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Memory Lanes on Your Block

Books: Old Towne Orange guide offers historic look at pre-1940 homes and buildings.

July 07, 1999|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County trivia question: Where can you walk 26 miles and see 1,500 historical structures without leaving a one-square-mile area?

The answer is Old Towne Orange, and if you want to wear out some shoe leather and check out Orange County's most impressive collection of pre-1940 homes and buildings, historian Doug Westfall has just what you need to do it.

His self-published "A Tour of Old Towne Orange" (Paragon Agency; $18.71) is a comprehensive walking tour of California's largest historic district: some 1,500 listings--business buildings, industrial structures, churches, schools, a 70-year-old hospital and hundreds of homes ranging from an 1874 Victorian Italinate to a 1940 Western False Front.

The 365-page soft-cover book, which is illustrated with more than 100 old photos, maps and drawings, consists primarily of address listings by street. The listings include the year each home was built, an architectural description, whether it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, whether it has won any awards and, in some cases, who built it and who once lived there.

The book also includes five smaller tours. As Westfall says, "Nobody's going to walk 26 miles if they're sane."

A walking tour of Old Towne Orange, according to Westfall, would add up to 26 miles if someone walked every street in the square-mile district just once.

One of the mini-tours is of the Plaza Park, which was created in 1886. Westfall provides a diagram showing the location of the park's 13 types of trees, two of which (a date palm and a California fan palm) were planted circa 1890.

The book was written, compiled and published by Westfall, who operates the Paragon Agency, an electronic publishing house specializing in historic books.

He works out of his home, which, not surprisingly, is in Orange.

Westfall has lived there 15 years; his wife, Jackie, who helped with the design and layout of the book, has been there 25 years.

But the couple doesn't live in an 1890 Spanish Colonial Revival, a 1912 Craftsman Bungalow or a 1922 Normandy Eclectic.

"We're one block outside Old Towne, so close you can taste it," said Westfall, adding a bit apologetically: "We live in a '50s model home, which I like anyway."

The Los Angeles-born publisher said he moved to Orange from Whittier in 1984 to eliminate the commute to his job in Tustin as a corporate trainer for a computer company.

"I'd known about Orange since I was a kid," said Westfall, 49, who was attracted by Old Towne Orange's "quaintness, the historic value of it, and the tree-lined streets--the same things that are there today.

"The purpose of the book was to inform people, even at the county level, of the value that's here in this one square mile. There's about 782 square miles of Orange County, and this one square mile is something we should preserve."

Although Old Towne Orange is a registered historic district, with 90% of its 1,500 homes and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Westfall said that designation offers no guarantee that the area's homes and buildings will maintain their historic integrity. Or even avoid demolition.

"You could destroy a [registered] house tomorrow and it simply gets de-listed," he said. "There is no protection whatsoever."

Although various small walking-tour maps and pamphlets of Old Towne Orange have been printed over the years, and Phil Brigandi and Karen Wilson Turnbull's 1990 book, "A Place Called Home: Orange's Architectural Legacy" listed 45 homes, nothing of the magnitude of listings in Westfall's book has ever been published.

"I think it's the historic home encyclopedia for the Old Towne area; it's a great reference," said Fred Gillett, president of the Old Towne Preservation Assn., who lives in an 1888 Victorian. "It's very well done and very much appreciated."

With the enthusiasm of an old-time booster, Westfall notes that Old Towne Orange's 1,500 pre-1940 homes and buildings in one square mile "is a tremendous density" of vintage homes and buildings.

Old Towne Orange, he said, is not only the largest national register district's in California, but one of the largest west of the Rockies.

"Most of the states don't have anything close to this," he said, "and it's the only one that still has a plaza you can actually drive around; others are closed off to vehicular traffic. And ours is a square mile, which makes it a kind of a neat package. It's got a flavor all its own. It's very unique."

A lifelong history buff who is a member of the Orange Community Historical Society and the Old Towne Preservation Assn., Westfall said that after moving to Orange he began collecting old photographs, drawings and memorabilia--booklets and pamphlets--on the city.

He also became familiar with what he calls the "resident historians," senior citizens who would tell him stories of their early years in town and show him yellowed newspaper clippings of major events--then tell him what really happened.

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