As local historian Philip Brigandi sits on a bench in the small circular park near the 50-year-old fountain with chipped blue tiles, he can hear both angry drivers honking to make their way in from side streets and the laughter of the children playing close by. Circular, yes, but the Orange Plaza seems like a modern version of the old town square.
At a time when horse-drawn carriages spurred up dust on the dirt roads, the 20th century Orange Plaza was alive with shops and hotels and park gatherings, as well as the entertainment of the 927-seat Orange Theatre, just north of the park. Most of the stores may have changed—the grand old hotel is now a Wells Fargo building. Yet the excitement of the plaza remains today—except with a lot more Chapman University students joining in. They like the old town feel too.
Chapman graduate and current Orange resident, Kela Cook, came to Orange in 2012 and has frequently visited and studied by the fountain in the Orange Plaza.
“When I sat by the fountain to do my homework I would be able to enjoy the Orange Plaza, but mostly I appreciate the history of this town,” she said. “So many people before me were able to enjoy the fountain, and I hope that this can continue generations into the future.”
Nobody wants to see that atmosphere change.
“It’s not just that Orange is historic, it’s that it manages to still feel like an old downtown. So it not only preserves memories for the locals, it stirs memories in folks from other communities that may have lost their old downtown,” said Brigandi.
The history of the Orange Plaza is all around—in the buildings, the old advertisements on the wall in the alleyways, and signs left from past businesses. The preservation of this history creates new uses for buildings that once provided completely different services and supplies.
In May of 1929 the Orange Theatre opened for business. The theater was open nightly starting at 6:15 p.m., with tickets for premium seats only costing 50 cents for a night of vaudeville, talking pictures, and performances. In 1974, the Orange Theater was renovated and the name was changed to the Orange Playhouse where live performances returned. These shows took place for only a year until the company switched hands and ultimately went out of business due to lack of funds.
Shortly after the business closed in 1975, the theater was sold to the Son of Light Christian congregation in 1976, where Pastor Joe Magliato began church services. The revitalization of this building provided a new life for the historic and once prosperous Orange Theater.
“In downtown Orange, churches are certainly part of the mix that we need to keep the area healthy. It’s also a good fit for a building of that size and layout. Not many businesses need that kind of space, so it serves to preserve the building as well,” said Brigandi
One of the oldest relics that is still present in Orange is the Plaza Fountain. The first fountain was originally placed in the Plaza in 1887 where it stood for 50 years. In 1937, the original fountain was replaced by a new electric fountain that still stands in the middle of the plaza today. But the original fountain is still around.
Initially, the original fountain was put into storage, but in 1940 it was moved to Hart Park. The fountain, relatively shallow compared to the new electric fountain, was used as a wading pool for young children who visited the Hart Park pool.
Then in 1981, when it was restored and moved to the entrance of the Civic Center. Today you can find it at the nearby Orange Public Library.
Eventually a time came when antique shops adorned the streets of Orange, and the Plaza changed from supporting the needs of the locals and turned to the booming tourism that antiquing provided. The shops were all so similar that some Orange residents rarely went into town. They had to venture further out to find basic necessities.
Now a big transformation is happening in Orange. A transition from the majority of stores focusing on selling antiques, has evolved to a more youthful theme consisting of bars and new restaurants.
One example: Watson’s drugstore just east of the Plaza park on Chapman Avenue remained much the same for more than a century. Opened in 1899 by K.E. Watson, the store has had one of the longest existing histories in Orange. But a year ago, the owners sold Watson’s Soda Fountain and Café. Watson’s has remained relatively the same. The manager, Samuel Nations, is the onsite leader of keeping the restaurant’s historical focal point, while still appealing to non-residents.
Yet both outside and in, Watson’s still contains that old town feel.
“When redesigning Watson’s, we wanted to create an environment that didn’t upset the local Orange residents,” said Nations. “Some of these residents have frequented Watson’s since they were born, and we needed to respect the integrity of the store and maintain its history.”