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Legally Fond: The Old Orange County Courthouse

Orange County Courthouse after Completion, 20th Century
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 10 x 8 in.
Terry E. Stephenson Collection

Justice Just Is

This year has been one of remembrance and celebration as 2019 marks Santa Ana’s sesquicentennial. With posts on the city’s earliest land holders, the origins of the fire department and police force, and even a look at some of the faces behind Santa Ana’s street names, we have still only scratched the surface of the city’s history. As we enter December, the Bowers Blog takes one final look back at the history of Santa Ana, focusing on a landmark that is familiar to all who have driven the city’s streets: The Old Orange County Courthouse. The Santa Ana Blvd building has a rich history filled with controversy, complexity, and good old courtroom drama. In the 7th and final post celebrating Santa Ana’s sesquicentennial, we explore the controversial and at times dramatic history of the building and how a courthouse-turned-icon continues to establish itself as an important symbol of Santa Ana.

Old Orange County Courthouse under Construction, 1900
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 7 x 10 in.
Gift of Mrs. Leo J. Klotz
Charles Edward Grouard, late 19th to early 20th Century
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 7 x 5 in.
Gift of Mrs. Louise Grouard Mock

Strange Choices

The history begins—as is the case with so many other early Santa Ana stories—with William Spurgeon, the leading pioneer of modern-day Santa Ana. In 1893, the county government bought a plot of land from Spurgeon for $8,000 with the stipulation that they would build a courthouse on it within 10 years. A few years later Charles L. Strange, an architect from Los Angeles, was commissioned by the board of supervisors for the county’s first courthouse. Despite his designs being rejected twice, Strange’s third plan for a Romanesque revival building based on the Mahaska County Courthouse in Oskaloosa, Iowa, was finally accepted in 1900 but he mysteriously disappeared before the building was completed. Though the building has a steel frame, Charles Edward Grouard, pictured above, became a major contributor for doing the building’s red sandstone brickwork. He was a Santa Ana local and had helped build many of the early brick buildings in Santa Ana. The brick maker’s work helped expand and develop much of early Santa Ana into the city we know today. After some minor delays in construction the courthouse was officially completed in November of 1901.

The Old Orange County Courthouse, early 20th Century
Unknown Photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in.
Gift of Mr. Eldon G. McNeil

Gollum, Gollum

The courthouse was a mainstay of the county throughout the early 20th Century, and in 1947 one of its most explosive cases drew national coverage, stirring the city into a fervor. On March 15, 1947 Beulah Louise Overell and George Gollum watched shoreside as Beulah’s parents and their boat were blown to smithereens. The young couple was charged with the murder. Santa Ana residents flooded the courtroom to witness the drama unfold as the young couple pleaded not guilty. Almost every morning of the 133-day long trial the building’s steps were filled with crowds hoping to witness the theatrics. Ultimately Overell and Gollum were found not guilty, but it came to be remembered as one of the most important cases seen in the old courthouse.

Shaking Things Up

The addition of a 2nd courtroom in the Orange County Courthouse in 1914 was the beginning to a never-ending series of changes to the historic building. In 1933, following the Long Beach earthquake, the iconic cupola was taken down due to damage to it. The next big change occurred in 1969 when the courts officially vacated the courthouse and made their way to a newer courthouse on Civic Center Drive. By 1979, the building was officially declared seismically unsafe due to its sandstone construction. With little budget to help it, the historic building was closed.

The Old Santa Ana Courthouse taken by Asfandyar, 2008

Santa Ana Star

A multi-phased restoration for the old courthouse began in 1983 and went on till 1992, when it officially opened to the public as an Orange County historic landmark and museum. Since then, the courthouse has appeared in various films and T.V. shows. The courtrooms are featured in Legally Blonde (2001), Catch me if you Can (2002), J. Edgar (2011) and other films, and a computer enhanced version of the exterior became Briarcliff Manor in the FX television series American Horror Story. The iconic building is a hallmark of Santa Ana’s architectural history and a reminder of how the city’s complex and wonderful history continues to live on into the 21st Century.

Post researched and guest co-written by Yasmine Ghazipour, Intern for the Bowers Museum Collections Department. Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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