Thursday, July 01, 2021

Farewell to the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce Building

The new Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce building, 1938.

Until just a few weeks ago, the 1938 headquarters of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce still stood -- largely ignored -- on the last remaining stub of Church Street, next to the old Santa Ana Y.M.C.A. building. It had been boarded up for many years. But until now, those with a keen eye for architecture occasionally still stopped and admired the remnants of its distinctive architecture.

The building's story began in 1937, when County Supervisor Steel H. Finley led the Board in not renewing the lease on the land underneath the Chamber’s old offices. When the County purchased the defunct tourist hotel, St. Ann’s Inn in 1931 as their Courthouse Annex, they had leased some land on the hotel’s grounds to the Chamber of Commerce to build their own headquarters. But in the depths of the Great Depression, the growing County Welfare Department needed more space and Finley didn’t think County government should operate with insufficient space just to accommodate one city’s Chamber of Commerce. 

But the Chamber – only recently out of debt from building their headquarters at St. Anne’s – was in no hurry to incur the expenses of finding a new home. They offered to move the building up on the lot to make room for new construction. They offered to sell the building to the County for a fair price. There was even some talk of letting the county use part of the building while the Chamber continued to use the rest. But the County wanted the Chamber off their property and were annoyed by the Chamber’s constant attempts to find a work-around. Although the County offered $3,500 to buy the old Chamber building, they threatened to revoke the offer if the Chamber continued to displease them. (Ultimately, the County paid and converted the building into offices for the Welfare Department.) 

Knowing they’d be evicted at the beginning of February 1938, the Chamber of Commerce made plans for a new facility. They arranged a 15-year lease from the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) on a piece of landscaped turf next to the Y.M.C.A. build at Church St. (now Civic Center Dr.) and Sycamore St.  A groundbreaking ceremony for the new building was held on January 1, 1938, and a building permit was pulled on January 6. Plans showed a 50-foot by 25-foot concrete building with three rooms. The architecture firm of Austin & Wildman (W. Horace Austin and H. C. Wildman) was hired to design the building an also to supervise its construction. The contractors were Stark and Schmid (Adolf G. Schmid and A.B. Stark). 

Groundbreaking (Santa Ana Regsiter, Jan. 6, 1938)

Austin & Wildman had offices in Long Beach and in Santa Ana’s Spurgeon Building. Their projects included some of the most impressive structures ever to grace Santa Ana, including the beautiful art-deco Emma L. French Building (1933) at 4th St. and Main (housing Montgomery Ward) and the Assyrian-themed City Hall (1935) at Third St. and Main. Among their other Santa Ana projects were the New Walker Theater (1936, behind City Hall), Pay-Less Market (1937, at Sycamore and 3rd St), Santa Ana Junior College, the Ludlum Carpet Cleaners Building (ca 1939 at 1622 S. Main), office buildings, and numerous school additions and remodels. They also remodeled the Café/See’s Candy building (1939) at Main and 3rd St – which remains a subdued but attractive landmark to this day.

Austin & Wildman also did a great deal of work in other Southern California communities, including Placentia’s City Hall (ca 1940), a theater in Garden Grove (ca 1940), the auditorium at Tustin Grammar School (1941), and the Uddo & Taormina Corp (a.k.a. Progresso) Cannery (1941) at 900 S. Grand in Buena Park. 

The new Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce building would be a little Streamline Moderne gem, tucked between “the Y” and Spurgeon Methodist Church. 

Compare this 2021 view to the 1930s view at the top of this post.

After spending a couple months in temporary quarters at 109 E. 5th St., the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce moved into their new art deco building at 209 Church Street on March 9,1938. The new facility’s cost, including furnishings, was $5,953. "Light and airy, the lounge of the present offices offers a pleasant retreat" opined the Santa Ana Register. 

For an organization which, among other things, extolled Santa Ana’s excellent weather and business climate, the Chamber’s new office opened, ironically, amid one of Orange County's worst-ever months of storms and flooding and in the middle of the Great Depression.  Still, the little building served them well for nine years of explosive change in Santa Ana. By the time the Chamber moved out in 1947, the Depression had come and gone, World War II had been fought and won, the local population had begun what would become a shocking expansion, and Orange County's entire economy had begun to move inexorably from agriculture to suburbia.

After the Chamber moved out, the Young Women’s Christian Association moved in for a short while. 

Throughout the 1950s the little building was occupied by the local office of the U.S. Selective Service System, with offices for draft boards 133, 134, and 135 -- a landmark of Orange County's involvement in the Korean War.

Chamber building, 2021 (Photo by author)

From at least the mid-1980s until at least 2021, the Y.M.C.A. building and presumably the Chamber building were vacant and left to decay. In 1992, the property was purchased by the City of Santa Ana. Since that time, numerous offers were made by non-profits, businesses, and government agencies to buy, restore, and repurpose the building. All of these offers were either turned down or fell through when costs to revamp the site proved higher than expected. As a smaller, auxiliary building, the old Chamber of Commerce office was usually little more than an afterthought in these various plans.

In early 2019, after the Orange County School for the Arts backed out of deal to acquire the Y.M.C.A. property, the Santa Ana City Council identified developer Caribou Industries as the best organization to receive the property. Caribou's plans call for adaptive reuse of the main Y.M.C.A. building as a boutique hotel, and for new construction on the site of the now-rotted-beyond-repair gymnasium. It appears that the Chamber of Commerce building wasn't part of the plan either, seeing as the little deco building has just disappeared. In fact, the space where the Chamber sat is needed for both a new ADA-compliant entrance (avoiding alterations to the beautiful south and east elevations of the Y.M.C.A.) and for an entry to the new building that will sit behind it. It's sad, but if this is what it takes to make the long-awaited restoration and adaptive reuse of the historic Y.M.C.A. feasible, then it will at least have given its life for a good cause. I'm hoping this will be like the old Uncle Wiggily board game: "Take one hop back and three hops forward." Let the Y.M.C.A. restoration (at long last) begin.

The empty spot where the Chamber building used to be. June 23, 2021.