The City of Orange is often called the "Plaza City," and indeed it is the only city in Orange County that was planned and built around a plaza. It was founded in 1871 as a real estate venture by two lawyers, Alfred Beck Chapman and Andrew Glassell. Like many cities located in the eastern and midwestern United States, Orange was subdivided into a grid system of streets that focused around a central square. The Old Towne Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 and includes more that 1,300 homes and other buildings. It is approximately one square mile in size, making it the largest National Register district in California. The district provides a feeling for life in Orange from 1888 to 1940, showcasing acorn-shaped streetlights and approximately 53 different architectural styles. Victorian, Prairie, Craftsman, Bungalow, Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean styles, to name a few, may be found among the homes in Old Towne. The area has been used repeatedly as a film location because of its ability to capture the flavor of earlier time periods.
Downtown Orange began in the center of the Plaza. In the summer of 1871, Captain William T. Glassell drove a survey stake at the common corners of sections 29, 30, 31, and 32, and laid out a townsite originally known as Richland. In the center, where the two main streets crossed, eight lots were set aside to create a Plaza Square.
In the 1860s, the vast Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana had been broken up, opening the way for the founding of several new communities. Los Angeles attorneys Alfred Beck Chapman and Andrew Glassell acquired about 9,400 acres of the old Mexican rancho. In 1870 they had several thousand acres near the northern end of the rancho subdivided into large parcels (40, 80, and 160 acres) and placed them on the market. Captain Glassell, Andrew’s brother, served as sales agent.
When the town of Richland was laid out a year later, several factors determined its location. The area was open and generally level, sloping gradually down towards the confluence of Santiago Creek and the Santa Ana River. The stage road from Los Angeles to San Diego passed not too far west of the townsite. But most importantly, it could be irrigated from the Santa Ana River. In order to develop this site, Chapman and Glassell had to buy another large parcel adjoining their lands. In 1871 an irrigation ditch was dug from the river following the natural contour down to the townsite. (Canal Street, behind the Mall of Orange, still marks part of its curving path.) A reservoir was created at the northeast corner of Chapman and Shaffer, and iron pipe laid under the street down to the Plaza.
The original Richland townsite was made up of eight city blocks, from Grape Street (now Grand) on the east, to Lemon Street on the west; and from Walnut Avenue (now Maple) on the north to Almond Avenue on the south. Surrounding the townsite were ten-acre plots known as the Richland Farm Lots. The townsite and farm lots covered one square mile.
When the community applied for a post office in 1873, they discovered that there was already a town of Richland in Northern California, so the community was renamed Orange. Local legend says the new name was chosen in a poker game, but in fact, it was chosen for its promotional value. Oranges, and other semi-tropical crops, were becoming identified with Southern California, and there was already talk of forming a separate “Orange County”. What’s more, the Glassell family had once lived in Orange County, Virginia, on what they called the Richland plantation.
Pioneer Days (1870-1885) The first building in Orange was Captain W.T. Glassell’s home and tract office, which stood on the south side of Chapman Avenue, just west of the Plaza. As the 1870s moved on, a smattering of wooden store buildings went up, most of them along Glassell Street. The first two-story building downtown, the Beach Building, was completed in 1874. In 1875, the Plaza Hotel was built of concrete and adobe.
At the same time, homes were being built on the townsite, even some on Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street. The first family to build downtown were the Talkingtons; the large pepper tree along the 100 block of North Orange Street still marks the site of their home.
By 1885 a small business district had developed, with several general stores, livery stables, and even a newspaper office.
Boom & Bust (1885-1900) In 1886-88, following the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad, Southern California experienced its most frantic real estate “boom,” and Orange came along for the ride. The first brick building downtown was built in 1885, and several more followed, including the two-story Bank of Orange building (1887), and the three-story Rochester Hotel.
Civic improvement was the order of the day. The Plaza was created in 1886, and the original fountain installed in 1887. The first streetlights went in downtown, and residents could ride streetcars to Santa Ana, Tustin, or El Modena. The railroad reached Orange in 1887, and a year later the city incorporated.
Many of the farm lots around downtown were subdivided for residential development, and many new streets were opened up. The names of some of Orange’s best known pioneers are preserved in the tract names -- Shaffer, Grote, Harwood, Chubb, Lockwood, Gardner, Beach, Kogler, Cauldwell, and Culver.
But the “boom” was built on speculation, and it collapsed in 1888. Many of the residential lots sold during the boom were later sold for taxes, and most of the subdivisions reverted to agricultural land.
About this same time, a mysterious disease (now known to be a phylloxera) destroyed most of the vineyards that had been the backbone of the local economy. More and more ranchers began to plant oranges, but it would be several years before the trees matured and the local economy revived.
Growing Up (1900-1920) Orange’s economy expanded rapidly in the early 20th Century, and downtown grew with it. Most of the landmark buildings around the Plaza were built during this period, and residential construction increased, spreading further and further out from the center of town. Instead of single store buildings, downtown businessmen and investors built “blocks” of connected storefronts, with the upper floors often reserved for apartments or meeting rooms. Among the major buildings that survive from this era are the Edwards Block and Cuddeback Building (both 1905), the Ainsworth Block (1907), which incorporated the 1888 Armor Building, the Ehlen & Grote Block (1908), Campbell’s Opera House (1912), the Smith & Grote Building (1914), and the Kogler-Franzen Block (1916).
As downtown Orange grew up, residents no longer needed to go to Santa Ana or Anaheim for major shopping. Saturday nights, the streets around the Plaza would be crowded with people, doing their shopping for the week.
By the end of the First World War, most of the land around downtown Orange was subdivided for residential neighborhoods.
Anaconda Wire & Cable Yard
Growing Out (1920-1950) After World War I, businesses began moving further and further west from downtown. State Highway 101 came down West Chapman as far as Main Street, before turning south towards Santa Ana. A little business district developed at the corner. Since it was midway between Orange and Santa Ana, it was dubbed “Orana.”
Orange also began to develop an industrial strip along either side of the Santa Fe railroad tracks. Local packing houses had always been close to the railroad, but now they were joined by several manufacturing plants, most notably Anaconda Wire & Cable.
In the late 1920s Orange’s first Planning Commission proposed that all of downtown should be done over in the then-popular Mission Revival style. The buildings on the south side of the first block of East Chapman Avenue were remodeled in that style in 1928, complete with red tile and stucco arches, but the coming of the Depression put an end to that project.
Residential development continued in the downtown area. New homes were built, filling in the vacant lots on many blocks, and the last few downtown subdivisions were laid out in the 1920s.
Decline (1950-1970) After World War II, Southern California began to grow rapidly, and Orange came along for the ride. New retail areas developed, most notably along Tustin Avenue. In the early 1970s, both the Mall of Orange (now called The Village at Orange) and The City Shopping Centre (now the site of The Block at Orange) opened. All of these developments drew businesses away from downtown.
In the 1950s, the idea of transforming the Plaza area into a pedestrian mall was first floated, and was widely debated on into the 1960s. In 1965 the City Council went so far as to authorize a feasibility study for a Plaza Mall plan. The idea was still being talked about in 1967, when two young architects proposed a 10-block “Super Plaza” with high-rise apartments all around downtown.
Residential development also moved out away from downtown, as many areas that had once been orange groves or farms were subdivided. By the mid-1950s, the first large-scale tract home developments were being built in Orange, and the city began annexing more and more of these outlying areas. Orange’s population grew from just 10,000 in 1950 to over 77,000 in 1970.
Rebirth (1970-present) The Plaza mall idea had its last gasp in 1969. That same year, Mayor Don E. Smith proposed a “revitalization” of downtown. Not just the Plaza, but the surrounding streets as well. First on the agenda was the Plaza Square. In 1970 the old palm trees in the corners were removed, the streetlights replaced, and new brick sidewalks and planters installed. Phase Two called for moving out onto Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street, but the cost of the Plaza work was higher than expected, and the City Council voted not to spend any more money on the revitalization project.
In the late 1970s the idea was revived as a historic preservation project for the area, and in 1979 the city formed an Old Towne Steering Committee to develop a plan for the future of downtown Orange. It was decided to continue the brick sidewalks of 1970 out onto the spoke streets, adding specially designed street furniture. The work on the new streetscapes for North and South Glassell was done in 1983. Matching brickwork on East and West Chapman followed in 1985.
But major retailers continued to abandon downtown in the early 1970s. In their place, antique stores began to fill in the old storefronts, and by the 1980s they were the major commercial force around the Plaza. In more recent years, they have been joined by more restaurants and cafés, and other businesses.
During this same era, people began discovering the downtown residential neighborhoods. By the mid-1970s, historic homes began to rise in price as more and more young families abandoned tract housing to live in the bungalows and Mediterraneans of old downtown Orange.
The development of Orange’s early residential neighborhoods mirrored the growth of downtown in many ways. The earliest homes in Orange were built on the original eight-block townsite, or were scattered across the outlying farm lots. It was not until the mid-1880s that the farm lots surrounding the townsite began to be subdivided for residential development. During the brief real estate “boom” of 1886-88, more than a dozen subdivisions were laid out downtown, but many of the lots were simply held for speculation, and when the boom died down, returned to agricultural use.
It was not until after 1900, when the citrus industry began to drive the local economy, that the downtown neighborhoods began to fill out. New tracts were subdivided, and old 1880s lots re-surveyed. Homes began appearing further and further from the Plaza, especially to the east, and to the south, where the new Nutwood Place tract near the Santiago Creek (1906) became a desirable place to live.
By the mid-1920s, almost all the land we now think of as Old Towne Orange had been subdivided, and residential neighborhoods were growing up more and more to the west, towards Main Street. Neighborhoods began to fill in, creating interesting assortment of styles on a single block. A two-story Victorian farmhouse on the corner might be surrounded by a mix of Bungalows and Mediterranean style homes, with a few Classical Revivals, or perhaps a Tudor style home tossed in here and there. As late as the 1970s, new homes were still being built on the few remaining vacant lots downtown.
Orange’s historic residential districts reflect the economic life of the community. The area was very middle class, with individual ranchers working 10-20 acres, and local businessmen making up the backbone of the local economy. So instead of a few grand mansions, Orange has block after block of middle class homes. More than 1,200 pre-1940 homes still survive in the downtown area.
In the days before tract homes, residential architecture showed great variety. Here are some broad categories; most had many variations and styles. Some homes combine elements from various styles, a reflection of the owner’s tastes, or the builder’s whims. Part of what gives these homes their charm is their individuality.
Settlement (Mostly before 1910) Simple in form and detail, these were some of the earliest homes in Orange. The smaller homes were often built with vertical board and batten walls. Sometimes there was a porch. Larger, two-story farmhouses might have a few Victorian details and clapboard siding. Most originally stood alone among orchards and fields.
Victorian (Popular, 1870-1900) Known for their picturesque woodwork, steep roof lines, and ornate details, several Victorian styles were popular here including Eastlake, with its tall, vertical lines, and especially the Queen Anne, with its many decorative elements. Victorians demonstrated the increasing prosperity of the community. Many were large, but the style could also be adapted to smaller cottages.
Classical Revival (Most popular, 1900-1910) With their flowing lines, and columns borrowed from ancient Greek architecture, these homes became popular with the start of the new century. Many in Orange can be found on corners, with their curved porches wrapping around two sides. But they were soon passed in popularity by the Bungalow.
Bungalow (Most popular, 1910-20) The first true California style, Bungalows grew out of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century. The emphasis was on natural materials, simple woodwork, and sometimes stone pillars or porches. Most featured horizontal lines, and porches across the front. Inside was more woodwork, with built-in cabinets and hutches. Most were smaller, middle class homes. Plans, and even pre-cut kits could be bought through mail order houses such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.
Craftsman (Popular in the 1920s and ‘30s) This style shares many of the naturalistic qualities of the Bungalows, but were larger, usually two stories, with expansive eaves and other details. Sometimes shingles replaced clapboards. They also displayed more individuality; there were no kits for Craftsmen homes.
Mediterranean (Popular in the 1920s and '30s) Another style first popularized in California, the various Mediterranean styles took their inspiration from the state’s Spanish and Mexican past. They could range from simple stucco homes accented with a little tile, to grand hillside mansions with glazed brickwork and arches. Some variations were briefly popular in the 1920s, include the flat-roofed Pueblo style, and the Prairie style, with its horizontal eaves. The Mediterranean style survives today in a modern form in the stucco and tile of many tract homes.
Period Revivals (Most popular in the 1920s) Along with Mediterraneans, a variety of Old World and colonial styles became popular here after World War I. These included Colonial Revival, English Tudor, Cotswald Cottage, Dutch Revival, French Provincial, and whimsical storybook cottages.
Streamline Moderne (Most popular in the 1930s) This sleek, horizontal style, with its curved lines and glass brick, was never very popular in Orange, and only two examples remain -- one residential, and one commercial.
Ranch Style (Most popular in the 1950s) Some of the last custom-built homes in Orange (before mass-produced tracts came to dominate the area) were built in this long, low, rustic style, which abandoned stucco for a return to natural woodwork -- sometimes even a board and batten look.
In the 1970s, while the business community downtown was declining, interest in the historic neighborhoods began to grow. The city designated an “Old Towne” area of about a mile square as worthy of special care, and families began moving into the old neighborhoods and rehabilitating the old homes.
Groups and individuals began to take an interest in Orange’s rich history. The Orange Community Historical Society was founded in 1973. In 1979 the City Council formed an Old Towne Steering Committee. The first short-lived preservation group, Preservation Orange, began in 1982, and the Old Towne Preservation Association (OTPA) was formed in 1986.
In 1977, the historical society began the drive to have the Plaza placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The plan soon grew to include 41 of the surrounding historic buildings, and in 1982 the Plaza Historic District was created. In 1997, under the leadership of the OTPA, more than 1,200 homes and other buildings in the heart of old downtown Orange were added to the National Register as the Old Towne Historic District -- the largest National Register district in California.
In 1983 a historic preservation element was added to the city’s General Plan, and in 1988 the first set of design guidelines was issued for new construction and remodels downtown. After more than 30 years of effort, interest in the historic neighborhoods in Orange remains strong.