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5 Facts About the College Center Office Building
The original design of the College Center/San Joaquin Office Building.

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.

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Travels of the Harmonium

Those of you who have visited our museum may have seen our harmonium reed organ. However, of those who have seen it, only a percentage have read the story posted above it explaining how we obtained it. Even if you did read it, there is still part of the story you haven’t heard.

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1918-1919 Flu Hits Southland, Patient Hits Bottle

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza, one of the worst pandemics in history, which claimed the lives of up to 100 million people and infected 500 million worldwide. About 300 died out of Orange County’s population of 30,000. While the mortality rate here was lower than elsewhere, the demand for nurses still outstripped the supply, leading the chairman of the Santa Ana Red Cross to plead for volunteers to “meet the call of humanity” and tend to the sick.

Alice King (later Eastman), a young philanthropist from Costa Mesa, answered the call. But it didn’t turn out the way she expected. Decades later, she told the story to our own Mary Ellen Goddard:

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Branching Out: A Timeline of the Mesa Verde Library

1950s. After a series of annexations and subdivisions, the north side of Costa Mesa grows rapidly.

1960. The city purchases a 1.35-acre lot on the corner of Mesa Verde Dr. and Baker from developer Walter Gayner for the express purpose of building a library. The location is chosen for its proximity to schools and 10,000 homes.

The Friends of the Costa Mesa Libraries forms. Volunteer groups like the Friends and Mesa Verde Home Owners are vocal advocates for the new branch.

1961–early 1962. The city and county deadlock over funding. The city considers establishing its own library system, following the example of Newport and Huntington Beach, but ultimately rejects the “library business.”

February 1962. In a meeting with MVHO, OC Supervisor and library committeeman Cy M. Featherly tells Mesa Verde residents their library must wait until after the needs of other communities are met. He also claims the county’s library district is already spending more money in Costa Mesa than taxes warrant.

March 19, 1962. Thomas Thompson, president of MVHO, presents a compromise plan to the city council. Under this plan, the city would pay to construct the building while the county would lease it back, stock it, and staff it. The city council approves the plan.

Featherly also likes the plan, saying cities should shoulder library costs “wherever possible.” He warns, however, the city may have to pay higher operating costs than before.

Summer 1963. It is announced the library will be built within 3-4 months for $78,000. “Complications arise” with the county and ground is never broken.

July 6, 1964. The city council unanimously approves architectural plans for a 6,500-sq. ft. library and a 250-seat auditorium. Building both at once is estimated to save $1 per square foot. The architects estimate the cost at $169,500.

September 29, 1964. The county finally agrees to lease the library for $738 per month.

December 1964. A “lengthy pause without comment” fills the chambers when the city council learns the lowest construction bid is 25% over the initial estimate. The council quickly eliminates the auditorium along with $27,000 worth of “frills”.

February 9, 1965. Ground is broken for the library in a ceremony attended by city and county officials. The building is projected to be finished by September, but construction delays ensue.

November 20, 1965 — Opening Day. A dedicatory luncheon organized by the Friends and the OC Book Club is held at the Mesa Verde Country Club. LA Times literary editor and columnist Robert Kirsch is guest speaker.

A formal ceremony is held at 2:30 pm. Robert Wilson, mayor of Costa Mesa, calls the library a “milestone in the city’s effort to provide worthwhile public facilities. It is the first one the city has constructed, but I assure you there will be more.” An optimistic Featherly predicts a third library will be built at the Costa Mesa Civic Center. “It is not definite yet, but it probably will happen,” he says.

Thompson, now a city councilman, delivers the keynote address. He reflects on the 5 years it took to build the library and declares it “well worth the effort.”

Alvin Pinkley presents the library with an American flag that had flown over the US Capitol. 83-year-old Richard W. Katerndahl, a former lieutenant governor of Idaho, receives the first library card. MVHO and the Bridgettes present $400 in checks to the Friends for the purchase of more books. At opening, the library carries around 12,000 volumes, roughly half of which are children’s books. Esther Branch serves as the first librarian.

Following the ceremony, the library begins a long tradition of art exhibits with a tour of 40 serigraphs by pop artist, nun, and social activist Sister Mary Corita.

December 1965. The library begins its preschoolers’ story hour with readings from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham and Sesyle Joslin’s What Do You Say, Dear?

 1966-1970. The library becomes a community gathering place. Programs include social coffee days for “listening, questioning, and sounding off,” a Bruce McIntyre closed-circuit TV art course, and great books discussions for adults and teenagers. In 1967, a 4-meeting course “designed for women who hate to keep house and want to find faster, easier ways to do it” draws hundreds of attendees.

The library earns attention for its rotating exhibits, many of which are drawn from members of the Costa Mesa Art League (now OC Fine Arts). The works display a wide variety of media and styles, ranging from landscapes, sea-scapes, and abstracts in oil to mosaics, collages, stitchery-weaving, and even bread sculpture. Other popular exhibits include collections of flags, Mesa Verde resident Richard Bale’s handmade model trains, and 100 Hopi kachina dolls.

Summer reading programs draw hundreds of participants each year, enrolling 600 children in1967 alone.

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Tragedy at the Riverside

During a heatwave on August 5, 1917, two cousins, Robert Gisler’s daughter Elizabeth, 11, and Sam Gisler’s daughter Mabel, 10, went to the Santa Ana River with Elizabeth’s sister Lucile, 6, to play in the water.

The two older girls were wading in the shallows of the channel, laughing and playing, when they suddenly lost their footing and stepped into a large hole. They struggled to find a foothold in the deep drop-off, while their cries for help went unanswered. Young Lucile thought they were only playing.

When the girls disappeared under the water, Lucile ran for help, eventually finding a surf-fisherman on the beach 3/4 mile away. He and a 13-year-old boy managed to recover the girls, who by that point had been in the water between 45 minutes and an hour.

Every effort was made to revive them. An electric car was flagged down, and a Pulmotor resuscitator was sent from Santa Ana. But it was too late. At the time of the accident, Sam and Robert were in Seal Beach, where they received the sad news.

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How do you pronounce Gisler?

Gisler Avenue in the north side of Costa Mesa sees more traffic, perhaps, than any other street of its size in the city. The 1.7 mile road is lined with subdivisions, schools, a city park, and hugely popular restaurant chains like In N’ Out, Raising Cane’s, Denny’s, and Chik-Fil-A.

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Celebrating Lil’ Pickle

Even though Pete Bower has owned Lil’ Pickle almost 13 years, people still come in and ask, “Are you the new owner?” But that’s what happens when you own a 55 year old institution.

Every week, he says, he’ll get a customer who will say, “My mom used to bring me in here when I was a kid. Now I’m bringing my kids in.” Or, looking at the team photos lining the walls, one will say, “That’s my sister, that’s my brother, that’s me, 20 years ago.”

James DiCamilli first opened Lil’ Pickle on 17th Street in 1962, moving to Fairview and Baker in the early 1970s — where it’s been ever since.

Mr. Bower, who previously ran Pizza Pete’s and Balboa Beach Treats near the Balboa Pavilion, was introduced to Mr. DiCamilli though a friend. When the latter decided to retire in 2005, he handed the keys to Mr. Bower.

Since then, Lil’ Pickle added a 14” sub. And, for a personal touch, Mr. Bower — an avid golfer — added golf gear to the sports-themed decor.

But other than that, the sub shop remains much as Mr. DiCamilli left it, including the sandwiches, the layout, the photographs, and the popular avocado spread. And it’s still family run.

Sticking to tradition has helped make Lil’ Pickle what it is today: a buzzing neighborhood spot reflecting the diverse community around it, where plumbers, lawyers, electricians, students, coaches, and professors alike rub shoulders.

In gratitude for its continued support, Lil’ Pickle gives back to the community every year, sponsoring a wide variety of causes, with a focus on youth and college athletics and other local organizations. Mr. Bower is proud to make Mr. Di-Camilli’s devotion to the community a central part of Lil’ Pickle’s mission.

Popular subs include “The Lil’ Pickle,” made with salami, capicola, and cheese, and “The Natural,” a healthier choice with turkey, cheese, and avocado spread on a wheat roll. The pastrami is popular, too.

No matter what you order, you’ll get a taste of history when you come to this long-standing local institution.

Lil’ Pickle is located at 2985 Fairview Rd. and is open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. daily.

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Lost Landmark: The Clark House Fire

When George H. Clark visited the boomtown of Fairview in the spring of 1889, he declared the area “the prettiest place I have ever seen.” In a matter of weeks he sold his business interests in Chicago and purchased over 100 acres in what would later become Costa Mesa. He then set about building a house that would rival the beauty of the landscape.

The result was a grand three-story mansion boasting airy arched verandas, striking decorative shingles, intricate scroll work, ridge poles, a bay window, and stained glass. The interior overflowed with rooms, including a large reception hall, parlor, dining room, library, butler’s pantry, kitchen, four bedrooms, a bathroom, and servants’ quarters. Two features stood out: the massive fireplaces heating the parlor and dining room and the luxurious polished redwood running throughout.

The house quickly became a local landmark, with area pioneer Harvey Holden remembering it as “the most beautiful of all the houses in Fairview.”

The ranch stretched northwest from modern-day Baker and Fairview to roughly Harbor on the west and Gisler to the north, and sat across from the McClintocks and Yales. The ranch was home to the Bingham Creamery, a dairy, tennis courts, and a small cottage for the grandparents. The former executive exchanged the silk and tea trades for a new kind of stock, cultivating English walnuts and French prunes, white Adriatic figs and lusty-looking grapes, and goats and cattle. In 1891, Mr. Clark registered a newly calved Holstein-Friesian cow, “The Duchess of Fairview.”

Life on the mesa had its setbacks. The Fairview boom went bust. George’s father died and his wife left for Chicago to give birth to their second son, never to return. He lost $2,000 when the Fairview general store, which he owned, burned down, uninsured. And his plans to run an electric train from Santa Ana to Newport Beach never materialized. He left the area in 1902 in search of better education for his sons, eventually settling in Los Angeles after marrying his second wife, Elysabeth Clarke, his sons’ former schoolteacher, prominent educational activist, and daughter of Fairview founder A.L. Clarke.

Over the years the old house saw a variety of tenants, including Vernie Graser, Charles Borchard, and even the famous McClintocks, who spent a year in the house while they awaited the construction of their new Spanish-style home.

By the 1950s the property was owned by another local magnate: merchant, rancher, and real estate broker Ernest A. Watson of Tustin. His son Don moved into the house with his wife and children.

On Christmas Day 1953, we are told, the Watson family went out, leaving the tree illuminated. The lights shorted and sparked a fire that flared through the wooden house. Neighbors noticed dense smoke billowing from the chimneys around 3 p.m. One witness, the young nephew of Maureen McClintock Rischard, ran to his mother to alert her. As she called the fire department, the boy and his father rushed across the street, rescuing three palomino horses locked in a corral next to the growing inferno.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rischard was herself driving to the ranch. Approaching Baker from Newport Avenue, the fire loomed over the landscape some two miles away. She and her husband arrived to find the mansion — where she had passed a year of her childhood, playing dress-up in fancy clothes — engulfed in flames. They stood and watched, powerless. They took one last photograph before the former icon collapsed in front of them.

It took firefighters from Costa Mesa and Santa Ana Gardens two-and-a-half hours to extinguish the blaze. Only a nearby barn and garage were saved. As for the house, it was a total loss. “Mrs. Watson’s sterling silver was just a clump,” Mrs. Rischard recalled. “It was that hot a fire, with all that wood.”

Fittingly, perhaps, the loss of the boom-era landmark occurred during the frenzy of another boom. “New Subdivision Maps Swamp Planners” reads one 1954 headline. Within 18 months of the fire, ground was broken on one of the first modern planned developments in Costa Mesa, the Halecrest tract, and the Clark ranch welcomed a new kind of pioneer.

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They Were Here Before Us

It was a warm day in July 1769. A small band of soldiers were slowly riding north. They stopped on the bluff overlooking the ocean to refresh themselves. Perhaps they looked towards the Pacific, thinking to them- selves the area would make a great harbor someday. Turning inland, they noticed a band of about five hundred Indians quietly going about their daily lives. Don Gaspar de Portola led his small band of soldiers slowly riding northward, never to return. The Indians lived where the Diego Sepulveda Adobe is today. The tribe was known as the Tongva.

As a docent at the adobe, I tell visitors they are standing where the Indians were in about 1750 and earlier. Also, I point out the display we have about the Tongva lifestyle. Tongva means “People of the earth”. The people lived mainly on small animals, deer, fish, and ducks, and also fruit, berries, and nuts. Both men and women wore grass skirts and animal skins with elaborate jewelry made of shells, seeds, and beads. Hunting was done with bow and arrows, snares, and throwing sticks. Their housing, called wikiups, was made of willow branches and woven mats of tule rushes. Should the wikiups become infested with vermin, they were burned down and rebuilt some distance away.

Want to learn more? Visit the Diego Sepulveda Adobe to view artifacts, speak to our docents, and discover more about our community’s native peoples. The contributions of the Tongva to Costa Mesa history should not be overlooked.

Dave Gardner
President, Costa Mesa Historical Society

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