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5 Facts About the College Center Office Building

College Center is a $2 million shopping complex that first opened in 1965 on the corner of Harbor and Adams near OCC. It is perhaps best known as the site of the West Coast’s first Howard Johnson’s Restaurant (later a Ground Round and now Coco’s) and as Pier 1 Imports’ home for the past 49 years. Less noticed is the College Center Office Building (AKA San Joaquin Office Building or Harbor Plaza) which is interesting in its own right.

It was Costa Mesa’s first commercial high-rise.

One could quibble with the definition of “high rise,” as the papers of the time labelled it, but there’s no question that the building, promoted as “ultramodern in design, architecture and construction,” marked a dramatic break in Costa Mesa architecture. The 3-story air-conditioned office building boasted “30 large office suites designed to fit your needs.”

It was designed by a world-renowned architect whose work helped shape the Southland.

This building is just one of the countless offices designed by Ernest C. Wilson, the man said to have designed more office buildings in Orange County than any other architect. Wilson worked with partner Robert Langdon for 41 years as Langdon Wilson, designing iconic structures across the region, including the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, the Nixon Library, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Irvine Spectrum, the Koll Center in Irvine, and the Bank of America Building in Beverly Hills.

It was once clad in Italian marble.

The building featured green Cipollino marble called Verde Scuro and Verde Chiaro, a variety favored by ancient Greeks and Romans. It was imported from the Cardosa Valley in the Apuan Alps, just a few miles from Michelangelo’s quarry in Monte Altissimo.

It was originally landscaped with a palm tree donated by a Juaneño (Acjachemen) chief.

When fronds from Clarence Lobo’s 17-year-old palm began disrupting the Santa Fe Railroad’s signal wires, the railroad threatened to chop it down. So Lobo offered it to anyone who would take it away. The College Center owners agreed, carting the 50-foot palm 25 miles to their new building. Lobo is better known as an activist for indigenous peoples. The Clarence Lobo Elementary School in San Clemente is the first school in California named after a Native American.

It was opened by a real estate supergroup.

College Center was the first project opened by San Joaquin Associates, founded by M. Keith Gaede with partners William Ring, Michael Schlossman, and Richard H. Dodd.

Gaede’s résumé defies summary. Besides founding the San Joaquin Associates, he served on the boards of the Irvine Company, the Irvine Industrial Complex, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Chapman College, and the Santa Ana Boys Club, among others, and also served on the Commission of the Californias, the Republican State Central Committee, and the Governor’s Citizen’s Advisory Commission. In 1970 he was honored with the Torch of Hope award “in recognition of his outstanding contributions to Orange County, to his state, and his devotion to the humanitarian precepts and scientific ideals of the City of Hope, a pilot medical center.” The award was presented by F. Donald Nixon, the president’s brother, with congratulatory messages from Ronald Reagan and President Nixon himself. Gaede, with then wife Linda Irvine, was among the last Irvine Company board members with connections to the family.

William Ring, president and owner of Harbor Realty, developed the Irvine Country Club and co-developed the Dover Shores, East Bluff, and Irvine Terrace housing communities. Among other honors, in 2004 he was awarded the “Citizen of the Year” award by the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Richard H. Dodd, AIA, is an award-winning architect and writer who has practiced in Orange County for over 50 years. Dodd specializes in residential architecture, but also designed the building at 1617 Westcliff, now home to Cafe Gratitude, and oversaw the construction of the Howard Johnson’s at College Center. He is the author of Architectural Styles: Orange County and historical society members will remember his talk from 2012, “Traveling the El Camino Real.”

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