Sunday, November 22, 2020

Orange’s Plaza: What’s in a Name?

Postcard of the Plaza in Orange, circa 1910.

Is the intersection of Chapman Ave. and Glassell St. called “the Plaza” or “the Circle?” That controversy, regarding the center of historic Downtown Orange, has been a sore point in recent decades. The short answer is this: It’s been the Plaza since 1871 and remains so. But the use of the nickname “Circle” or “Orange Circle” ramped up sometime around the 1960s and is now heard frequently. Not satisfied with that answer? Then buckle up for the long version,…

Detail of 1883 Richland Farm Lots map, showing empty plaza.

The Plaza or Plaza Square has been at the heart of Orange since Captain William T. Glassell laid out the townsite (originally called Richland) on paper in 1871. In the book, Orange: The City ‘Round the Plaza, historian and proud Orange native Phil Brigandi wrote, “Despite its Spanish name, , the original Plaza Square was envisioned more like an Eastern ‘common’ or ‘green,’ with all the businesses facing in toward the center.”

January 1885 Sanborn map shows Chapman and Glassell crossing in an open area.

Why a “plaza” rather than a town square or some other more conventionally middle-American-sounding label? Because all the way back to the Mission Era, it had been the tradition for Southern California communities – like Los Angeles and San Juan Capistrano -- to have a plaza at the heart of town. It came from our Spanish and Mexican roots. Keep in mind that Alfred B. Chapman and Andrew Glassell (William’s brother) had acquired the land on which they created Richland/Orange directly from the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana. Using the word plaza was not an affectation – it was part of the local culture at the time.

A plaque at the fountain in Plaza Park. Placed in 1976.

In the early years, the two streets intersected directly in the middle of the Plaza – a poorly tended, weed-choked square of public land. Pioneer Alice Armor recalled, “Some of the earliest settlers planted pepper trees in the four corners and water was piped from a reservoir on East Chapman avenue to the center of the square. There was always a miry puddle about the hydrant, where travelers stopped to water their teams. The pepper trees were used as hitching posts and in their shade, wood was piled and packing boxes were stacked. Castoff boots and shoes, old hats, broken crockery and dead hens were scattered here and there. Such was the Orange plaza in the good old days.”

In 1886, two proposals were made to improve the Plaza. One plan kept the intersection as it was but created four parks – one on each corner of the Plaza. Another plan substituted a Plaza Park in the middle of the square, surrounded by an oval (not circular) traffic roundabout. Obviously, the roundabout plan won.

Survey map of the Plaza, 1893, by H. Clay Kellogg.

Among the many community efforts to raise funds for these improvements – in particular the expensive fountain -- was the writing and performance of a play, fittingly titled, “The Plaza.” Some time after the park, fountain, roundabout and other improvements were completed, an official survey map of “the Plaza in Orange” was filed with the county. (The streets weren’t actually paved until 1912.)

In a 1970 interview, early Orange resident Florence Smiley remembered "the Plaza was used, and people walked,... It was a pretty little place -- and there was no traffic and no trouble getting across into the plaza."

The Plaza, looking northeast, 1892

From the very beginning, each official reference or designation to the square and its park and roundabout used the term “Plaza.” Newspapers consistently referred to “the plaza.” Businesses facing onto the plaza had (and still have) “Plaza Square” as their address. And in 1973, when the 1910 Street Fair was revived and made an annual event, it too was held “at the Orange Plaza.”

1922 Sanborn map shows part of Plaza Square.

Even proposals to change the fabric of Downtown still gave a nod to the historic name. In 1965, the city commissioned a study to determine the feasibility of turning the area into a pedestrian shopping area called “Plaza Mall.” Another 1967 concept proposed redeveloping the area into a “Super Plaza.” Happily, the city leaned more toward adaptive reuse than redevelopment, and instead of soon-to-be-obsolete malls the area became the Plaza Historic District – recognized as a State Historic Landmark in 1981 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Plaza Historic District marker on South Glassell.

So where and when did the nickname “Orange Circle” arise? 

The first reference I can find is in a May 1, 1940 classified ad in the Santa Ana Register, hawking a "6 rm home" on "E. Chapman Ave., 2 mi. east of Orange Circle." But the term wasn’t in widespread use at that point. 

Eventually the term "Orange Circle" appeared in the newspapers again – this time in an ad in the Jan. 6, 1963 L.A. Times promoting Vista del Playa Estates. It offered the following directions: "From City of Orange Circle, take Glassell north to Taft. Then east to Shaffer, then north to Vista del Playa St." (How one could have a view of the beach from there is beyond me. Perhaps the developers were a little hazy on geography to begin with.)

Rare example of the term "Orange Circle" used in print downtown.

“Orange Circle” appeared again in a Sept. 20, 1972, Tustin News article about a meeting "in Happening Hall at the Teen Challenge Center, 78 Plaza Square, where Chapman and Glassell intersect in the Orange Circle." And in the intervening years between the 1963 ad and the 1972 article, the “Orange Circle” nickname had finally gained momentum. The city had grown exponentially in the post-World War II years and new arrivals living in freshly constructed tract homes and apartments now vastly outnumbered longtime residents and their offspring. The newbies appreciated many of Orange’s charms, but weren’t familiar with its history.

Thus, the rise of the phrase “Orange Circle” began “somewhere in between the first episode of ‘My Three Sons,’ and the last episode of ‘Bewitched” according to Roger Fitschen, longtime Orange fireman and member of an Orange pioneer family. Or to put it another way, “if you remember the Lionettes it was ‘Plaza’ and if you didn’t it [might be] the other thing.”

Indeed, to those with deep roots in town, use of the term “Circle” was an indicator that the speaker had “just fallen off the turnip truck.”  

View from the Plaza, circa 1910s.

When the Orange Community Historical Society held a program discussing the Orange Daily News building (44 Plaza Square), they invited not only historians and past owners but also the manager of Dietrich’s Coffee, which was then housed in the building. “She got up to speak and said how happy she was to be on ‘the circle,’” remembers Judy Schroeder. “A low grumble passed through the whole room.”

“I didn’t arrive here until 1967 from L.A. County,” says Lisa Baldwin of the Society, “so I was part of those newbies who called it the circle growing up. I think the shape of the roadway is so descriptive that it became popular. … It wasn’t until I started working at A & P [Antiques], met Adrienne [Gladson] and then the folks of the Orange Community Historical Society that I learned, ‘them FIGHTin’ words!’  … Once appropriately schooled, I have adapted to correctly referring to it as The Plaza. It is out of respect to Misters Glassell and Mr. Chapman I call it the place they named it.”

The famous bumper sticker -- Designed over bacon at Watson's.

Some felt education was the answer to the controversy. Around 2002, the remaining members of the Orange High School Class of 1943 (who still met regularly for breakfast at Watson’s Drug Store) printed and distributed 1,500 bumper stickers declaring “It’s the Plaza, not the circle!” The old timers even twisted arms to get the stickers placed on city trucks and police cars. 

But by then, the original term, Plaza, was already regaining some of the traction it had lost to Circle. 

“I think the [Orange Community Historical] Society’s influence was felt politically at City Hall certainly in the 1990s, with Staff seemingly instructed to use Plaza when referring to downtown,” said Lisa Baldwin. “Did Joanne Coontz have anything to do with that as a past President of the Society? Perhaps. The Old Towne Preservation Association certainly embraced the Plaza moniker too and as their influence began to be felt more and more in the ‘90s this educated a whole bunch of new-to-Orange folk who were sensitive to history...”

Notable in the plaza/circle battle was town historian (and E. Clampus Vitus member) Phil Brigandi, who made his case with wry faux-earnestness and humor.

"Among true old timers of Orange there are few sins worse than calling the Plaza park ‘the circle,’” wrote Brigandi in 1997, “Only a few newcomers (and some Santa Ana people) persist in calling it by that awful name.”

Huell Howser interviews Phil Brigandi at Plaza Park, 2007

Phil also sent form letters to errant newspaper reporters on joke letterhead from the “Society for the Prevention of the Term ‘Circle.’” One line read, “Surely you noticed more than just its shape.”

Later, he admitted, “The tongue-in-cheek battle between the locals and newcomers is simply a way for the hometown folks to say, ‘This is my town, and I care about its past.’ Try saying ‘Frisco’ to a true San Franciscan and you’ll get the idea.”

The original Orange Street Fair, at the Plaza, 1910.

Personally, I have no dog in this fight. I like Orange, but have never lived or worked there. As far as I’m concerned, you’re welcome to call the Plaza by any pet name you want, (e.g. Hub of Happiness, Stonehenge II, Jim, Snookie, etc). I know that despite facts and nearly 150 years of tradition, some folks just can’t bring themselves to say “plaza.” As columnist Jerry Hicks once wrote, “I do care about honoring history. But doggone it, I just love the name Circle.”

But now, at least, you know the story. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

*Sigh*

Thanks to endless spam, I'm shutting down the "Comments" here for the first time since I launched this blog, over fourteen years ago. The blog will continue, but (maddeningly) it will be more difficult for you to share your observations and insights. Your comments were my favorite part of this blog.

Luckily, most of my posts are linked from Facebook, so you can comment there. Or you can email me. (If you're not a bot from Pakistan, you'll be able to find my FB account or email address without much effort.)

Blogger's paper-thin defenses were constantly breached by spammers, and the comments had turned into a playground for scams and crap adverising. Your REAL comments simply got lost among the mountains of garbage. Some posts were loaded down with over 600 spam messages. I don't have time to moderate them all. Worse yet, the only way to remove spam from a post is a six-step process that must be repeated separately for each individual spam comment.

If Blogger ever gets its act together, or if I find some other workaround, rest assured that comments will be return ASAP. But until then, find other ways to drop me a line. I really DO want to hear from you!

John Williams demonstrates the CORRECT way to spam.

Friday, September 25, 2020

A bit of housekeeping...


I finally cleaned up some of the links (at right) and added new separate sections for historical preservation, state/regional history, and historical local newspaper resources. The list of links had just gotten way too long and unwieldy, and I hope these revisions will make navigation a little easier.

Of  course, it was also time to add and remove links as needed. 

I was sad to finally remove the link to the Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum at Cal State Fullerton. A lot of people worked their butts off to make that museum a reality and many people donated a lot of money to get that place off the ground. But the fact that the website is (still) devoid of information and the complete lack of buzz in the community tells me it's probably not really a thing anymore. But as hope springs eternal, I *do* still provide a link to the Fullerton Arboretum, where the museum is located.

Similarly, I was sorry to take the Orange County Heritage Coordinating Council off the list of links. I haven't heard about any activity in the group in at least five years. HCC was a nice networking tool for those working in the local history and heritage services field. A lot of cross-pollination of ideas and mutual assistance and problem-solving went on among the members. But when one generation of leadership stepped down, nobody stepped in to take over. The idea behind HCC seems to be reborn at least once a decade under another name, although it may have to wait until this COVID mess is over.

Meanwhile, I also noticed  that one of our friends at the Buena Park Historical Society must have goofed. For many years, they've had THE best domain name imaginable: HistoricalSociety.org. I've never known how they managed to snag that plum before any other historical society in the world got their hands on it! But for a long time the site has been down, and now it seems they didn't renew the domain, since their new site is at BuenaParkHistory.org.

I've also added a few new links that somehow slipped through the cracks in the past. I'm particularly sorry for having NOT provided a link to the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail until now. It's a fascinating place to visit and is run by some good people.

Anyway, if you see anything else I've missed, let me know. Thanks for your continued readership!

The Heine House (1902), Santa Ana

Photo of the Heine House (Courtesy Louise Hoffman)

The Heine House, at 820 W. 4th St. in Santa Ana, is long gone now – but it was something of a landmark for over 70 years. Louise Hoffman of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society is related to the Heines and asked what was known about the house. The answer is “not enough.” But here’s what I found,…

On July 21, 1902, C. M. and Ollie Nash sold an empty residential lot on the southeast corner of W. 4th St. (now W. Santa Ana Blvd.) and N. Flower St. in Santa Ana to Mrs. Mary S. Parker. She, in turn, had a house built for herself on that lot (820 W. 4th St.) during the last half of 1902. 

Mary was born in Maine around 1850. Her maiden name is unknown. She was living in Massachusetts in 1879, when she gave birth to her son, Charles E. Smith. They moved from the East Coast to Santa Ana in 1884. Later that year, her daughter, May O. Parker (later May Heard), was born. Mary did not arrive in Santa Ana with a husband, suggesting that she had either been widowed or separated from Mr. Parker very shortly before her move west and the birth of their daughter, May. 

Ultimately, Mary would live forty-seven years of her life in Santa Ana, where she would establish her own business as a dressmaker and become active in the First Baptist Church. 

She must have had some money put away, because building such a large new home would have been difficult if not impossible to afford on a dressmaker’s income.

On November 11, 1908, Mary -- now going by Mrs. Mary S. Chilson (and listed as "divorced" in the census) – sold the house to Electa Phillips Perry and her son, Elma H. Davis.

In 1909, Charles, who was by then farming in Valley Center (San Diego County), got married. Mary went to live with Charles and his wife for a while, but soon moved back to Santa Ana. From at least 1920 until her death in 1931, Mary lived at 821 N. Van Ness Ave.    

Meanwhile, the story of the house at 820 W. 4th St. continued, with the Davis family using it as a rental property. Some of the tenants there included C. A. Riggs (1909), Rev. Amos Fowler Roadhouse (1910), Maurine E. Baker (1912), John Rhea Baker (1913), C. A. Bowers (1917), H. M. Penn (1918), and Ada C. Walters (1919).

On February 6, 1920 Elma H. Davis sold the house to Frank H. and Ora Kennedy Heine. (It appears they swapped land, with Davis receiving Lot 344, Block 13 of Irvine's Subdivision from Heine.) Rather than renting out the whole house, as Davis had, the Heines moved in around late 1921 and stayed through at least 1960. They did, however, lease out a room or two to boarders in the early 1920s. Frank worked at a local fruit packing house, where he was in charge of manufacturing crates. 

Frank H. Heine died in 1963, with his estate going to Ora. She remained in the house until 1971, when she moved to a smaller house at 1121 N. Flower St. In early 1972, she deeded the old house at 820 W. 4th St. to John N. and Max K. Heine. John and Max, in turn, sold the lot to the City of Santa Ana in March 1975. The house was torn down around that same time. Ora K. Heine died on March 28, 1980.

There is now a rather boring office building called the "888 Building" where the house once stood.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Birch Street

South Birch St., Santa Ana, circa 1910
Someone recently asked if any of Orange County's many Birch Streets are named after the anti-communist John Birch Society. 

Actually, the Birch streets, lanes, roads, etc, located in the cities of Orange, Brea, Fullerton, Anaheim, Newport Beach and Santa Ana all predate the 1958 founding of the John Birch Society. 

Specifically, Birch Street in Brea is named for Albert Otis Birch of the Birch Oil Company, and Santa Ana's Birch Street and Birch Park are named for his family.
Promotional flier for the John Birch Society, 1960s
Orange County's other Birch streets -- located in Irvine, Yorba Linda, Mission Viejo, Fountain Valley, Cypress, Aliso Viejo and Westminster -- are in areas where all or most of the streets are named for trees.

In other words, no. There's no connection.

But all the above-named cities DO have fluoride in their water supply, so don't let your guard down, patriots!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Nita Carman of Laguna Beach

Nita Carman (right) reprises her role as suffragette in Anaheim, 1969 (Pomona Progress Bulletin)
Suffragette and civic dynamo Nita Carman – the namesake of Nita Carmen Park in Laguna Beach -- was born Juanita Howland Day to Frank and Lucia A. Day in Martin, Minnesota on June 19, 1885. Frank A. Day was editor of the Fairmont Sentinel and had served as Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota and as secretary to Governor John A. Johnson. The well-connected family’s activities made frequent appearances on the society pages of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Nita graduated from Fairmont High School in Fairmont, Minnesota in 1903, attended Grinnell College in Iowa, and went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota in 1908 – an era when few women attended college. She later took additional summer school courses at the University of California.

According to the plaque in Nita Carman Park (located directly across from her longtime home), Nita "traveled and taught [English and grade] school in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and China" in the years before World War I, and "she championed women's right to vote.”
Sign and plaque at Nita Carman Park, Laguna Beach. (Photo by author)
It's unclear precisely what Nita's personal involvement was in the fight for women's voting rights, but growing up in a political family certainly prepared her for a life of civic involvement. It’s also known that in the late 1910s she was a member of the College Women's Club in Minneapolis -- a group that strongly supported the suffrage movement. The club sponsored speakers and lobbied elected officials. When Minnesota became 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, on Sept 8, 1919, the club marched in caps and gowns as part of a large parade through St. Paul. Their celebratory march was undeterred by the driving rain.

On June 25, 1921 Nita married Ernest Clark Carman, Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota. A year later, their son, Ernest Day Carman was born in Minneapolis.
Nita Carman in the Sept. 13, 1908 Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Nita’s introduction to Laguna Beach came through Miriam Hedges Smith, a friend she’d made while traveling. In a 1968 interview conducted by Donna Demetriades of the Laguna Beach Community Historical Society, Nita remembered that Smith “came here in about 1923 or '24, I think. She had a little office down on Broadway. ...She did real estate. She's the reason I'm here because she and I went to the Orient together in 1916. We started out from Honolulu. We didn't know each other but we just happened to get the same ship. And we were on this ship forty days. . . . I went on to China and Peking for a year, and she stayed on a as a secretary to a businessman in Yokohama. I came home in 1917 -- the year the war broke out. [But first Miriam] came to Peking for a month and we came home together."

Around July of 1927, Ernest and Nita moved to Los Angeles. Ernest’s twin brother, Earle, had already practiced law there for a number of years. Ernest soon accepted a good position with the law firm of Goudge, Robinson & Hughes, where he specialized in Federal court receivership and reorganization work. Nita began making occasional trips down to Orange County, visiting her friend Miriam and staying on the beach at Laguna’s “Tent City.” She fell in love with the town.
In front of American Legation, Peking, L to R: Unnamed rickshaw “cabbie,” Juanita Day, Mrs. Paul Renisch, Miss Stearns, Zona Hill. Photo from The Arrow of Pi Beta Phi, June 1917. Nita was a lifelong active member of the Pi Beta Phi Alumnae Club.
Recalling a later visit to Laguna, Nita said, "My sister came out from Minnesota. She'd been very ill and she had her three children with her. I'd say we were the original 'Easter Weekers.' Because in 1930 . . .or ‘31... I wrote to Miriam Smith and said 'We want to come down for Easter Vacation.' And she got us one of those little tents down near the corner of Broadway and Coast Highway. And they had those cots where the sides fold down. My sister had her three children and I had my one child, and we came down Easter week. It was gloomy [weather] part of the time, but we had a lot of time and we went different places and the children played on the beach."

No longer satisfied with beach camping, in 1933, the Carmans purchased Lots 47 and 48 of Tract 746 at the corner of St. Ann’s Dr. and Wilson St. for a summer vacation home. There was nothing on the land when they bought it. Some of the roads already existed, but the nearest paved one was Coast Highway. It was "all an open canyon" around them with no houses nearby, Nita said, “until they put the fill through and the high school… It was just like the bare hills. We bought it from Gigi Parrish Wells. She was then married to Timmy Parrish.”
Assistant Attorney General Ernest C. Carman, Minnesota, 1923.  (Courtesy Hennepin County Library)
Gigi Parrish was a movie actress best known for several star turns in the 1930s. Her husband, George Dillwyn "Timmy" Parrish was a painter, novelist, restauranteur, and occasional playwright. While married to Gigi, Timmy fell in love with his neighbor's wife, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, and later married her. M.F.K. Fisher later became a famed food and wine writer.

It appears that construction of the Carmans’ Laguna house was completed by November 1933, although local directories don’t indicate them residing there until 1934. The combined parcel was large enough that they were able to plant a small forest of eucalyptus and acacia trees and still have room to build numerous residential structures. In fact, Lot 47 alone eventually included the following addresses: 584 St. Ann’s Dr., 590 St. Ann's Dr., and 761 Wilson St. The Carmans seemed to use these addresses somewhat interchangeably.
Nita Carman’s home, 560 St. Anne's St. - View from Wilson St. (Photo by author)
Their primary residence, however, remained in Los Angeles, closer to Ernest’s law office. They lived in several neighborhoods over the years, including Wilshire Park and Westwood. They were living in today’s Koreatown in 1939 when Ernest suddenly died of a heart attack. At that point, Nita left Los Angeles with her son and turned their Laguna summer home into their full-time permanent residence.

Getting “right back on the horse” after Ernest’s death, Nita ran for a seat on the Laguna School Board in 1940. She also continued to make improvements to the Laguna Beach property, including an additional duplex in 1941.
Nita Carman’s home, 560 St. Anne’s Dr. (Photo by author)
According to the plaque at Nita Carmen Park, she became "a respected community leader... Her hospitality was legend. Possessed of wit, humor, intelligence and an insatiable curiosity, she contributed immeasurably to the charm of this community."

Nita threw wonderful garden parties, had many friends, and continued to travel all her life. She was active in the Woman's Club, the Laguna Beach Garden Club, the League of Women Voters, the local chapter of AAUW, the Laguna Art Association, the Festival of the Arts Association, the Club Español, the Pi Beta Phi Alumnae Club, and the Civic League.
Entrance to 761 Wilson St., Laguna Beach - Leading down into a canyon.
During World War II, Nita became known for her tireless volunteer work for the Red Cross and the USO. She invited military families to stay at her home and, she later said, “USO people stayed with me Saturday nights. Oh, I really had about a thousand people stay at my house during the war.”

The large brick barbeque she’d had local mason Len Watkins build in her yard (just above the badminton court) became the backdrop of countless evenings of hospitality. “I've had thousands at that barbecue,” she remembered, as well as innumerable outdoor “pancake breakfasts.”
Nita Carman at League of Women Voters state convention, Anaheim, 1969  (Santa Maria Times)
Nita Carmen also volunteered as a poll inspector during elections and was known for her involvement in campaigns to beautify Laguna. But perhaps the civic work closest to her heart was for the Laguna Beach Public Library. She was one of the original members of the Laguna Beach Library Association and her work led directly to the founding of the Laguna Beach Friends of the Library.

In 1969, Nita Carman was among a handful of surviving suffragettes honored in Anaheim at the California state convention of the League of Women Voters. She posed for photos in 1919 attire (provided by Disneyland) and placards promoting women’s suffrage. “We may be octogenarians, but we're not antiquarians,” she told the audience at the ceremony.
Nita Carman Park as seen in 2020. (Photo by author)
When Nita died at a Laguna Beach nursing home on August 29, 1972, it was front page news. “Laguna activist Nita Day,” said the Laguna News Post, “was interested in everything civic.”

Only four months earlier, on May 1st, a smiling but mostly quiet Nita Carman had attended the dedication of the Laguna Beach park named in her honor. Nita Carmen Park was located on land donated by Laguna Beach High School, behind its Guyer Field baseball diamond. Nita’s son, Day, (by then an attorney himself) donated money and trees for the development of the park.
Dedication of Nita Carmen Park, 1972. In 1983, Day Carman and his wife, Laguna artist Debby Carman, also helped pay for the addition of Leonard Glasser's "Two Figures/Sunbathers" modern sculpture to the park. (Laguna News-Post)
She was pleased to see the land turned into another attractive park for her beloved community. But seemed less certain about the name.

"I'd like to see many more little parks like this throughout Laguna," Nita said at the dedication. "They should be named after those who have done so much more than I."
Nita Carman at the dedication of Nita Carman Park, 1972. (Laguna News-Post)
(Many, many thanks to the lovely and brilliant Stephanie George, whose encouragement, amazing genealogical and historical research skills, detailed editing, and tremendous patience elevated this article from "short and sweet" to a project with more depth and value.)

Monday, July 27, 2020

Rob Richardson (1961-2020)

Robert L. “Rob” Richardson passed away on the evening of July 26, 2020. He was (among so many other great things) a serious local history expert – especially when it came to the subjects of railroads and his beloved hometown of Santa Ana. He wrote the books Railroads and Depots of Orange County (2009) and Orange County's Pioneer Architect: Frederick Eley (2001). He served on the Santa Ana Historic Resources Commission, he spoke numerous times before the Orange County Historical Society, and he was a go-to source for information and photos relating to early Santa Ana.

Rob was a Santa Ana kid through-and-through. From being a helpful neighbor, to leading charitable groups, to serving as City Councilman, Rob did just about everything humanly possible to preserve what was best about his city and tried to make it even better.

Usually, prolonged exposure to the twin monsters of politics and bureaucracy either drives good people away from public service or turns them into monsters themselves. Rob was one of those rare exceptions; he remained authentic, humble, committed, gentlemanly, and an all-around good guy.
Rob Richardson as a Santa Ana High School senior, 1979.
New Santa Ana has posted a good obituary for Rob, in which they list some of his innumerable accomplishments and correctly observe that his passing “marks the end of an era.” The Register also published a good article about him. I won’t try to recreate or rehash those articles here, but please go read them.

Rob battled multiple sclerosis and other health problems in recent years and was an amazing fighter. Last year, he fell seriously ill while on vacation and his prognosis looked grim. Everyone was braced for the worst. But he bounced back to his old self in a surprisingly short amount of time.

Soon thereafter, in February 2020, Rob invited me to come along to a meeting of the Los Angeles Corral of Westerners as his guest. We carpooled up to Alhambra with Brett and Don Franklin. Rob knew I was still sort of reeling from the death of Phil Brigandi, and he thoughtfully invited me to be part of this storied historical group in which both he and Phil enjoyed participating. Rob was his old self that evening and we had far-ranging discussions. I officially joined Westerners as a direct result of his invitation.
With friends at the L.A. Corral of Westerners, Feb. 2019.
But later that month Rob was suddenly struck with another health crisis. Again, things looked grim and many feared the worst. But, fighter that he was, Rob again made an amazing comeback and in recent weeks was calling friends (at least the ones whose phone numbers he could remember) from his hospital bed and was making impressive progress in rehab. He’d hoped to be home again soon. Sadly, that was not to be.

I was given Rob’s phone number at the hospital on Friday evening. I fully intended to call him on Saturday, but did not do so. Honestly, I’m feeling really bad about that.  But I’m glad to have memories from better times: Helping a gleeful Rob load his car full of free history books; chatting after meetings; analyzing old Santa Ana maps and photos with him at the County Archives; solving the world’s problems over lunch at Norm’s (where the entire staff knew his name and order); or puzzling out endless little historical mysteries via email.

I know there will be many tributes to Rob Richardson in the coming weeks. I assume half of Orange County has good memories of him. These are a few of mine.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The first In-N-Out in Orange County

In-N-Out Burger, on N. Bristol Ave., as seen in 2018. (Photo by author)
Orange County's first In-N-Out Burger location, at 815 N. Bristol St. in Santa Ana, was demolished July 21, 2020. The family-owned chain—launched in 1948 in Baldwin Park by Harry and Esther Snyder and now headquartered in Irvine—didn’t add this first Orange County branch until 1975, the same year it added milkshakes to their notoriously brief menu. This Santa Ana restaurant opened with little fanfare, no indoor seating, and short drive-thru queues that failed to anticipate Orange County’s impending In-N-Out love affair.

Even the casual observer has seen the handwriting on the wall for this location for years now. First of all, it was almost the only remaining structure on that side of the block that hadn't already been removed for Bristol’s seemingly-eternal road-widening project. Secondly, the traffic for their two drive-thru windows had been regularly backed up into the street and blocking traffic for so many years that the city finally gave In-N-Out its own dedicated lane of Bristol. The lane helped, but was clearly an unwieldly kludge that couldn't last forever. So the ax has finally fallen on a building of little architectural note but of significance to the evolution of O.C.’s tastes and identity.

In-N-Out says they'll open a replacement next door on a larger parcel of land featuring more parking, a drive-thru with triple the capacity, outside seating for forty, and a larger kitchen.

When the discussion of Orange County's first In-N-Out comes up, it is often confused with Kwik Snak, which was once located at 1001 S. Main St., in Santa Ana. Alex “Big Al” Molnar bought an unremarkable “In and Out Drive-In” (no relation to today’s chain) in 1951 and turned it into a fast food favorite of local junior high and high school kids.
Al Molnar's Kwik Snak drive-thru was nicknamed "In and Out."
After it was renamed Kwik Snak, everyone still called it “In and Out.” Molnar greeted customers by name and mentored a lot of young locals. The stand was ahead of its time, using drive-in theater speakers and a microphone to take orders from cars. After he retired in the 1980s, Molnar continued to be an honored guest at many Santa Ana High School reunions. And in 1984 the Righteous Brothers, former customers, hired Molnar to run “Al’s Diner” in a corner of their 1950s-themed club, “The Hop.” Molnar died in 2004, but happy memories of him live on.

Sadly, we can't go to the Kwik Snak anymore, but we'll be back at the N. Bristol In-N-Out when it reopens in January 2021.

(Note: Parts of this article are based on shorter blurbs I wrote for Orange Coast magazine in 2015 and 2016.)