Garlands, Gargoyles and Cornices: A Santa Ana History and Architecture Mini Tour

Garlands, Gargoyles and Cornices: A Santa Ana History and Architecture Mini Tour

Santa Ana has been Orange County’s administrative, cultural and artistic nucleus since the county successfully broke away from Los Angeles in 1889 – so it stands to reason the City is home to a wealth of architectural and historical treasures. 

To uncover a side of Santa Ana that most visitors miss, we turned to the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society who chronicles a time “when paper clips, picture postcards, safety razors, ice cream cones and the yellow pages were the newest fads."

From its first years, Santa Ana was the destination for wealthy merchants looking to capitalize on the booming population and build spacious homes on the comparatively inexpensive lots. The result is a compact and surprisingly walkable downtown filled with ornate columns, garlands, gargoyles, cornices and other visual delights not often associated with the OC.

Santa Ana has, in fact, more buildings on the National Register of Historic Places than any other OC city.

Start at the historic Queen Anne-style Howe-Waffle House, built in 1889 by Willella Howe-Waffle, one of the county’s first female doctors. Slated for demolition in the 1970s, the Queen Anne-style residence became the stimulus for Santa Ana’s preservation movement when a group of concerned citizens formed Friends of the Howe Waffle House, which eventually became the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society.

In a fitting twist, the history-minded residents saved the home under a city provision that the Preservation Society restore and maintain the aging building as its headquarters. 

Cross Sycamore Street to the Old Orange County Courthouse, an imposing Romanesque Revival building that has served as a filming backdrop for some of Hollywood’s biggest, including Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde), Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio (Catch Me If You Can), Naomi Watts (J. Edgar), Jessica Lang (Frances) and Henry Fonda for the 1980 TV movie Gideon’s Trumpet.

Take the double grand staircase inside the Courthouse to the third floor to the Orange County History Center and the spectacularly restored Courtyard No.1.

From there, head south on Broadway and turn right on 4th Street to a charmingly restored block of stores, restaurants and offices across from the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse. One block down on the left is the West End Theater, which opened in 1909 as the Temple Theater, OC’s first live theater, but changed to a movie house in 1915. It was restored again in 1936 as the 884-seat Walker’s Theater, opening with Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl, before becoming a foreign film theater, adult movie house and finally a pair of restaurants, including the trendy Barrel Room wine bar. If these walls could talk.

Continue south on Broadway past 3rd Street to the Santora Building, a block-long 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival structure boasting a distinctive Churrigueresque facade. From 1934 to 1944, Daninger’s Tea Room occupied much of the second floor, attracting the likes of Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Gracie Allen, George Burns and William Holden for its home-style cooking. Today, the Santora is home to art galleries, stores and restaurants, including the popular Lola Gaspar and the newest branch of the Congregation Ale House.

To schedule a longer escorted tour of Santa Ana, offering countless more stories, visit the tour page of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society.