Old Towne Restored: Orange restaurant works to preserve historical architecture

As Chapman has grown, so has the neighborhood it calls home. As a result, restaurants have become the driving force of the economy of the Orange Plaza, known as the “circle”, which some residents say is a positive change students have helped bring to the community. Some retaurants, like Watson’s and the upcoming Urth Caffé, are housed in buildings that have existed since the founding of Old Towne Orange in 1871.

All the restaurants are doing well, so changing consumer interest by Plaza visitors has moved from shopping to dining,” said Sandy Quinn, president of the Old Towne Preservation Association. “On top of all that, Chapman students aren’t interested in buying antiques, but they do have appetites.”

As restaurants make the circle more attractive to tourists and passerbys, sky-high rents and online alternatives to shopping have put pressure on the antique stores, which were once a trademark of the circle.Twenty years ago, there were about twice as many antique shops in Orange, which was known as a hotspot for antique trading. Today, five antique malls

A neon sign for Woody’s, one of the antique stores in the Plaza | Photo by Blake Waddell

and nine antique dealers remain. There are about a dozen other collectible shops as well, according to the OC Register.

Urth Caffé, a chain of ecologically-friendly coffee shops, has chosen a historic 1888 two-story Victorian style building in the circle as its next location. The building is currently being restored and the cafe is set to open in the next couple of months.

Shallom Berkman, owner of Urth Caffé, said that his connection with Old Towne started when his Chief Financial Officer Henry Versendaal moved to Orange about six or seven years ago, and wanted them to open a location there. Once they visited, they fell in love with the city, especially the history behind it. His wife said if they were to open a location there, it would have to be in the Plaza.

After purchasing the building they are currently renovating, Berkman discovered it was built in 1888 and researched historical photographs of the property. Berkman said many of the features that made the building unique had been hidden over time, so they set out to restore the building to its former glory.

“It’s almost like being in a museum,” Berkman said. “As we started peeling away stucco, we discovered that much of the original ornamental ironwork underneath was still there, so people get to see a lot of that detail.”

Berkman also explained that the building had been expanded, and that the wall running through the center of their restaurant used to be a part of the exterior. On that wall, they uncovered a large exterior mural for Hemphill & Morse real estate, the building’s first tenants, and are restoring it.

“That was a surprise discovery, so we are looking forward to people seeing that for the first time in decades.” Berkman said.

According to Urth Caffé’s website, this restoration is the company’s second restoration in Orange County. The first project was The Cottage in Laguna Beach, built in 1917.

“We learned that you never know how long [a restoration] is going to take and what you’re going to discover in the process, so it has to be a passion of love. But there’s a lot of satisfaction and pride that comes with bringing life back into an old property for the community to enjoy,” Berkman said.

Berkman said that the restoration has also faced some setbacks. When they acquired the property, the second floor had been condemned. However, following the restoration, that building is one of the safer places in the circle, he said.

“If there is ever an earthquake, come to the Urth property,” Berkman said. “We’re hoping that the building will last for the next 200 years.”

As restaurants like Urth continue to grow, the antique stores which were once central to Old Towne have fallen into their shadows. As Old Towne grows in popularity, rents have risen to a point where antique stores’ business cannot keep up, Quinn said. In addition, the advent of online shopping has moved their customer base online.

Several of the retail stores that were here when I arrived 20 years ago have closed, moved or gone online,” Quinn said. (They suffer from) increased rent because the Old Towne Plaza has become of Orange County’s most popular destinations, and the availability of antique shopping online where you can easily view a variety of items you may be looking for, and check competitive prices.”

Like many businesses, Urth Caffé is a member of the Orange Chamber of Commerce. Jack Raubolt, a vice chair of the Orange Chamber of Commerce and Chapman’s vice president of community relations, explained that the Chamber exists to help businesses get in contact with other businesses. In addition, they fight for “business-friendly legislation” for their members, which include “single proprietors” and “large corporations,” Raubolt said.

However, according to the Chamber’s website, none of the antique stores in the Plaza are members of the Chamber. The entry fees start at $525 for a basic membership package, with the highest package costing $2,500. Many of the Chamber’s benefits apply to any member, but additional advertising and exposure are available at higher costs.

“I can’t answer for the owners, but I would guess that it’s because most are sole proprietors and a large amount of their business comes from people passing by and through word of mouth,” Raubolt said.

Raubolt feels that Chapman has a positive relationship with many of the business in the circle, as the university brings new customers as well as tourists to the area. He sees the Plaza as having grown into a tourist destination in itself as well as a “destination stop” for residents.

They appreciate the business, which is shown in discounts that they give to Chapman students, staff and faculty. It is always exciting to see signs in the windows of businesses advertising events at Chapman and welcoming students back in the fall,” Raubolt said.

Junior business major Kai Howe has said that he has only been to an Urth location once, but loved the experience. He also enjoys that there are so many historic businesses close to Chapman, and appreciates the older aesthetic of the circle.

“It gives Orange a different feel, I’m more used to a modern town or city,” Howe said.

Urth Caffé’s signage | Photo by Blake Waddell

Mikey Knowles, a sophomore undeclared student, enjoys the rustic feel of the circle and frequents some of the cheaper establishments, like Blaze Pizza. He had never been to Urth, but was excited to hear that the Plaza’s history was being preserved in its buildings.

“It’s cool that they’re keeping the feel of the circle,” Knowles said. “Restoring old buildings keeps the history of Orange.”

Berkman says that he hopes to offer discounts to Chapman students, though nothing official has been put in place yet.

The Plaza is an increasingly attractive destination for shopping and dining.  It’s embellished with the enthusiasm and spirit of Chapman students,” Quinn said.

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