For more than 25 years, the gardens that gave the Memorial Gardens Building its name served as a quiet respite for a growing city.
The nonprofit Orange County Memorial Garden, dedicated to all veterans, was established in 1953 and erected the following year. The garden took up a small space within the Orange County Fairgrounds, which during World War II was part of the massive Santa Ana Army Air Base. The base occupied a large chunk of present-day Costa Mesa.
The 1.4-acre garden is described in early documents kept by the Costa Mesa Historical Society as “two circular flower beds within the form of a figure eight.” It contained 70 trees and more than 250 shrubs of many varieties and was, at the time, one of few memorial gardens in California and the only one commemorating a former air base.
Each Arbor Day and Memorial Day the garden was home to public planting ceremonies. Private ceremonies took place throughout the year.
At one point, Harold Segerstrom — whose family developed South Coast Plaza — deep-plowed the land. Walter Knott, founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, donated money that helped buy soil.
The garden soon proved to be as popular with birds as it was with people, and by 1963, the Costa Mesa City Council had officially declared the area a bird sanctuary.
Furthermore, the plot — also called, in some historical references, Santa Ana Army Air Base Memorial Garden — was a place to reflect during the bustling fair.
A 1962 Los Angeles Times story said Orange County Fair visitors “who’d like to temper the excitement of the event with a little thoughtful reflection in an appropriate beauty spot will get their wishes fulfilled” in the garden.
The garden center’s executive secretary, Adeline Walker of Santa Ana, told the newspaper that a prominent individual said the garden is one “rich in the thousand and one memories left behind by the men whose lives were sacrificed in war. Only in a place such as this can the living reflect on those things for which men are willing to sacrifice their lives.”
In 1963, one of the highlights of Costa Mesa’s 10th birthday was the first planting of an Indian laurel, the city’s newly official tree, at the garden. The Costa Mesa Women’s Club also planted trees there, including a “liberty tree” in 1976, America’s bicentennial.
Walker, who died in 1985, left the Costa Mesa Historical Society her vast collection of materials related to the garden: programs from the ceremonies, newspaper clippings and other documents. Walker Elementary School in Santa Ana is named after her.
Hank Panian, 84, a former Orange Coast College history professor who has long been active with the Historical Society, remembers the Memorial Garden well.
“I took my kids there many times,” the longtime Costa Mesa resident said. “It was pleasant to walk through — lots of birds, rabbits, that sort of thing. It was only a few blocks from where we live.”
By the late 1970s, though, there was trepidation over the future of the gardens.
“The Orange County Fair Board of Directors has unveiled a new master development plan for the fairgrounds,” the Historical Society wrote in its January 1978 newsletter. “These new plans state that ‘portions of the Memorial Gardens will be retained as a memorial ... ' There is, though, no discussion of details. Nor is there any mention of the gardens as a bird sanctuary.”
‘Those who cared have died’
By the early 1980s, the fate of the gardens was sealed. They shut down as the Pacific Amphitheatre went up.
Or, as Panian puts it today, the berm of the amphitheater “sits right on top of where the gardens used to be.”
“I don’t think the Fair Board could’ve gotten away with it under the circumstances in which we regard veterans today,” Panian said, “but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
At the time, Panian recalled there being little protest to an “insular” Fair Board over the loss of the gardens.
Plenty of protest came after the amphitheater was completed in 1983. Neighbors in College Park and Mesa del Mar soon complained of noisy rock concerts and threatened legal action. The saga eventually helped lead to the shutting down of the venue for about eight years before it quietly reopened in 2003.
A Los Angeles Times story from 1983 about Pacific Amphitheatre noise complaints mentions Fair Board member Clint Hoose’s request for a “confirmation” that the gardens would be reconstructed by the amphitheater’s builders. The venue’s general manager at the time, Gene Felling, pledged to rebuild the gardens, The Times reported.
Among those who did express concern back then, Panian said, were a few ladies who worked in the garden. They have since died.
“I can’t think of anyone alive who participated with the memorial garden,” Panian said. “It’s just as if it just disappeared, and those who cared have died and the memory is lost.
“But history can haunt ya.”