Here’s a quick overview of where to find the best examples of architecture that spans over 200 years of history, presented roughly in chronological order. Specific information about guided or self-guided tours is available by following the links.
San Juan Capistrano’s architecture spans OC’s full history, beginning with the Mission San Juan Capistrano (1776). The historic downtown and adjacent Los Rios District contain buildings, sites and artifacts that tell the story of the Native Americans who inhabited the area originally, and subsequent residents during the Spanish era (1776-1820), the Mexican/Rancho era (1821-1847), the Statehood era (1850-1900) and the 20th century. Twentieth century additions include the Michael Graves-designed regional library (1983) and, across the street, the beautiful Mission Basilica (1984). Designed by architect John Bartlett with interior decoration by Norman Neuerberg, the church’s design is 20% larger, but is patterned after the Mission’s original Great Stone Church, which was destroyed in 1812 by an earthquake. The Mission San Juan Capistrano offers guided and audio tours. Guided walking historical and architectural tours are available once each weekend.
Old Towne Orange is the largest National Register District in California. Within the one square-mile district surrounding the original plaza is the state’s second largest concentration of historic buildings. The vibrant commercial district contains OC’s oldest operating bank and soda fountain. Surrounding the commercial core are four residential neighborhoods with examples of Victorian, Craftsman, Bungalow and Spanish architecture ranging from the 1880s to the 1930s. Downtown historical walking tours are offered twice monthly; also an annual home tour in November.
Old Town Tustin features a number of residences, businesses and churches dating back to the 1880s, all within easy walking distance. To explore them on your own, a guide to historic structures is available online or from the Tustin Area Historical Society museum.
Arden—Helena Modjeska Historic House & Gardens: Tucked into the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains is a little architectural jewel designed by famous New York architect Stanford White. Built in 1888, it was the home of Poland’s renowned Shakespearean actress, Madame Helena Modjeska, who ventured to America in 1876 in search of an idyllic retreat. The home and gardens, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, recapture the ambiance of her time. Available for guided tours with prior reservations.
Old OC Courthouse: The County of Orange was established in 1889 with the city of Santa Ana as its seat. The oldest courthouse in Southern California was completed in 1901, designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style and constructed with red Arizona sandstone. It still occupies a prominent spot in Santa Ana’s historic downtown. Check out the ornate main staircase and the historic courtroom. Open weekdays during regular business hours.
French Park & Floral Park, Santa Ana: Located north of downtown are two of Santa Ana’s oldest neighborhoods. French Park covers 20 square blocks, its streets are lined with large homes built between the 1890s and 1920s by some of OC’s most prominent citizens. Floral Park consists of more than 600 unique and stylish homes built between 1920s and 1950s, set among gracious tree-lined streets. Floral Park holds a home and garden tour annually in April; French Park holds an annual holiday home tour in December.
Balboa Pavilion/Balboa Ferry/Balboa Island: Visitors have been flocking to Balboa since 1906 when it became the southern terminus for Pacific Electric’s coastal route. The 1906 Victorian Balboa Pavilion still graces Newport Harbor. Take the short ride on the Balboa Ferry, that has been carrying passengers on foot and behind the wheel since 1919. Walk around Balboa Island to catch the flavor of this historic beach resort community and check out the great examples of California beach bungalow architecture. Two-hour guided walking tours are available on Saturdays.
Downtown Fullerton: Founded in 1887, Fullerton’s vibrant downtown is home to more than 70 historic buildings dating from 1905-1949, thirteen of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Pick up or download a self-guided Downtown Fullerton Walking Tour map or take a guided tour on Saturday mornings.
Historic Laguna Beach Bungalows: An early destination for artists, filmmakers and Southern California vacationers, Laguna Beach has fabulous examples of historic bungalow architecture. Start at the 1923 Murphy Smith Bungalow (278 Ocean Ave.) or drop by the Visitor Center to pick up a tour map for a self-guided bungalow tour.
The Santora Building in historic downtown Santa Ana was designed by Frank Lansdowne, one of the premier architects of the region. Construction began in 1928. A great example of the Churrigueresque variant of Spanish Colonial Revival design, the building was an elegant shopping mall in its day. The second floor Daninger’s Tea Room attracted a clientele that included many Hollywood celebrities. Today, the Santora Building houses art galleries and restaurants.
Crystal Cove Historic District: This little seaside colony developed during the 1930s and 40s in a picturesque cove that was originally used as a South Seas movie set. On the National Register of Historic Places, the beach cottages still stand and are in various stages of restoration. Crystal Cove is a magnet for artists and for those looking for an opportunity to experience an authentic piece of California’s coastal history. Explore on your own or take a guided tour on the 2nd Saturday of each month.
Dana Point & San Clemente: The developers of both south Orange County communities were driven by the vision of creating Mediterranean villages by the sea, fueled in the late 1920s and 1930s by the extension of Pacific Coast Highway and Southern Californians’ increased ability to travel by car. Dana Point was envisioned by S.H. Woodruff, who developed Hollywoodland. Begin your self-guided tour with Dana Point’s Driving Tours map, which details historical structures in town. Heading further south, stop at Casa Romantica, the former home of San Clemente visionary Ole Hanson, then wander around San Clemente’s historic downtown, enjoying its gracious Mediterranean architecture.
The Tustin Hangars: While they are not open to the public, these two massive hangars are visible from many points in the county and are worth mentioning because they are two of the largest wooden structures ever to have been built. They are 17 stories high, 1,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and cover 5 acres of floor space under one roof. These enormous WWII-era hangars were constructed to house the Navy blimps entrusted with insuring the safety of the West Coast during wartime. Until it closed in 1999, the base continued to play an important role in naval aviation for over 50 years, becoming a helicopter base, and finally functioning as the Marine Corps’ principal helicopter facility for the Pacific Region. The distinctive hangars have been a magnet for filmmakers in recent years.
Disneyland: When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt Disney showed the world something that had never been done before. Out of a 160-acre citrus grove in semi-rural Orange County sprouted a new kind of “magical park,” away from everyday reality, where children and parents could have fun together. There would be five uniquely different lands: Main St. USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Financiers had a difficult time grasping the concept, but thanks to Walt Disney’s early entrance into television in 1954, the American people quickly embraced the idea. Construction for the park began a meager 12 months before it was scheduled to open. While opening day was a disaster, some 50 million visitors entered the gates in Disneyland’s first ten years.
Eichler Homes: Joseph Eichler was a 20th century postwar real estate developer known for building distinctive residential subdivisions of mid-century modern style tract houses in both Northern and Southern California. The homes were architect-designed, mass produced and affordable. Based on Eichler’s vision of “bringing the outside in,” these distinctive homes feature glass walls, post-and-beam construction and open floorplans. The City of Orange has 350 of the 600 Eichler homes built in Southern California. Three separate tracts were built between 1960-63: Fairhaven, Fairmeadow and Fairhills. Fullerton also has a district of “Forever Homes,” built between 1953-56 by local developer Pardee-Phillips, using designs by Eichler’s two main architects.
William Pereira and the development of the Irvine Ranch: The William Pereira-designed University of California Irvine campus opened in the mid-1960s, with buildings that had a clean, modern, futuristic look. Architect Pereira served a brief stint as a Hollywood Art Director in the 1940s. He went on to design some of California’s most distinctive buildings, including the Theme Building at LAX and San Francisco’s Transamerica Tower. He also created the master plans for the OC cities of Newport Beach and Irvine, which put him on the cover of Time Magazine in 1963.
Crystal Cathedral: This landmark structure, designed by American architect Philip Johnson, was completed in 1980. Rev. Robert Schuller envisioned a glass structure, reminiscent of his first days of preaching under the open sky at the Orange Drive-In Theater in 1955. The Cathedral is home to the internationally broadcasted Hour of Power television program and the church’s 273 rank, five manual pipe organ, one of the largest in the world. Additional buildings on the campus were designed by renowned architects Richard Neutra and Richard Meier. Tours are currently available Mon-Sat. from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., although a potential change in ownership is pending.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts: In 1986, Orange County declared its cultural independence from Los Angeles with the opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s 3,000 seat Segerstrom Hall. Charles Lawrence served as lead architect; an international team of Dr. A. Harold Marshall, Dennis Paoletti and Jerald R. Hyde designed the acoustics. The building features Richard Lippold’s dramatic Fire Bird flying out of the distinctive portal. In 2006, the 2,000-seat Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall and 500-seat multi-use Samueli Theater were added to the complex. The beautiful design, featuring a curving glass façade, is the work of internationally respected architect Cesar Pelli, working in concert with the dean of American acousticians, Russell Johnson. The plaza uniting the halls was designed by Peter Walker and Partners and is graced by Richard Serra’s Connector. The complex was renamed Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 2011. Behind-the scenes tours are available Wed. & Sat.
Significant Public Art: Little pieces of OC’s story and personality ooze out of the public art pieces that are sprinkled around the county—inviting exploration. In Costa Mesa’s Theater & Arts District, don’t miss Isamu Noguchi’s amazing California Scenario and many more pieces by world-renowned artists. OC’s art colony, Laguna Beach bursts with public art on benches, murals, banners and park installations. Brea’s public art inhabits both public and corporate spaces. Huntington Beach celebrates its surfing culture with downtown public art around City Beach and Pier Plaza. A huge bronze John Wayne statue greets you at the airport that bears his name. Another bronze statue commemorates the county’s vibrant Vietnamese community and the shared sacrifice of both cultures at Vietnam War Memorial in Westminster. And Maya Lin, the designer of the starkly-beautiful national Vietnam War Memorial, designed UC Irvine’s contemplative Arts Plaza.