The Old Orange County Courthouse when it was young, 1904 (Phil Brigandi collection).

The Old Orange County Courthouse when it was young, 1904 (Phil Brigandi collection).

The Old Orange County Courthouse

Except for Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Matterhorn, the Old Orange County Courthouse is probably Orange County’s best-known landmark. As the oldest surviving courthouse in Southern California, its image is used in all sorts of ways.

The story of the Old Courthouse begins with the creation of Orange County in 1889. Originally the county offices were housed in two commercial buildings on east Fourth Street in Santa Ana. A number of local property owners had hoped to get the new county as a tenant, but J.R. Congdon beat them all by offering the buildings for just 50¢ a year! (That was only for the first two years, though; after that, he got another ten years’ worth of rent out of the county.)

In 1893 the county finally decided it was time to do something about a permanent courthouse. They put out a call for bids for a site and considered several locations around Santa Ana. In the end, they bought a large lot on the north side of downtown from William H. Spurgeon, who had founded Santa Ana nearly 25 years before. The price was $8,000, and the deed stipulated that a courthouse had to be built on the site within ten years.

The first building on the site was a county jail, completed in 1897. It stood for nearly 30 years. (The outline of the building is still marked out in the parking lot of the Old Courthouse.)

In 1899 the Board of Supervisors finally got moving on a permanent courthouse. Local voters passed a $100,000 bond act, and a call went out to architects for a design competition. Some of the plans submitted were rather unusual, to say the least. One called for a triangular-shaped building topped by a 128-foot tall spire. Another looked like the state capital building. In the end, the board went with a more traditional design. In fact the style (known as Richardson Romanesque) was already a little dated when construction began in 1900.

The foundation of the building is Temecula granite. The framework is actually brick and steel, but is covered by a façade of red Arizona sandstone. In the same way, the red “tiles” on the roof are actually pressed metal, as was the 135-foot tall cupola, which was taken down after the Long Beach Earthquake in 1933. There are two stories, and a full basement.

Construction took 17 months, and cost $117,000. The building was officially accepted by the county in September 1901, with all county offices ordered to move in no later than October 1st. The formal dedication was held on November 12, 1901.

In 1901, the Old Courthouse was home to every single county office and the county’s one and only Superior Court, but the county government soon outgrew its new home. In 1923-24, a separate Hall of Records was built on the north end of the courthouse lot. In 1925 a new jail opened just east of the courthouse. In 1930 the county bought the St. Anne’s Inn, a failed tourist hotel west of the courthouse, and converted it to offices.

The continuing expansion of the county offices led to the idea for a complete Civic Center to the north, shared by both the county and the City of Santa Ana. The first proposal in 1927 included sites for a museum, an amphitheatre, and a park.

The Civic Center idea was revived in 1945 as a joint project of the city and county, which began buying up land north of the Old Courthouse. Ground was broken for the first modern office building in 1953 (then it was the Health Care Agency offices, today it houses the Public Defender), but work slowed on the project with the failure of three successive bond acts to fund a new courthouse over the next decade. Finally, in 1966, the city and county formed a Civic Center Authority which arranged for the financing.

The present Orange County Courthouse was completed in December 1968. That left the Old Courthouse in limbo. There was actually some question in the 1960s whether it would be saved at all. After being used for county offices and historical exhibits for several years, in 1979 the old building was declared seismically unsafe and closed. It was retrofitted and restored in the 1980s, reopening as a county historic park in 1987. Several county offices are also located inside, including the County Archives and the marriage license office. The original courtroom has been carefully restored, and there are historical exhibits on every floor.

Today the Orange County Civic Center has grown to nearly 30 buildings, with many other government offices scattered throughout the county.