When architects for the Orange County Performing Arts Center were chosen in the spring of 1981, the first name announced was Claudill Rowlett Scott, a giant Houston-based design and engineering firm with sufficient prestige to dazzle potential fund-raisers.
Only two weeks later did the public learn that the design of Costa Mesa's ambitious, theatrical landmark would be done in joint venture with the Blurock Partnership, a much smaller, local architectural firm.
The Blurock partners say they considered the delayed announcement of their firm's selection "a little disappointing," and they believe that partly because of it many people won't know Blurock's role in the project when the Center opens later this month.
"Even to this day I don't think that they (the Blurock partners) get the same recognition" for working on the Center, said Ray Watson, who chaired the committee that selected CRS and Blurock.
But in the long run, Blurock partners expect that their firm's participation in the creation of the Center will catapult it into prominence as a theater architect. Already Blurock has begun to compete for more theater contracts and says it has landed tentative agreements to design 20 amphitheaters throughout the nation in the next five years.
In fact, associating with larger and more illustrious firms is the kind of compromise that Blurock has made throughout its 30-year history to become Orange County's longest surviving and one of its largest home-grown architectural businesses.
It was Blurock, after all, that sought out CRS (which later through a merger with another firm became CRSS) as a joint venture partner when it looked as if such an association would be essential to win the Performing Arts Center project in competition against bigger-name, out-of-town architectural firms.
Other contenders included Los Angeles-based Welton Beckett, which designed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill partnership in San Francisco whose bid was championed by Henry Segerstrom, one of the Orange County Center's principal benefactors.
Bill Blurock, the firm's chairman and chief executive officer, said that although he was elated that his firm survived the first cut made by the Center's facilities committee, that wasn't enough. "We felt we also wanted the job," he said of the project, which he coveted as "the most prestigious that has ever come along in the county."
Big in County
With annual fees of $4 million and 13 architect partners, Blurock is one of the biggest fish among Orange County-based architectural firms, but the privately owned firm is a minnow compared to CRSS, a publicly held corporation which reaped $357 million in gross revenue in its last fiscal year.
And although Blurock had built numerous school theaters and auditoriums, including a performing arts complex in El Cajon, before tackling the 3,200-seat Orange County Performing Arts Center, it had done nothing to compare with the three huge performance centers that CRSS had designed in Houston; Akron, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky.
Those involved in the development of the Orange County Center say Blurock was shrewd to have aligned itself with CRSS. "They would not have gotten the job without CRSS," said John Rau, who was president and chief executive officer of the Center when the architectural team was selected. He added, "I'm sure they've gotten a hell of a boost to their reputation."
Swallowing its pride, Blurock agreed that CRSS would supply the lead design architect, while Blurock's architects would take on the less glamorous and more detailed job of producing working blueprints and supervising day-to-day construction.
Similarly, in the mid 1950s Blurock plunged into what ultimately evolved into a lucrative business of designing community colleges by associating with a larger Los Angeles architectural company, Neutra & Alexander, to work on the first buildings at Orange Coast College. Later Blurock became the lead architect at that Costa Mesa campus.
Blurock further enhanced its stature as a community college architect and gained what later would prove to be an important professional association when it joined with CRSS in the 1960s to design Cypress College.
Over the years, Blurock earned a local as well as international reputation as a designer of schools and community colleges. Chances are that anyone raised in Orange County will have attended an elementary, junior high or high school designed by the firm. In addition, the company says it has done architectural work on nine of the county's 10 community college campuses.
Under contract with Irvine-based Far West Services, subsequently acquired by W.R. Grace, Blurock also designed more than 300 restaurants throughout the country, including numerous Coco's and Rueben's outlets and three floating replicas of Mississippi river boats, the first of which was the Reuben E. Lee in Newport Beach.