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 a large 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 (courtesy County of Orange)."The Plaza” is literally in the shape of an oval. Go measure it," notes local Larry Hockensmith. "If you want to misname The Plaza, at least misname it correctly as 'The Oval.'"

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." 

Indeed, it was during those years between the 1963 ad and the 1972 article that the "Orange Circle” nickname 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 don’t it [might be] the other thing.”

Indeed, to those with deep roots in town, use of the term “Circle” was an easy-to-spot 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 Los Angeles 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 by Orange High alumni over bacon and eggs at Watson's.

Adding fuel to the fire, a few local businesses began using the word "Circle" in their name, just as many others used "Plaza" in theirs. "Circle" establishments included Orange Circle Antique Mall and the Circle City Club. (This nightclub's name ignored the fact that "the Circle City" was already the well-established nickname of the nearby city of Corona.)

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 the great City of Orange Historian, Orange native, Orange County Archivist, 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, Big 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 L.A. Times 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. 

Two t-shirt designs from the weirdly-named Team Swollen.