Old Orange County Courthouse
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 and exterior.
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 former beauty.
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 receptions.
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.