When Vern and Marilyn Dorn sold their "average tract house" in Fullerton to buy a turn-of-the-century wood-frame house in the oldest residential section of Orange in 1976, their friends questioned their sanity.
If there was ever a house that defined the term "fixer-upper," the $45,000 two-story house on South Olive Street was it: Twenty-two windows were broken. The front porch sagged. The sewer pipes were rotten. The upstairs was lit with bare light bulbs strung from room to room with extension cords. The plaster on the walls was cracked, exposing the lath in the children's bedrooms. The soft cedar floors were gouged. Brittle asbestos shingles covered the exterior clapboard siding. And the back yard was choked with weeds.
"Everything," says Marilyn Dorn, "was a mess."
But the Dorns saw beyond all that. They saw beyond the rewiring job, the new roof and the installation of drywall in all but three of the 22 rooms. They saw beyond the exterior and interior painting, the wallpapering and the stripping of half a dozen layers of paint on the built-in redwood china cabinet and wainscoting in the dining room. And they saw beyond having to eat out for two months while the kitchen was torn up and the 11 solid months of working on the house weeknights until 1 or 2 in the morning and all day on weekends.
Today, the Dorns' antique-filled 1901 Classic Revival house is one of the finest old homes in an area that has become well-known for its old homes: Old Towne Orange, the largest concentration of pre-1940 houses in Orange County.
With the restored Old Towne Plaza at its core, the mile-square area boasts more than 1,400 vintage homes that reflect a diversity of architectural styles ranging from 1880s Victorian to 1930s Mediterranean Revival.
The Dorns and their five children were among the first of a wave of newcomers settling in Old Towne, many of them "thirtysomething" couples with children and DINKs (couples with double incomes and no kids). They are breathing new life into the old tree-lined neighborhoods of the city, which is celebrating its centennial this year.
Tired of living in look-alike stucco tract houses in homogenized suburban communities, they are lured by the small-town atmosphere and sense of community in a city that has taken steps to preserve and enhance its old downtown area and--above all--the custom qualities and features of houses that don't look exactly like their neighbors'.
"It's so different than living in a tract," said Marilyn Dorn, 45. "Ever since we had been married we had talked about living in an old house. It's emotional, a romantic thing. You picture the furnishings and how they lived in those days."
"Every house in Old Towne is as different as the people living in it," said Bill Smith, 40, whose wife, Tita, and their four children live in an 1888 two-story Victorian Italianate house that features 6-foot-tall windows with detailed eaves and scrollwork.
Tita Smith, who grew up in Old Towne, said she and her husband agreed when they got married that they didn't want to live in a tract house. It's not that there's anything wrong with living in a tract, the Smiths say. It's just not right for them. They wanted to live in an old house in an old neighborhood where they could feel safe taking a walk at night alone: Old Towne.
"We liked the atmosphere of it: all the trees, that neighborhood feeling of people sitting on their front porch and walking up and down the street," said Tita Smith, 40. "It's close to parks, the church, library--everything you'd need in daily living you can walk to."
Dan Slater of Orange Realty Associates said that until several years ago Old Towne was regarded as a declining area. With much of the area zoned for double or multiple residences, he said, Old Towne had a lot of rentals and was a good place for first-time home buyers to find bargains.
"Now," said Slater, "Old Towne isn't a bargain anymore."
The prices of houses in Old Towne have increased dramatically in recent years because of the trend of the real estate market and also the growing desirability of vintage homes. Slater said a 2,800-square-foot Mediterranean Revival recently sold for $277,000. ("It was nice but had some problems.") Some homes sell for even more, and virtually nothing sells for less than $150,000.
"People have started recognizing the quality and charm of the old houses," said Nick Ross, a broker with Orange Realty Associates. "It's become a real strong trend. Now the hottest thing is to buy and fix up a vintage house."
Indeed, because of the higher prices, most people buying homes in Old Towne are no longer bargain-hunting first-time buyers and investors looking for inexpensive rental properties. Now, Slater said, "it's people that have the patience to actually improve the properties and put a lot of time and money into them."
People such as construction manager Norm Fast and his wife, Dr. Barbara Towne, a pediatric surgeon.