Irvine Historical Society

Irvine, California




written by Dr. Robert and Carmen Smith

Old Town Irvine is a restoration and adaptive reuse of the buildings that were the agricultural shipment center for the Irvine Ranch. It is located on six and one-half acres and includes eight of the original buildings. These buildings are restored as a 150-room motor hotel, three restaurants, and a variety of retail/office uses.

The original town center was begun by the Irvine family in the late 19th century and served as the hub of the Irvine Ranch. It remained an active agricultural center for the first half of the 20th century. However, with the coming of the I-5 freeway and the development of the University of California at Irvine, the central focus of activity drifted away from the agricultural town center to the area around the new university. In time, the buildings were all but abandoned.

In the early 1980s it became apparent that The Irvine Company would have to widen Sand Canyon Avenue, the street which ran through the middle of what was left of old Irvine, to accommodate the growing traffic needs generated by its development in the area. To accommodate these changes it appeared that the old town center buildings would have to be torn down, which would be an incalculable loss to the heritage of Irvine. Therefore, the city of Irvine formed a Blue Ribbon Committee whose task was to put forth a plan for preserving the historic site while still allowing for the widening of Sand Canyon Avenue. It was from these beginnings that the Old Town Irvine Project, a $20 million adaptive/restoration was undertaken by Sand Canyon Historical Partners as a way to protect the original town center.

Sand Canyon Historical Partners worked closely with the Irvine Historical Society and the city of Irvine not only to preserve the buildings but to re-adapt them for commercial use, and were able to preserve all of the significant buildings on the site except for three small bungalows. After months of meetings with state and national officials, Sand Canyon Historical Partners succeeded in getting the 1895 warehouse building and 1949 silos as well as the 1908 blacksmith shop listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. The state and national officials carefully monitored all the restoration work to ensure compliance with the Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. Although only three of the buildings were eligible to be listed on the National Register, all of the remaining buildings were restored to meet the National Register guidelines.

In addition to the prestigious National Register listing, Old Town Irvine has been declared a California Resource by the Native Daughters of the Golden West and has been labeled a City Historic Resource by the city of Irvine, thus ensuring its preservation for future generations. It also has received numerous design awards, including the California Preservation Foundation Annual Design Award, 1987 and the Orange County Chapter of the American Institute of Architects Honor Award.




Irvine Historical Society Logo photo, page 100

The Irvine Company designed road markers to identify the ranch. The company logo was a likeness of Don José Sepulveda astride one of his magnificent horses. The logo is now that of the Irvine Historical Society. (Photo courtesy of Irvine Historical Society.)




Blacksmith Shop photos (2), page 101

This blacksmith shop, constructed in 1908, was converted into a restaurant. A kitchen building was added onto the south side. The Irvine garage can be seen to the north. The interior of the blacksmith shop, bottom, was completely cleaned and the forge, seen center left, was returned to its approximate position. The north wall, which holds hundreds of brands created at the shop over its 75 years of operation, is still intact. (Judy Liebeck photos.)




The grain silos, which now house 98 rooms of the 150-room La Quinta Motor Inn, proved to be the most challenging re-adaptive use in the project. Originally built in 1949 as an addition to the 1895 warehouse building, the granary was comprised of 32 hexagonal concrete silos, with no exterior openings in the walls except for loading chutes. The silos are 33 feet high and were arranged three across and 11 bays long. At the top was a tin "Head House" which contained the conveying equipment. The Head House had six steel windows on each side to allow natural light and ventilation. There was a steel and tin processing shed at the west end of the granary.

The silos were converted into hotel rooms. The center bays of hexagonal silos became an interior corridor serving the rooms which were all located in the exterior bays. The corridor was designed to be a dynamic space, not just a long narrow hall, by having every other bay open up into a full hexagonal space. Alternating the bays in this manner also allowed about half of the rooms to be full hexagonal silos. Major design decisions included keeping an agricultural/industrial look to the granary. The implementation of this concept included using metal windows, keeping the original concrete surfaces visible wherever possible, and keeping the original tin at the Head House.

The tin shed at the west end was kept intact as a lobby and the original man-lift and electrical panels were kept on display to reinforce the origins of the building.

Structurally, the concrete silos were able to support the gravity and seismic loads introduced by the new floors. However, the new rooms at the Head House needed the removal of existing steel rod bracing, and new seismic elements were introduced. An additional ten windows were added on each side of the Head House to accommodate the hotel rooms. More than 180 panels of concrete were saw cut out of the silo walls to provide openings for doors, windows, and passageways.




1895 Warehouse photos (2), page 102

When the Irvine City Council agreed that the original town of Irvine was worthy of preservation, the Sand Canyon Historical Partners stepped up to the bar -so to speak. The restored 1895 warehouse, left, now houses several adaptive-reuse businesses. Sirus Cellars, above, was located at the east end of the warehouse. The now defunct business was one of a handful of wineries in Southern California that stored wine exactly correctly. The warehouse boasts a restaurant with the longest bar in Orange County . (Photos courtesy of Judy Liebeck and Barbara White.)





The 1895 wood-frame warehouse, extending some 500 feet in length from the east end of the silos, has been re-adapted to hold a mix of retail users and one restaurant. As with the silos, extreme care was taken to preserve the historic fabric of this National Register landmark. Materials, such as the corrugated tin were carefully removed and cataloged and returned back in place when structural work was finished.

The third of the three buildings on the National Register is the blacksmith shop. Work on this building was completed at the same time as the silos/granary. It was originally scheduled to be moved to another location in the Old Town site, but structural concerns and the desire to keep the building in place, thus eligible for National Register listing, resulted in its being left in place and re-adapted for use as a restaurant. The shell was left intact with its exterior features retained, repaired, and painted. The roof structure was structurally augmented and re-roofed. Visitors to the blacksmith shop can still see displayed on its walls Orange County cattle brands dating back to its 1908 origins, when Willard Culver smithed there, as well as a variety of tools which were used on the ranch. Also remaining is an anvil and forge as well as the belt-driven drill press.

From groundbreaking in early 1986 until its completion, Sand Canyon Historical Partners took great care to ensure the careful preservation of these buildings, which entailed following National Register guidelines to the letter. Meticulous preservation was necessary because of the sensitive nature of the project and the owners' wish to take advantage of the tax credits offered to rehabilitated buildings listed on the National Register, as well as their desire to preserve the historical integrity of all the buildings of Old Town Irvine. Prior to construction, complete photo documentation of the project was done and presented to the city of Irvine for its historical archives.

The other buildings of Old Town Irvine are not currently eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, either due to their age or the fact that they have been moved from their original locations. The widening of Sand Canyon Avenue made it impossible to leave the Irvine General Store and the Irvine Hotel building in their original locations. Once the decision was made to move these two buildings, it was also decided to move the workman's bungalow from its original location to be in line with the newly relocated General Store and Hotel.

The Irvine Garage, at the corner of Sand Canyon Avenue and Burt Lane , is in its original location. Built in 1927, it was the second Ford dealership in Orange County , dealing mostly in agricultural sales. The building was modified to emulate a 1920s diner and market. The exterior material remained plaster, with additional windows and horizontal plaster bands.

These buildings currently house a variety of retail/office users. As with the National Register buildings, every care was made to preserve the historic fabric in the hopes that one day they, too, will be eligible for listing on the National Register.

Sand Canyon Historical Partners takes great pride in the fact that they were able to help preserve a part of Irvine 's history. The Old Town Irvine project is proof that through the combined efforts of private business, concerned citizenry, and city support, cities such as Irvine do not have to lose their past to make way for the present; that with some thought, foresight, and cooperation history does not have to give way to the wrecking ball; our heritage does not have to be lost for future generations; we don't always have to learn about our past from textbooks.




Bulk Storage Building photos (2), page 103

Right: William C. Cook, the man who created and managed the farmer's co-op bulk storage building, walks the head house catwalk (located above the silos) toward the man-lift at the west end of the building on his last visit in 1982. During his tenure there, the warehouse was "kept so clean you could eat off the floor." Not the case when the La Quinta Inn president was approached to commit to an adaptive re-use of the property. His comment upon seeing it: "No guts, no glory!" La Quinta Inn, based in San Antonio , Texas , spent millions converting the building (below) into a hotel. (Photos courtesy of Judy Liebeck.)




Scrapbook, 1980s photos (2), page 104

Three well-known families are represented in this photo taken at Irvine Park in June, 1988. L to R: Jim Sleeper, Orange County historian; Mable Culver-Cummings, daughter of Frederick Mead Culver; and Toren Segerstrom, son of Henry Segerstrom. Below: the Irvine Hotel was moved to the east side of Sand Canyon Avenue in 1986 and restored. Right, top: The Irvine Trail Ride was a popular outing in the early 1980s for residents eager to see the ranch's normally off-limits canyons. Kevin Liebeck is shown here ready to hit the trail. Center: The Poh barn on Sand Canyon Avenue was removed in 1982. It stood in what is now the Irvine Medical Center 's parking lot. Bottom: Irvine Community Church has served the town for almost 60 years. Myford Irvine gave his organ to the church, which remains nondenominational to satisfy its land grant stipulation that all members of the community be welcome regardless of their faith. (Judy Liebeck photos.)






Armor, Samuel. History of Orange County , 1911.


Cleland, Robert Glass. The Irvine Ranch. Huntington Library, 1978.


Daily Pilot, Special Dedication Issue. University of California-Irvine, June 18, 1964 .


Donaldson, Stephen E. and William A. Meyers. Rails Through the Orange Groves, Volume I. Glendale , California : Trans-Anglo Books.


"Irvine , The Birth of A City," Irvine Today, Special Edition, December 9,1981 . Coast Media News Group.


Newport 75, A Diamond Jubilee History. Fullerton : Sultana Press.


Saddleback Ancestors. Orange County Genealogical Society, 1969.


Wilson, Iris Higbie. William Wolfskill, 1798-1866, Frontier Trapper to California Ranchero , Glendale : The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1965



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