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Patt Morrison Asks

Henry Segerstrom: Arts centric

The Costa Mesa developer and philanthropist on turning lima beans into the gold of commercial real estate.

March 19, 2011|Patt Morrison

That guy Jack, of beanstalk fame? He was small potatoes. If you want real magic from beans, look no further than what has become of the lima bean and dairy empire of Orange County's Segerstrom family. It morphed into the gold of commercial real estate, and at its 24-karat center is South Coast Plaza. In an age when people list shopping as a pastime, the high-end mall attracts almost as many people a year as the non-shopping National Mall in Washington.

Henry Segerstrom, the grandson of the founding farmer, is the steward of the big switch in the family fortunes, and he's also shepherded the county's biggest arts venture, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, now called the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Like South Coast Plaza, it's all about one-stop shopping, in this case for culture. The center shelters four major performance spaces, and South Coast Repertory is nearby. In a few years the Orange County Museum of Art will call the center home too. All on 14 acres of Segerstrom-donated land, jump-started with Segerstrom millions. And Segerstrom hasn't just housed art on his family's land; he's commissioned it. One example: an Isamu Noguchi garden and its sculptural centerpiece, "Spirit of the Lima Bean."

Segerstrom lives in Newport Beach, in a waterfront cottage that looks not too different from the venerable, turn-of-the-last-century family farmhouse in Costa Mesa. The farmhouse still stands, a tractor ride away from the family's 21st century undertakings.

Your family was part of the vast agricultural industry that people associate with historical Orange County. How much land did you farm? Is any of it still under cultivation?

At our peak we were farming about 2,100 acres. We [still] have about 40 acres of lima beans. It's what we call the home ranch. It was the first piece of property my grandfather purchased.

Will you hate me if I tell you I don't like lima beans?

No. my sister doesn't like them either. I don't know that I could stand to eat them every day, but I like the flavor. We always grew what they call the large limas -- the flavor's different. Several years ago [my wife] Elizabeth and I were in the Loire Valley. We ordered this meal. The first course came out -- here was a large lima bean in the middle of the salad. Just one!

When you were growing up in Costa Mesa, there wasn't much around in the way of the arts. How did you get interested in all of that? You know, art comes in many forms. It can come in architecture, it can come in visual arts, so many different ways. Maybe the earliest exposure I had was when I was in grammar school and we made a little aqueduct, a Roman aqueduct. I remember being wonderfully impressed by that. Then there was a down period through high school, but I think it was [the influence of] more exposure later in my life with visual arts and architecture and sculpture.

You started at Stanford in 1940, as World War II was underway in Europe. Then you went into the Army, and then returned to Stanford to finish and get an MBA.

I was debating where to go to school. It was the military academy [West Point], Princeton or Stanford. I made my choice because I wanted to live on the West Coast. I wanted to make my lifelong friends here -- and once in a while, get to [see Stanford play in] the Rose Bowl.

Why did Orange County make the transition from agriculture to the new business/retail when it did?

It was based upon completion of the transportation system in Southern California. In 1950, the first linkage from downtown Los Angeles to downtown Santa Ana occurred with the opening of the Santa Ana Freeway. That was like unleashing a torrent of people who wanted to come down to Orange County and live here and work in Los Angeles. [And] it was about [Orange County] being a separate metropolitan statistical area. Then in 1952, I attended the first public hearing for the 405. Seventeen years later, South Coast Plaza opened -- one year before the San Diego Freeway. When you see a picture, it's absolutely astounding: We're building South Coast Plaza, and they're working on the freeway adjacent to it.

People ask how the world will feed itself when agricultural land is turned into suburbs and cities.

You've heard of a man called [Thomas] Malthus? He predicted that the world would run out of food, and so far we haven't.

I read that a lot of folks lobbied to get the 405 Freeway to come along the route that it now does.

It was going to be located up in Santa Ana, and several large property owners, including ourselves and the Irvine Co., lobbied to have it put nearer the Orange County airport.

Your family company still owns South Coast Plaza and a lot of the commercial land around it, but you sold what is now very valuable land to Sears and to the May Co. for a dollar to get them to commit to opening at South Coast Plaza, right?

Yes; it was one of those things where they had the muscle.

You've personally persuaded a lot of high-end stores to come here. Do you like to shop?

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