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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

I like to shop for shops. I love to visit stores and become acquainted with the ownership and the senior officers. Elizabeth and I were in Paris having dinner [with] this CEO who owns his own company, and Elizabeth said, "Henry's been pursuing you for 10 years." And he said, "Fourteen years!'' The world of retailing has just so totally changed in the last couple of years. It's now a global universe. [That] conforms to a strategy that I developed for South Coast Plaza 25 years ago -- not to think of [it] as being a retail center for Orange County but as a retail center for the world.

When I open Vogue and there's an ad for some designer, it says, "New York, Paris, Tokyo, South Coast Plaza" -- not Costa Mesa but South Coast Plaza. How did that happen?

We worked very hard on that! We wanted to have the singular identity.

Did you have a tough time persuading, say, Tiffany & Co. to come to Orange County?

Yes. [Beverly Hills] became their first [Southern California] store, and I started working on Southern California to be a two-store market. They said yes and then they said no; they vacillated. It's been a great store. [It's] the third highest-volume [Tiffany's] in the world. Imagine that -- passing Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Boston.

Why did you think Orange County should have and could sustain a large arts complex?

I've always felt that cultural resources are the mainstay of longevity of a society. I was born in Orange County and thought Orange County deserved the best. The spectacular growth of the South Coast Repertory theater really paced the whole focus. They started on the peninsula and then they moved into downtown Costa Mesa and took over a five-and-dime store and made it into a small theater. I went to a couple of their plays and was very impressed. I guess it was 1978 when [it] was named as the best repertory theater in America. That's a pretty fast growth pattern.

There's been a rivalry between Newport Beach and Costa Mesa: Mackerel Flats versus Goat Hill, Fashion Island versus South Coast Plaza, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts versus the Orange County Museum of Art. Now the art museum is moving to Costa Mesa. So it's like Costa Mesa won, yes?

[He grins.] Yes! I don't think [the museum is] crying uncle; I think it's getting a better opportunity for growth.

How has Orange County changed in your lifetime?

There's two words you can use. You can say we're sophisticated or we're cosmopolitan. I reject the word sophisticated because I think it has a hard finish to it. Cosmopolitan has more depth of culture and more worldliness. I think that Orange County is one of the most cosmopolitan and cultured areas of the world. When we were negotiating for the land for the performing arts center, some people said, oh, Orange County is a cultural wasteland. We had the Pageant of the Masters, the Laguna Art Museum, Bowers [art museum] -- for a community of 150,000 people. We had culture. [And] Orange County has developed this campus of art which is unique to the country.

What kind of music do you like?

I like all music, depending on my mood and the day. I have a driver now; a couple of years ago I was driving down the freeway going 80 miles an hour because I like to drive fast, and I thought to myself, Henry, your eyesight isn't what it used to be, and your reactions aren't [either] -- what the hell are you going 80 miles an hour for? So I got a driver, and he puts the radio station on the '40s [music channel]. I like those old songs.

What don't people know about you that you think they should?

I was an elected public official for 28 years [on the local water board]. During the six years I was chairman, we were granted a $25-million allocation to build what was at the time the largest ocean water desalting plant in the world. It opened about the time the [1973] Mideast war broke out. Oil went to $10 a barrel, so we couldn't afford to operate it. We sent it down to Guantanamo Bay and it was put in place to serve the Marine base.

Hearing you talk, I realize I've been mispronouncing your name all these years as See-ger-strom instead of Seg-er-strom, as in "leg." Does that annoy you?

I just wonder how people would think if their names were mispronounced!

What ideas have you brought back from around the world?

A statement I heard at Stanford always struck me: "We are part of all that we have met." I like that very much. After the war, I'd been injured, and it had made me withdraw a little bit, so I took a public speaking course and happened to read this statement and used it for a class assignment. "We are part of all that we have met."

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive:

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