by Diann Marsh, from
Eye on Santa Ana, Fall 1992
In October of 1979, the imposing red sandstone Orange County Courthouse was
closed because it was seismically unsafe. With budgets tight, the building
faced an uncertain future due to concerns about the amount of money needed
to not only strengthen the building but also to restore both its interior
Today, as the result of a lot of hard work by many people. the grand old
building has been restored and is the scene of renewed activity. The ground
floor is the new home of the Orange County Archives. The second floor, with
its white and blue ceramic tile hail, recently reopened as the site of the
marriage license bureau, a chapel, and two hearing rooms. The third floor,
reached by a grand double staircase with marble treads, now houses a museum
of county history, the county Historical Programs Office and the
beautifully-restored Courtroom No. 1. It is fitting that the building has
now become the Orange County History Center.
The courthouse was built twelve years after Orange County separated from Los
Angeles County on June 4, 1889. On July 11 of that year, Santa Ana was
selected over Anaheim and Orange to become the County Seat. Court was held
in rented buildings throughout the Santa Ana business district. William
Spurgeon sold the land for the courthouse to the County in 1893, but it took
several more years before the building was to become a reality.
Richardson Romanesque in style, the building was designed by C. L. Strange,
an architect and former building supervisor from Los Angeles. It bears
resemblance to the style of courthouses seen in many mid-western cities and
towns. The formal design, massive Arizona red sandstone walls and Temecula
granite base, created a sense of order and importance befitting a county
courthouse. The roof is made of metal, painted to look like red clay tiles.
A metal cupola topped the building. The cupola was painted to resemble the
red sandstone of the rest of the building. On November 12, 1901, the new
courthouse was opened with an all-day celebration.
The 1933 Long Beach earthquake caused several changes to be made in the
Courthouse. The cupola sustained enough damage that it was decided to remove
it. The gable ends and sandstone turrets fell. The sandstone in the gable
ends was replaced by stucco and finials replaced the turrets. In later years
the building's interior was changed considerable to accommodate new uses.
The white and blue tile in the halls was removed, false ceilings installed,
the antique light fixtures removed, and the stairs carpeted. With an eye to
historical accuracy, the interior has now been completely restored to its
Through the years, many dramatic cases were played out in the courtrooms on
the top floor. Among them was the Overell and Gollum trial in 1947. Beulah
Overell and Bud Gollum were accused of killing her parents by blowing up
their yacht in Newport Harbor. The trial lasted for five months and was the
constant topic of conversation.
The rich woods, ornate carved judge's bench, elaborate chandeliers, and high
ornamented ceiling have made the Courtroom No. 1 the scene of many movies
and television programs. In 1915 the courthouse provided the set for the
silent film, The Flying Torpedo, supervised by D. W. Griffith.
In 1978 a T.V. mini-series entitled Studs Lonigan was shot in the courtroom.
Henry Fonda and Lindsay Wagner were among the stars of the many television
movies that have been filmed at the courthouse in recent years. It continued
to be used frequently for both educational and commercial films. The
building and grounds have become a popular place for weddings and
The Courthouse has received many honors. Listed on the National Register of
Historic Places, the building is also California State Landmark No. 837.
There are few other historic courthouses in California that can match its
unique architectural character. Recently the county completed a new parking
lot at the rear of the building, facing Civic Center Drive. Bordered with
ornamental retaining walls and beautifully landscaped, the parking lot
contains the "footprint" of the original Gothic-turreted county jail,
outlined in concrete.
The Courthouse Museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm on weekdays. The Old
Courthouse Museum Society conducts tours of the Courtroom No. 1 and the
Museum. Call 834-5560 for further information. The address of the Old County
Museum Society is 211 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, 92701.