By Pete Zarustica
Walking into the old Orange County Courthouse in downtown Santa Ana is more than a trip up a flight of concrete steps; it’s a journey back in time.
Many O.C. residents visit the impressive 30,000 square foot red sandstone building on West Santa Ana Boulevard to get their marriage licenses on the second floor of the venerable building. But if they – or you – linger and look around, you’ll find yourself transported to a time long before Disneyland, major league baseball and endless tracts of home.
The courthouse, built in a Richardson Romanesque style, opened on Nov. 12, 1901 as the seat of the local criminal justice system. It later became home to the Orange County Board of Supervisors as well.
By today’s standards, the venerable building is about as out-of-place as anything you can imagine. Passersby may wonder if this three-story structure, now also a home to the Orange County History Center, wasn’t moved from Iowa or Ohio.
In fact, the courthouse’s iconic look has made it a frequent star in motion pictures, including “Norma Rae” (starring Sally Fields), “Catch Me If You Can” (Tom Hanks) and “Legally Blonde” (Reese Witherspoon). Courtroom No. 1, beautifully restored to its original glory, is much prized by filmmakers.
The history of the courthouse starts in 1893. Orange County separated from Los Angeles County in 1889 and land for the building was purchased from Santa Ana founding father William Spurgeon. After some delays, plans for a permanent courthouse were drawn up by Charles Strange, who reportedly based them on a similar building in (you guessed it) Iowa.
It opened to much fanfare on Nov. 12, 1901.
The building was closed in 1979 because of seismic concerns. Most of the court functions had been transferred to the larger and more modern facility on Civic Center Drive.
But funding for restoration eventually became available, and the structure was restored to its original look and glory by 1992. It’s been declared a state landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The courthouse is open Monday through Friday. The Old Orange County Courthouse Exhibit Gallery (third floor) is free to visit. Currently, the gallery is hosting an exhibit of “Orange County, Circa 1889,” through Oct. 10. Photos and other images of the county and its communities in its inaugural year are on display.