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Neighborhoods Living in the Past : Districts Keep Architectural Legacies Alive


When used collectively, the words Orange County and housing usually denote new --as in new, look-alike peach-and-earth-toned stucco tract homes in pristine planned communities.

But sheltered in scattered pockets around the county are homes that are anything but new.

They might be large Craftsman Bungalows built from 1905 to 1920 with such natural materials as field stone and brick, painted in natural tones of green and beige, and featuring exposed rafter ends and big windows.

Or they might be Tudor Revivals, popular in the 1920s, with half-timbered framing and massive medieval chimneys. Or Queen Anne-style Victorians with wraparound porches, fish-scale shingles, bay windows and turrets.

Occupants of most of these houses pride themselves on the originality of their homes' decorating schemes. Community planning in these areas of one-car-garage homes was done, if at all, as part of a neighborhood renovation.

These are Orange County's historic neighborhoods.

They range from San Juan Capistrano's Los Rios Historic District of board-and-batten cottages and adobes dating back to 1794 to a Streamlined Art Moderne mansion, circa 1935, in fashionable North Santa Ana.

In between are the Tudor and Spanish Colonial revivals of Fullerton, the Victorians of old Tustin, the Colonial Revivals of Santa Ana's French Park and Orange's Old Towne, and the California Cottages of coastal Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.

Architectural historian Diann Marsh of Santa Ana says she finds it difficult to think of places in Orange County that are unlikely candidates for historic homes.

A French Park resident and president of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, Marsh is scheduled to answer the questions "Is Your House Historic? And What Does That Mean?" in a lecture and tour today in Santa Ana.

The 1 to 4 p.m. tour begins at the Queen Anne-style Dr. Howe-Waffle House museum at Civic Center Drive and Sycamore Street. Tickets are $3 at the door.

Participants should wear walking shoes because Marsh plans to lead a tour through several historic neighborhoods in the area, as well as the former Dr. Julius A. Crane residence, now known as the California Federal Bank building and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Both Santa Ana and Fullerton grew tremendously in the 1920s, and as a result, both cities have large numbers of Spanish Colonial and Tudor-style houses.

Orange, in contrast, had a growth spurt from 1900 to 1905, and its new residents built Colonial Revival houses, characterized by narrow clapboard siding, hipped roofs, leaded glass, transom windows, columns and neoclassical details.

How can you tell if a house is historic?

The first step is to check the historic building surveys that have been done by all of the older cities in Orange County. Some cities (Placentia is one) have local historic registers. Buildings must be listed on it to receive historic preservation funds or federal block grant funds.

In defining a historic house, Marsh uses the same criteria used by the National Register of Historic Places--the building must be at least 50 years old and it must fit into one of several categories, such as these: The building represents an era when something important happened in local or national history; a famous individual was associated with the building during the time he or she was famous, or the building is a good example of a certain kind of architecture, was built by a famous architect or is in a historic district.

Most historic buildings qualify because of the last criterion.

Santa Ana, Fullerton, Orange and Tustin all have local historic districts established by their city councils.

Established in 1981, the French Park Historic District in Santa Ana--where Marsh lives in an 1883 Italianate--hosts Craftsman and Colonial Revival homes, many of which were in jeopardy of meeting a wrecking ball.

"It used to be that you could tear down the average-size house and put 10-unit (apartments) in its place. Now that it has been down-zoned, it's no longer feasible for developers," Marsh said.

She credits the establishment of the historic district with unifying the neighborhood and bringing people together. Now, old homes are being moved into French Park--some privately, some by the city and some by the historic district, which qualifies for various preservation grants.

Marsh's home, once scheduled to be torn down to make room for an apartment building on East 6th Street, was moved twice before it reached its French Park location.

Marsh acknowledges that the word historic can strike fear into the hearts of property owners, and she is eager to dispel myths about what it means to have a historic house or to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "There are more rumors about the National Register than about Elvis Presley," she said.

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