The Six Ages of Downtown Orange
Pioneer Days (1870-1885)
The first building in Orange was Captain WT. 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 and 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 and Grote Block (1908), Campbell's Opera House (1912), the Smith and 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.
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 and 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.
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.
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.