Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Evan Krewson (1926-2014)

Evan Krewson leads O.C. Historical Commission on a tour of Old Courthouse restoration work, 1985
All of us who care about Orange County history should be thankful for Evan Krewson, a Costa Mesa resident who passed away on  Jan. 13, 2014. Although not the best known name in historical circles today, it was Krewson who so lovingly and meticulously orchestrated the restoration and revival of the Old Orange County Courthouse in the 1980s.

Krewson grew up in Wheaton, Illinois where he excelled in sports. He joined the Merchant Marines and later served in the Army during WWII. In the 1950s, he was an officer in the Pasadena Police Department. He later worked for the Southern California Gas Co., learned heating and air conditioning and at one point taught classes in contracting.

But it was his work as Senior Project Manager for the Orange County General Services Agency -- overseeing the restoration of the traditional seat of local government -- which is best remembered by our historical community.

The Old Courthouse (as we now call it) was built in 1901 and it originally held all the offices of Orange County's government, not counting the jail (which stood immediately behind it). Although the building proved unable to serve all the needs of an ever-growing county, it continued to serve the public, remained the constant home of the county marriage office, and became burned in the minds of over a century of locals as the symbol and heart of Orange County itself. The last regular court session was held there in 1969, and within ten years the place was considered unsafe and was vacated. After a period during which the landmark's very existence was in peril, a plan for seismically retrofitting and restoring the Old Courthouse got underway in 1983.
Don Dobmeier, who served on the Orange County Historical Commission then (as now), remembers when the work began: "Evan Krewson wasn't our first project manager. Rick Garza was originally assigned, but was soon pulled off the job to build the new fire station at the airport. The two got along fine, but they had totally different styles. Krewson was very detail-oriented, went out of his way to get things correct to the era, and asked lots of good questions. He was very good at what he did."

In his book, Old Orange County Courthouse: A Centennial History (2001), historian Phil Brigandi wrote,
"[He] insisted on only the highest quality work from all the contractors on the job. 'The opportunity wasn't going to come around again,' [Krewson said], 'so that anything I was going to do would have to last for the next hundred years.

"The structural work was completed early in 1985, and the reconstruction of the interior began. ...By December 1985 the work was far enough along that the county's historical programs staff was able to begin moving into their new third floor offices. ...Original details were carefully restored or recreated from photographs and memories (the troublesome old chimney for the basement boiler - though no longer needed - was even reconstructed to keep the building's original exterior appearance intact). Temecula granite and Arizona sandstone were again imported for a few spots that needed repairs. "
Today, Brigandi (who was also a Historical Commissioner in the 1980s) says, "Evan was just the right person to supervise the restoration of the Old Courthouse. His attention to detail and devotion to the project is still obvious today, 25 years later. He even researched old construction techniques so they could follow the original specs on the building -- like a "broom finish" on the plaster. And he loved to show off the little details as well -- like the little hole in the sandstone on the east side of the building were the first phone line was run in."
Krewson lifted a 1901 time capsule from the Courthouse wall at a 1988 ceremony. Here, he and Historical Commissioner Jane Gerber install a new time capsule later that same year.
When it became clear that an elevator (not original to the building) must be added to the plan, Krewson made sure its appearance "fit the ambiance, yet let people know it's not historically part of the building." To this day, the elevator blends in so well that people often walk right by without seeing it -- Yet nobody would mistake it for anything but a modern piece of equipment.

Seismically, the courthouse reinforcements were "overdesigned by 50%," Krewson told the Los Angeles Times, "Which means if there's a building you want to be in during an earthquake, that's it."

One of Krewson's key sources of information about the original details of the Old Courthouse was Lecil Slaback - then in his 70s - who practically grew up in the building. Lecil's father, Lester Slaback, was the longtime Court Reporter there, and Lecil followed in his dad's professional footsteps. Old photos might help Krewson determine the shape of a missing light fixture, but Lecil could remember the color of the lamp as well. Of Krewson's work, Lecil would ultimately say, "He did a masterful job."

Rob Selway, the head of the County's Historical Programs Office, described the restoration project as it neared completion:
"Tons of steel and gunite now tie floors together and reinforce the brick and sandstone walls. Restoration is nearly complete for the exterior facades, the entry floor lobby and corridors, the grand staircase, and the third floor. Restored details include carefully researched and designed light fixtures, extensive tilework, oak wainscoting and other wood features such as doors and windows, marble and wrought iron stairway, polished concrete floors, plaster cornices and skylight basketweave surrounds, and original and period furniture and hardware."
L to R: Brigandi, Marshall Duell and Krewson in the Orange County Archives, 2004.
When the project was completed in 1988, Krewson told the Times, "We've taken care to make sure the museum is a showplace... We wanted to make it a window to the world, a place to enjoy, a walk into the past. This is a living museum, a working building. [It's] significant for children to see the origins of the county,... To sit in the judge's chair and get a sense of the history."

Indeed, not just children but thousands of Orange Countians of all ages get that sense of history and enjoy the simple beauty of this important landmark each year. I have been lucky enough to work in that wonderful building for the past 11 years and it continues to be an honor and a privilege. It's a special place in many ways. The work of Evan Krewson, along with the work of the preservationists, historians, elected officials, engineers, county workers and subcontractors who contributed to saving and restoring the Old Courthouse, deserves the whole county's appreciation.

I only met Evan Krewson briefly on a couple occasions, both well after his retirement. In each case, he had returned to the Old Courthouse to give the building a good going-over, look for any problems that might have cropped up, and make suggestions for any needed adjustments. Clearly, the Old Courthouse was always a part of him. Because of his care and attention to detail, his legacy to our community will continue to bring joy, beauty and an understanding of history to untold generations to come.

Evan Krewson is survived by his wife, Margaret Krewson; his daughters, Betty Lou Sasena, Cynthia Davis and Katherine Arceneaux; and by eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

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