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Building changed with changing needs

Historical records indicate the Memorial Gardens Building was used during World War II as a barracks and then possibly an infirmary, according to fairgrounds officials.

"It housed fellas going through training," said Ed Miller, author of "The SAAAB Story," a comprehensive book first published in 1981 that chronicles the history of the base. "It was full of bunks, on the first and second story."

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The longtime Costa Mesa resident wasn't stationed at the base — he was still in high school during the war — but visited the Memorial Gardens Building 30 years after the Santa Ana Army Air Base closed.

In February 1972, the building housed what became the first SAAAB reunion. Former Costa Mesa City Attorney Roy June, who was stationed at SAAAB during his wartime service, was the guest speaker. Former WACs — Women's Army Corps members — attended in uniform.

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At the time, the evening event was just another monthly Costa Mesa Historical Society gathering, though a busy one.

"The barracks couldn't handle all the people who were coming," said Miller, who was society president at the time. "We were just overwhelmed with all the ones who came."

One other SAAAB reunion was held at the building, sometime around 1976. After that, organizers quickly realized that the occasion had outgrown the old barracks. It was decided to host future reunions at nearby Orange Coast College.

Some 37 years later, the college still hosts them.

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No women's restroom

Clint Hoose has spent a lot of time in the Memorial Gardens Building.

First appointed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, the Newport Beach resident served on the Orange County Fair Board from 1972 to 1992.

Back then, the Fair Board and its various committees regularly conducted meetings in the Memorial Gardens Building. Hoose smiled when asked about the old barracks.

"Nothing fancy at all!" he said with a laugh. "Matter of fact, we had to go in and upgrade the restrooms because there wasn't a ladies' and a men's. We had to upgrade it for the women who were on the Fair Board."

And, like the SAAAB reunion folks found, there wasn't a lot of space to work with downstairs.

"Our big, long board table took up half the room," Hoose said. "We probably had room for 20 people."

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As with Fair Board members today, he received no compensation. For Hoose, though, his service did come with a bonus.

"Only thing you got was free access to the fair, and we were there every single night," he said. "We made some very good friendships out of the vendors who were there year after year after year."

The Memorial Gardens Building's meaning to the fair itself is not lost on Chris Jepsen, president of the Orange County Historical Society. When fairgrounds officials tore down their old administration building, an original SAAAB structure, in 2009 to build a new one, Jepsen wrote on his blog, O.C. History Roundup, that he hoped Memorial Gardens would remain intact, possibly even get restored because it was one of the few remaining SAAAB structures.

When asked about the building's future now, Jepsen said its significance is "tied not only to the Army Air Corps base, but also to more than half a century of service as part of the Orange County. Ideally, fairs are about community traditions, nostalgia, bringing people together and learning while having fun.

"Having important historic structures in the middle of it all has been a perfect match all these years."

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