Supervisor speaks up for preserving WWII building

People interested in saving the Memorial Gardens Building have a new ally: Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach.

The District 2 supervisor, who represents Costa Mesa and lives in the city, said he was interested in the history of the nearly 70-year-old building, now located at the state-owned Orange County Fairgrounds, after reading about it in the Daily Pilot.

Much to the dismay of some historical preservationists, the former World War II-era Army barracks is slated for demolition later this year to make way for a new Pacific Amphitheatre entrance plaza.

"I'm concerned about losing a key building from an incredible legacy here in Costa Mesa," Moorlach said.

He said his staff has been in contact with fairgrounds officials.

"We had a pretty good telephone conference with [fairgrounds Chief Executive] Doug Lofstrom about what our concerns are and what we could do," Moorlach said.

David Mansdoerfer, a policy advisor for Moorlach who visited the site Monday, said preliminary research indicates that the building can be relocated. The logistics of doing so may involve moving it in pieces, he said.

"It has been moved before," Mansdoerfer said. "We just don't know if it was once or twice … and we don't know when it was."

Moorlach said it was too early to divulge numbers, such as how much it would cost to move the building or if moving it would be cost-effective.

"We have a World War II connection with a lot of the fairgrounds, and it would be most helpful to retain some of this heritage, this history that we enjoy," Moorlach said. "Just to see it disappear so you have a new entrance into the Pacific Amphitheatre seems like a real shame to me."

The Memorial Gardens Building could be relocated to the former Marine Corps air station in Tustin, where the county is planning a regional park.

Doing so, though, would change a major part of building's historical significance, Moorlach said, because it would no longer be on or near its original location, the site of the former Santa Ana Army Air Base.

The base, at more than 1,300 acres, took up a sizable portion of modern-day Costa Mesa before it was decommissioned in 1946. The fairgrounds, Orange Coast College, Vanguard University and Costa Mesa High School and others use the base's former land.

Because the site around the Memorial Gardens Building has been a California Point of Historical Interest since 1970, environmental review was required under the California Environmental Quality Act before any projects could be done there. The fairgrounds' 2003 environmental impact report downplayed the remaining Army base buildings' historical significance, and the fairgrounds' master plan approved that same year did not call for the structure to stay.

The building was named after a 1.4-acre memorial garden erected in 1954 that celebrated war veterans. But while the garden was demolished in the early 1980s to make room for the Pacific Amphitheatre, the two-story, 4,800-square-foot building remained.

For decades, the Memorial Gardens Building, which during the war was one of about 800 structures at the Santa Ana base, hosted various events and Fair Board meetings.

Fairgrounds officials have said they plan on preserving and repurposing historical elements of the Memorial Gardens Building, including the plaques in front of it.

Bob Palazzola, president of the Costa Mesa Historical Society, called Moorlach's involvement "a glimmer of hope" in saving the structure.

"Obviously, I'm interested in obtaining community support to save the Memorial Gardens Building," he wrote in an email. "The memorial gardens disappeared over time and now the Memorial Gardens Building. What part of 'memorial' don't people understand?"

In response to Moorlach's interest, Lofstrom on Wednesday told the Pilot through a spokeswoman that the fairgrounds is "always open to listening to new and creative ideas, and we are continuing to review what options are available."

On Monday morning, the Fair Board is scheduled to consider the contractor that will construct the new Pacific Amphitheatre plaza, a project that could include the demolition of the Memorial Gardens Building.

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