This month, we travel to Orange, California, to explore the Old Towne Historic District, the largest National Register Historic District in its state.
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the Old Towne Historic District is approximately one square mile in area. Its boundaries encompass over 1,300 buildings representative of a variety of architectural styles popular in southern California from the late-19th through the early-20th centuries.
Orange was built on a small section of a vast ranch granted by the King of Spain in 1810 to Antonio Yorba and Juan Pablo Peralta. In the 1860s, some of this ranchland was deeded to Alfred B. Chapman (1829-1915) and Andrew Glassell (1827-1901) – two lawyers from Los Angeles – as payment for legal fees.
Chapman and Glassell had been acquiring land in the area for some time. The soil was rich, the Santa Ana River provided water for irrigation, and a stage coach road ran nearby. Conditions were perfect for a town.
Soon, the land was surveyed, and a grid of streets was mapped out by William T. Glassell (1837-1879), Andrew’s younger brother. Wooden houses, churches, stores, and a schoolhouse were constructed beginning in the 1870s. The concrete-and-adobe Plaza Hotel (demolished in 1905) was built in 1875 at the corner of Glassell Street and Plaza Square.
At first, the town was called Richland, but it was changed to Orange (after both the fruit and Andrew Glassell’s home county in Virginia) in 1874, because there was already another Richland in California, and a unique name was needed to have an official post office.
The town originally consisted of just eight city blocks – each block divided into 20 lots – surrounded by larger plots of farmland. Many of the streets were named after fruits and nuts, for example: Lemon, Olive and Grape (now Grand) streets, and Almond Avenue. The two primary cross streets were named after Chapman and Glassell, who set aside eight lots at the center of town for common land.
At first, this central area was little more than an open lot crossed by two roads. But the residents wanted something better, and in the 1880s, it was developed into the town’s centerpiece – the Plaza, a circular park with a large, three-tiered fountain ringed by flower beds and trees. The fountain arrived by railroad in 1887, the first year of railroad service to Orange.
Orange was the only town in Orange County to develop around a central plaza. In 1982, the Plaza and its surrounding buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Plaza’s present-day fountain dates to 1937, and its tiles were set by Charles McCandless (1908-1997), whose tile-work is found throughout the area.
Brick buildings were constructed in Orange beginning in 1885, and a building boom spurred on by the railroad saw the construction of many more in the late 1880s, including the two-storied Bank of Orange at 101 E. Chapman Ave. (demolished 1927), and the three-storied Rochester Hotel at 310 W. Chapman Ave. (demolished 1931).
Commercial buildings were often built in blocks of continuous storefronts, with shops at the ground floor and meeting rooms or apartments at the second floor. Streetlights and streetcars were also installed at this time, and houses were built in the blocks surrounding the Plaza. A grand, Grecian-influenced and Beaux-Arts-styled library was constructed at 407 E. Chapman Ave. in 1909 (demolished 1961).
Orange experienced another building boom in the early 20th century, when most of the historic buildings around the Plaza were constructed, and residential development spread out from the center of the town to cover the farm plots. By the mid-1920s, much of the historic district had been built.
A 1928 proposal by Orange’s first planning commission led to some downtown remodeling in the Mission Revival Style, with the addition of red tile roofs and arches. The start of the Depression halted the progress of this project before it spread very far.
The year 1928 also saw the completion of the Orange Theatre, begun at the corner of Maple and North Glassell streets in 1924. Its ornate, Beaux-Arts details – such as the twisted columns lining the two giant arches of the second floor, and the heavily foliated panels between the windows of the arches – are typical of Art Deco architecture of the 1920s.
The historic district’s houses are mostly middle-sized or small, single-family homes. Those dating to the late-19th and early-20th centuries are primarily Victorian in style, while those of the 1910s and 1920s are mainly bungalows, although other styles – including the Prairie and Spanish Colonial styles – are present.
Victorian houses are characterized by irregular profiles, asymmetrical window and door placements, wooden gingerbread ornamentation, and varied use of color. Their roofs are often steeply-pitched, and many of their windows have pointed, Gothic arches. All of these details lend themselves well to wooden construction, which blossomed in Orange once the railroad started bringing in pre-cut lumber and gingerbread trim.
Bungalows were extremely popular in the early decades of the 20th century across the country. Orange’s bungalows are typical of West Coast bungalows, with low-pitched roofs, wide porches (often with stone pillars), and frequent use of natural materials, both inside and out – as functional architectural parts.
The bungalow was not meant to be a large house, but rather an economically priced, functional home, easy-to-maintain, and well-ventilated – thus making it an ideal house type for southern California.
Today, the Plaza is a lively community center that hosts parades and street fairs throughout the year. The architecture of the surrounding historic district serves as the perfect
backdrop for this classic American small town.
For more information on Orange’s Old Town Historic District, please visit The Old Towne Preservation Association, and the Local History Collection of the Orange Public Library, the source of much of the information contained in this newsletter.
Photography courtesy of the Local History Collection, Orange Public Library, Orange, CA. Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.