mid Orange County’s 21st-century skyline is a midcentury modern aesthetic that, 50 years ago, contributed to the region’s reputation as being architecturally ahead of its time.
As we zip past mirror-glass high-rises and contemporary residential developments, these icons are all too easy to miss. Many pockets of architectural history are well hidden, but if we slow down, we can spot the evidence of an intriguing life story. By exploring decades-old design styles that reflect the county’s unique history, we can begin to understand how our parents and grandparents viewed the future.
Defined by sleek, clean lines and encompassing an innovative functionality that hinted at the Space Age to come, midcentury modern architecture took hold in a 1950s and ’60s Orange County that was participating fully in the bright post–World War II economic boom. Among the many gems scattered about town, we visited four of our most enduring, and endearing, structures.
The late pastor, author and televangelist Robert H. Schuller had a singular vision: a house of worship that would spring up from a largely rural county.
“California’s population was exploding after World War II,” explained local architect and historian Alan Hess. “While urban areas like Los Angeles were already built up, Orange County was still primarily agricultural. Master planners and architects saw the region as a blank slate to test new ideas.”
New ideas like Schuller’s drive-in church, which was designed to leverage car culture and a mild climate. “It was perfect for Southern California’s informal lifestyle,” said Hess.
Schuller envisioned an auditorium add-on to his expanding Garden Grove campus, with glass along the side facing the parking lot. Now known as the Arboretum, the 1961 structure is an example of midcentury modern’s use of open, airy spaces. The carillon, consisting of bells hanging from a striking tower of concrete pylons, serves as a de facto billboard for both the building and the midcentury modern genre.
“The Arboretum was built by Richard Neutra, a famous name from the midcentury period,” said Hess. “Neutra used steel and glass in straight, simple lines to create this very broad, expansive auditorium, so nobody had to sit behind columns. He also incorporated natural materials like stone and wood.”
The Diocese of Orange, which purchased Schuller’s creation in 2012 and renamed it the Christ Cathedral campus, has done a beautiful job bringing the Arboretum and other buildings back to its original design, according to Hess.
To set up a tour of the Arboretum and surrounding structures, contact Trudy Mazzarella, Christ Cathedral Director of Tour Ministry, at 714.620.7916, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Few people are aware that the campus of the University of California, Irvine, envisioned by architect William Pereira, actually predates its hometown. Hess, who has penned 19 books about Orange County’s midcentury modern history, considers UCI’s original buildings to be some of the region’s finest examples.
“Pereira wanted to build a state-of-the-art campus and then build a city around it,” said Hess. “As soon as the landowners agreed, he did just that.”
Pereira’s buildings reflect the era’s emphasis on form following function, a key element of midcentury modern master planning. Murray Krieger Hall, constructed alongside the other UCI buildings that encircled Aldrich Park in a wagon-wheel layout, is itself master-planned.
“Before 1965, UCI was a cattle pasture,” said Hess. “Midcentury modern responds to nature. Rather than bulldoze these rolling hills into submission, Pereira integrated the campus with them.
“The buildings never seem to touch the earth,” Hess added. “Pereira set the ground floors back slightly and encircled them with wide terrace balconies so the ground floors are hidden in shadow. It’s as if the buildings are floating.”
Krieger Hall’s honeycomb of precast concrete pods, designed in smooth flowing lines, blocks much of the sun’s heat, a function known as passive solar design. The hall’s stylized foundational pillars are made of pebble embedded into concrete to contrast with the smooth surfaces above.
Visitors can study—or simply appreciate—Krieger Hall’s architecture, along with a variety of other UCI buildings, by walking the area that begins at 311 W. Peltason Drive.
BOB’S BIG BOY
As automobiles became the ultimate status symbol of the 1960s, an architectural style known as Googie responded to the trend and came into its own. Googie was a funky subset of midcentury modern that incorporated not just car culture but also the nascent Space Age.
“Excitement about space exploration, and technology in general, led to places like bowling alleys and coffee shops that, design-wise, celebrated this wide-open future,” said Hess.
Constructed in 1964 but recalling a 1950s architectural style, the former Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Garden Grove is, according to Hess,
a classic example of Googie, as it uses modern design elements to attract roadside customers.
The eatery, drawn up by Googie creators Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, showcased “a big, curving roof that’s cantilevered way, way out toward the street and [like the Arboretum] featured glass that went up to the ceiling. It was designed to look like very advanced engineering.”
The huge glass panes invited motorists to peer into the restaurant and diners to see out to the road, while the cantilevered roof helped protect
the restaurant and its customers from the sunny consequences of floor-to-ceiling windows.
Columns along the front, originally clad in stone, were up-lit at night to show the texture of the natural material and emphasize the long, curving roof. The restaurant’s sign, propped up by a tapered pylon, played off the building’s eye-catching architecture, a common Googie element. The iconic sign stands in stark contrast to the steel I-beams beneath today’s square “tombstone” signs.
“The building, which is now operated by Coco’s, is in good shape, but it’s threatened by developers,” said Hess, who sits on the board of Preserve Orange County, a nonprofit that uses education and advocacy to promote conservation of the region’s cultural heritage.
Before sneaking in for a burger and fries, visitors can admire the exterior of the restaurant, located at 12032 Harbor Blvd., and take in the throwback design elements that make this midcentury modern marvel so important to Orange County’s history.
As visitors pass through Disneyland’s renowned gates, they are greeted by a plaque that reads: HERE YOU LEAVE TODAY AND ENTER THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY, TOMORROW AND FANTASY.
Over the years, one neighborhood in Walt Disney’s creation did evolve, albeit unintentionally, into a perfect blend of yesterday, tomorrow and a dreamlike today. When the park opened in 1955, Tomorrowland personified midcentury modern on steroids and served as a precursor of the high-tech world to come.
“The mid-1950s were just before the dawn of space exploration,” said Hess, “and Disney created a theme park that featured, to an unprecedented degree, many principles of the new technological age.”
Tomorrowland showcased unimaginable modes of transportation: the People Mover, the Monorail, Astro-Jets and a TWA Rocket to the Moon, all featuring a dizzying array of undulating curves and straight planes made of steel, concrete, plastic and glass.
Next to the ’50s-style spacecraft, the Rocket to the Moon, a futuristic theater that simulated a ride to Earth’s exotic neighbor, consisted of two smooth domes that looked eerily like Orange County’s future San Onofre nuclear plant.
Other Tomorrowland stops, each displaying a variation on midcentury modern, included the Space Bar, the General Electric Carousel of Progress, the World Clock and the Monsanto House of the Future. “Monsanto was all plastic and had things never seen before, including a microwave oven and flat-screen televisions,” said Hess.
Hess described how Walt Disney and his team of designers left nothing to chance. For example, the Y-shaped columns that supported the Monorail featured sleek, sculptured midcentury lines that paralleled the train’s design.
When fantasy could no longer keep pace with reality and the future caught up with Tomorrowland, modernization stepped in. “Most of the original buildings are still there,” said Hess, “but they’ve been redone in different styles.” Today’s retro Jules Verne look, for instance, is now more timeless than it is visionary.
Visitors can still ride the Monorail, which runs from Tomorrowland to the Disneyland Hotel and Downtown Disney, and see a remnant of the Monsanto House’s foundation as well as an updated version of the Carousel of Progress.
As is the case throughout the region, a close examination of Tomorrowland reveals almost-forgotten fragments of Orange County’s past, and, with those fragments, a history that the inimitable Walt Disney, with the help of our midcentury modern architects, helped to define.
For more information on these and other Orange County structures, visit alanhess.net or preserveorangecounty.org.