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A Walk Into the Past : Proud Old Courthouse Will Come Back to Life With a Flourish

July 23, 1988|MARCIDA DODSON | Times Staff Writer

Through the years, thousands of people--assorted criminals, attorneys, witnesses, defendants and plaintiffs--have paraded past the imposing, intimidating judge's bench in Orange County's venerable courthouse. But perhaps only Lecil Slaback has romped on it.

About 70 years ago, while his father, court reporter Lester W. Slaback, and his mother, Laura, a typist, worked late into the night, turning the day's trials into typed transcripts, the cavernous courtroom became young Lecil's personal playground.

He used to jump onto the judge's revolving bookcases, turning the shelves into a twirling merry-go-round. He climbed the judge's bench, a virtual mountain to a tyke, and darted among the rows of spectator seats. Then, tuckered out from his solitary play, he would lie down on a coat spread over a bench and drift off to sleep.

"I was kind of raised in this courthouse," Slaback, now 76, said recently while sitting on one of the polished oak benches in the stately, turn-of-the-century chamber.

"It would be all dark in here, with the only light coming from the court reporter's office," said Slaback, who in 1936 returned to his playground to follow in his father's footsteps as a court reporter until his own retirement 15 years ago. "I was quiet while they were busy working. It was all very mysterious and scary to a little kid."

Slaback's recollection, though unique, is one of countless memories the 87-year-old Orange County courthouse holds. The distinctive stone hall of justice in downtown Santa Ana, the oldest existing courthouse in Southern California, has witnessed thousands of marriages, divorces, family feuds and other less-than-amicable disputes. It has heard impassioned pleas for justice and cries for mercy. It has been host to scores of accused murderers, rapists and thieves. And during Prohibition, its sewer drank untold gallons of confiscated liquor poured into it by county officials.

The courthouse, a state historic landmark that also is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, has been quiet and virtually empty for a decade, losing its trials in the late 1960s to an 11-story courthouse building a few blocks away and its office workers after a 1979 study found the old building seismically unsafe.

But now, nearly 10 years and $4.4 million later, the red sandstone jewel is about to come back to life. Bolstered to withstand a hefty earthquake and restored to appear much as it did in the early 1900s, the courthouse building, including a museum in what once was the second courtroom, will reopen to the public in August as part of the county's centennial festivities.

Plans call for docents to guide groups through a museum exhibit, the original Department 1 courtroom, judge's chambers, jury room and court reporter's office on Tuesdays between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., beginning Aug. 5. In October, school tours will be added on Thursdays.

"We've taken care to make sure the museum is a showplace," said Evan Krewson, senior project manager with the county's General Services Agency, which supervised the renovation. "We wanted to make it a window to the world, a place to enjoy, a walk into the past."

An architectural incongruity sitting amid swaying palm trees, the Midwestern-looking courthouse cost $117,000 to build and was already outdated inside and out when it was dedicated in 1901. The style, called modified Richardson Romanesque, was much used for buildings in the 1870s, but its popularity had waned by the turn of the century. The single courtroom, Department 1, was so overloaded that a second courtroom was added 13 years later by moving out the county offices that occupied the space across the hall.

Curiously, the building's most distinctive feature, its red sandstone exterior, was a deviation from the original plans, which called for lighter-colored Chatsworth Park stone. Sandstone supposedly absorbed less moisture and was easier to work with, but, according to a pamphlet by county historian Jim Sleeper, it is a good bet that the downtown Santa Ana location of Arizona Sandstone Co.'s office also helped account for the switch.

Another distinctive architectural feature of the original building--a turreted, decorative tower--is now only a memory. The 135-foot cupola, the highest structure in the county when it was built, fell victim to the massive 1933 Long Beach earthquake. It was removed, the official story goes, because an aftershock damaged the tower and made it unsafe.

But Krewson has a different theory.

"Nothing was wrong with that tower. It rode through the earthquake without any (structural) damage whatsoever," he said. He believes that the temblor gave officials a convenient excuse to dispose of the difficult problem of maintenance of the tower.

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