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'Grand Building of Them All' : Old Courthouse Glows in Its 86th Year

November 13, 1987|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times County Bureau Chief

With a band and balloons, a flag-raising and oratory, Orange County's old Courthouse was rededicated Thursday, 86 years to the day after its first open house and nearly four years after restoration began.

In the halls where men and women were married and divorced, where defendants were set free or sentenced to die, preservation buffs and the curious wandered, peering into cool, dark corners that contrasted sharply with bright sunshine in the shirt-sleeve weather outside.

William Spurgeon IV showed up to help with the rededication. Spurgeon's great-grandfather founded Santa Ana, served as its first mayor, and, for $8,000, provided the land at Broadway and Santa Ana Boulevard where the modified, Gothic-style courthouse stands.

Contractor's Grandson Attends

Murray Patton was there, too. Patton's grandfather was the contractor when ground was broken for the courthouse in 1900. Patton donated the carpenter's tools displayed in the building.

And there was Lecil Slaback, who came well before the noon ceremony and stayed late. Slaback's father, Lester, was a court reporter in the building from 1904 until he reached 70 in 1958.

Lester Slaback used to take down all the testimony in shorthand, and his wife, Laura, typed it up. Lecil, now 75, went to work in the building as a court reporter himself in 1936 and became the first in the county to use one of the newfangled, typewriter-like stenographic machines.

"We made a very specific commitment in our downtown to preserve our history, to rehabilitate our historic structures," Santa Ana Mayor Dan Young said during an hourlong ceremony on the lawn outside the courthouse.

"This is the grand building of them all. And we are just so utterly delighted to have it at the completion point now to where we can enjoy this facility and see it in its former charm."

Jane Gerber, who heads the Orange County Historical Commission and has been a leading force in the restoration, thanked Supervisor Roger R. Stanton and his staff for their help in the project. She told several hundred people gathered for the dedication that "today we witness the culmination of a dream of many people."

Several women wore turn-of-the-century dresses for the ceremony, and a few men came in gray, swallow-tail coats and formal top hats.

The county, with some help from state funds, spent $4.4 million to touch up the granite (originally quarried in Temecula, Riverside County) and sandstone (quarried in Flagstaff, Ariz.), lay tile floors, replicate the original lighting sconces and install girders to help the structure withstand earthquakes. The massive, two-story building cost $117,000 to build in 1901.

The courts abandoned the building when the new courthouse in downtown Santa Ana opened in 1968. In 1979, engineers warned that the aging structure could not withstand a major earthquake, evicted the remaining county workers and shut the building down.

Years of wrangling began over who would save the building, who would own it and who would use it, the county or the state. The county won.

Restoration ate up more years, during which the boarded-up windows and rubble-strewn floors gave the three-story structure the look of a building in downtown Beirut.

But two weeks ago, the final floor tiles arrived. On Monday, the lighting fixtures showed up. And on Thursday morning a replica of the court reporter's desk was hauled into place. The building was ready for the crowds.

On the top floor is a re-creation of Dept. 1 of the Orange County Superior Court as it looked in 1901, when George Moore and Harvey Brown pleaded guilty to burglary there and were sentenced to a year each in San Quentin Prison.

Across the hall is where a later courtroom was installed. It will now be used for historical exhibits.

The first floor is not yet restored, but county offices are expected eventually to be lodged there. When the building opened in 1901, it housed all the county offices--supervisors, sheriff, district attorney, assessor, recorder, judge.

Because of the earthquake reinforcement, if the Big One occurs, as scientists insist it will, "This is the place to be," said Evan Krewson, who managed the restoration on behalf of the county's General Services Agency.

The 1933 Long Beach earthquake caused a few cracks in the building and led officials to remove the cupola that helped make the structure the tallest in Orange County when it was built, at 135 feet. The cupola has not been restored; Krewson said it would cost more than $1 million to put a new one up.

Despite the worries of engineers in 1979, the building "rode it out wonderfully" when last month's earthquake hit at 5.9 on the Richter scale, Krewson said.

Reinforcing the building to make it earthquake proof was a major part of the restoration, but searches for authentic furnishings and fixtures also took time and effort, Krewson said, because "there were very few easy parts."

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