In a county known for its youth and its often-breathtaking rate of change, the Plaza neighborhood in Orange has maintained a dogged hold on the past that has become more apparent with each passing year.
The Plaza, and the blocks of Glassell Street and Chapman Avenue radiating from its hub, are a kind of concentrated anachronism in Orange County, a studied throwback to days when women carried parasols, men wore derbies and loud traffic sounds meant a horse whinny.
The Plaza originates where Glassell Street and Chapman Avenue meet, or rather where they form a traffic circle around a central fountain and garden area, from which tall evergreens and palms grow. Most of the buildings on the Plaza and the adjacent blocks date from 1905 to about 1920 and often feature the sort of showy exteriors--columns, pediments, cornices, scrolls and fancy brickwork--seldom seen in Southern California.
It is so singular a sight in the county, in fact, that in 1982 the area was officially listed as a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, where livery stables, mercantile shops and shops dealing in farm implements once flourished, merchants make their profits largely through the district's most obvious commodity: the past. In the four blocks radiating from the Plaza, there are nearly 30 antique shops that house almost 200 separate antique dealers, according to Deena Zachritz, president of the Old Orange Antique Dealers Association.
"We draw people from San Diego to Santa Barbara, and they just come here and stay all day," said Jim McDonald, who, with his wife, Shirley, has owned an antique shop in the district, the Antique Affair, for 12 years.
The shop, he said, was once a livery stable.
"When we first came to town, there were maybe four dealers in the Plaza area," McDonald said. "Rents were reasonable then, the town was antique-ish and quaint, and things just started snowballing."
Other businesses in the area, apparently realizing like McDonald that nostalgia is marketable in Orange, have made little effort to look modern. One of the more obvious old-timers is Watson's Drugs and Soda Fountain, just east of the Plaza on Chapman Avenue. First established next to its present location in 1899, it's the oldest drugstore in Orange County and the oldest ongoing business in Orange.
Today, the big draw at Watson's is the soda fountain, which dates from 1946. It features red swiveling stools, period advertisements and serves what the menu calls "all your ice cream dreams." The malts, which owner Scott Parker said are made in the traditional metal containers attached to a blender, fill 1 1/2 shake glasses "like in the old days."
Zachritz also runs a soda fountain, done in bright pinks and imported from Kansas, at her antique shop on Glassell Street north of the Plaza. Called the Rocking Chair Emporium, the shop specializes in antique rocking chairs and hat pins.
Zachritz said she gets much of her amusement from the soda fountain customers: "People just aren't used to eating ice cream while they're sitting down. We try to teach people that ice cream isn't a type of fast food."
Local residents and business people also try to teach people to refer to the Plaza as a plaza and not the more commonly used word, circle.
"People who've been around here a long time tend to get upset when you use that word," circle, said Joanne Coontz, an Orange councilwoman and the immediate past president of the Orange Community Historical Society.
The area attracts its largest crowds of the year, Coontz said, during Washington's Birthday weekend in February, when an antique fair is held, and during Labor Day weekend, when local civic groups block off the streets leading to the Plaza for the International Street Fair.
"It's kind of the symbolic center of Orange," said Phil Brigandi, a local historian. "It's really a vibrant area now, and everything you're looking at is just about the way you would have seen it in 1915 or 1920. There's such a mix of architecture.
"A single building, no matter how wonderful, can never have the impact of a whole row, one after the other, like you can see there. You see it unfold around you and there's a real ambiance. It's a mood that grows on you."
THE ORANGE PLAZA NEIGHBORHOOD AT A GLANCE
Where: The circular plaza at the junction of Glassell Street and Chapman Avenue in Orange, and the four-block business district on those streets as they radiate from the plaza.
Getting there: Chapman Avenue exit from the Costa Mesa Freeway and west; Chapman Avenue exit from the Santa Ana Freeway and east; Glassell Street exit from the Garden Grove Freeway and north.
History: Most buildings date from 1905 to around 1920 and are ornate and well-preserved. Designated a historical neighborhood by National Register of Historic Places.
Shops and other businesses: Dominated by nearly 30 antique stores from which operate almost 200 separate dealers. Restaurants, bars, banks, drugstores and specialty shops are also in the area. Two soda fountains, at Watson's Drugs & Soda Fountain and at the Rocking Chair Emporium, have become popular.
Parking: Metered parking on streets, some free parking in small lots off streets.