman Debra Gunn Downing said. He was 91.

He and a cousin opened the shopping center in a burgeoning Costa Mesa on March 15, 1967, and eventually grew it into the highest-grossing retail center in the United States, with $1.7 billion in annual sales, according to a statement from C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, the firm that manages South Coast Plaza and other properties.

Segerstrom also donated the land and was the chief benefactor for the Orange County Performing Arts Center, later renamed the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in his family’s honor.

“This is such a momentous development,” Segerstrom Center President Terry Dwyer said Friday. “We’re all overwhelmed with an avalanche of emotions and memories.”

Donald Bren, chairman of Newport Beach-based Irvine Co. and owner of Fashion Island, issued a warm statement about his closest competitor.

“I am very saddened to hear of the passing of my friend, Henry Segerstrom,” Bren said. “We’ve lost a visionary, philanthropist and community leader whose legacy and imprint will be celebrated for generations. Henry’s love for Orange County was evident in everything he did, from transforming South Coast Plaza into one of the nation’s finest retail centers to serving as a major benefactor of the arts. I offer my condolences to (his wife) Elizabeth and the other members of Henry’s family.”

Segerstrom was born into a family of Swedish immigrant farmers in Santa Ana on April 5, 1923. The family began tilling the soil in 1898.

He went on to become class president of Santa Ana High School before enrolling at age 17 at Stanford University, where he studied until the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, according to his company biography. He served as a captain and was awarded the Purple Heart after being injured during the Battle of the Bulge.

While he recuperated, he completed his Stanford degree and a master of business administration.

After returning home from the war, Segerstrom began turning C.J. Segerstrom & Sons from an agricultural firm into one that develops real estate.

The groundwork for South Coast Plaza began in 1962. The center opened in 1967 and Segerstrom soon began courting luxury retailers, such as Yves Saint Laurent. Tiffany & Co., Harry Winston, Versace and Ralph Lauren eventually followed with stores of their own.

“He saw retailers throughout the world he thought should be here, and he called on them personally and in a lot of cases was successful,” Thomas Nielsen, a civic leader and longtime Segerstrom friend, told the Los Angeles Times.

But there was also room for middle class fare like Sears and Macy’s, both of which are still in business in the center.

Mary Ellen Goddard, a board member for the Costa Mesa Historical Society, recalled how city officials from both fledgling Costa Mesa, only about a decade old, and established county seat Santa Ana were looking to make South Coast Plaza part of their city.

“Our guys were out there pushing,” Goddard said. “The story I heard, among other ones, was that our guys got out of the office, walked onto the fields and talked to the Segerstroms.”

The shopping center — he never wanted it called “a mall” — grew alongside Orange County, becoming one of the top destinations in the country, and grew to encompass 2.8 million square feet of shopping and dining.

For Costa Mesa City Hall, which has long relied on sales tax as its primary revenue source, top-grossing South Coast Plaza helped fund years of civic improvements as the city grew older and larger.

“I am saddened to learn of the passing of Costa Mesa’s good friend and icon, Henry Segerstrom,” said Mayor Steve Mensinger. “Henry was a personable, kind and a visionary business leader. His legacy is one of excellence and high expectations. His loss will be felt throughout the Costa Mesa community and that of the county and the state.”

As key as Segerstrom was to making Orange County a retail haven, he had an equally significant role in building its reputation as a regional arts hub. His family was the main backer of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which opened in 1986 and has brought high-profile acts to the area ever since.

Segerstrom told the Daily Pilot in 2011 that his decision to donate the land was purely philanthropic.

“In retrospect I think it’s quite a tribute to the Segerstrom family that there was a unanimous feeling that we should support the arts without reservation,” he said.

The center now draws world-class touring acts for theater, dance and music that previously would only visit Los Angeles on Southern California stops. It also provided permanent homes for the Pacific Symphony, Philharmonic Society of Orange County and Pacific Chorale.

When the $70.7-million Segerstrom Hall, the first Segerstrom Center venue, opened in September 1986, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Orange County declared its cultural independence.”

The event garnered congratulations from President Ronald Reagan, who sent a telegram that was read to the audience.

In 1998, Segerstrom donated six acres to expand the center with a new facility, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Two years later, he gave $40 million toward the project’s completion. In 2011, the complex as a whole was renamed the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in a gala with attendees that included Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Segerstrom family also provided the land on which nearby South Coast Repertory resides. David Emmes, the theater’s co-founder, called Segerstrom a champion of the arts who attended plays and wasn’t uncomfortable with edgy or provocative fare. One of the theater’s stages is named for the Segerstrom family.

“His interest in the arts went way beyond what was good for business,” Emmes said. “It was a deep embrace of the arts.”

Neither the Segerstrom Center nor South Coast Repertory announced formal plans for a tribute by Friday afternoon, but both Dwyer and Emmes said they expected to honor Segerstrom in some way.

“There’s a lot of people that are talking to each other about what would be possible and what could be done, but obviously, we want to respect the desires and privacy of the family,” Dwyer said. “We have nothing but good thoughts and prayers in our souls for them right now.”

Paulette Lombardi-Fries, president of the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau — whose mission is aided by the world prestige of South Coast Plaza and the Segerstrom Center — called Segerstrom “a generous man and an incredible philanthropist. He contributed immeasurably to the arts in Costa Mesa and Orange County. We at the bureau are devastated to hear of his passing and send our deepest sympathy to his family and loved ones.”

Former Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ed Fawcett, who recently retired from the post, called Segerstrom the “premier” representative of the legacy of the Segerstrom family.

“He’s one of those few people that come along in a millennium,” Fawcett said. “They’re irreplaceable ... he’s made a positive imprint everywhere he’s stepped.”

Fawcett said he would run into Segerstrom every so often, outside of their respective business worlds.

“The man was so respectful, so warm and welcoming,” Fawcett said. “He went out of his way to make you feel comfortable, and for a man of his stature and his prominence, I couldn’t have been more warmed by anybody.”

Decades after most Orange County groves and farms vanished to be replaced by suburban development, the Segerstroms have held onto a portion of their agricultural heritage. The roughly 40-acre Home Ranch, off Fairview Road in Costa Mesa and just shy of the 405 Freeway, is still a working farm, and is the headquarters for C.J. Segerstrom and Sons.

Other Segerstrom family land was used for Segerstrom High School, which opened in 2005 in Santa Ana.

Goddard, the Costa Mesa Historical Society board member, also noted how Segerstrom’s donation of the Diego Sepúlveda Adobe — Orange County’s second oldest structure — is what helped form the society in the first place.

“The city needed someone to take care of the adobe,” Goddard said. “Eventually, Costa Mesa would have had a historical society, but it wouldn’t have been the same as it is now.”

Segerstrom was married for 31 years to his first wife, Yvonne, with whom he had three children, sons Toren and Anton and daughter Andrea, according to The Times. They divorced in 1981. That year he married his second wife, Renee, who died in 2000 at age 72.

A month after Renee Segerstrom’s death, Segerstrom, then 77, married his third wife, Elizabeth Macavoy, a 45-year-old clinical psychologist, The Times wrote.

The Segerstroms were known for their philanthropic work, in both the arts and the larger charity circuit in Orange County.

A public visitation and tribute is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 28 at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Mortuary, 1702 Fairhaven Ave., Santa Ana.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.