First American Title Insurance Company Building, Santa Ana
When the City of Santa Ana created its downtown historic districts it left an island of unprotected space that is the block occupied by First American Title Insurance Company, bounded by N. Main, N. Bush, E. 4th, and E. 5th streets. A redevelopment application for the entire block is now before the City's Planning Commission. It includes construction of a mixed-use complex and demolition of all existing structures.
Standing in this location, at the corner of N. Main and E. 5th- but concealed under a 1966 veneer of sheet metal and brick- is Orange County Title Company, a 1931 Art Moderne building associated with the earliest history of First American, and Orange County itself.
There are elements of the 1931 exterior vestibule- terrazzo floor, decorative ceiling and fluted columns- that were integrated into the modern construction and remain visible on N. Main today. However, because the 1931 building isn’t fully exposed, the environmental report commissioned for the project concluded that there is no historic structure on the site. City staff has maintained that the site is without historic merit because it's not within a historic district, and has been unwilling to challenge the environmental assessment.
Preserve Orange County and local community groups believe further investigation is required. If the 1960s-era alterations are reversible- as we believe they are- then the 1931 building may be restored to a new use. While we may support a mixed-use development in the project location, we don’t believe it’s necessary to demolish historic structures to achieve a desirable outcome for all stakeholders.
The City's own General Plan is clear about the value of historic preservation to the local economy and quality of life in Santa Ana. The General Plan policies as interpreted in the Transit District Zoning and EIR- to which this block is subject- emphasize the need to preserve and design in accordance with the pre-World War II architecture of the neighborhood.
Upon the request of Preserve Orange County, the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, Historic French Park and others, the City’s Planning Commission agreed on September 23, 2019 to delay their decision for thirty days and requested that the parties meet to resolve the preservation questions.
The Building’s Contested History
Because the 1931 Art Moderne building is not fully visible, it’s not currently eligible for the California Register, and is therefore not technically “historic,” thus our request to uncover the outer layer so that a true evaluation can be made. But the environmental assessment done for the project also claims that the site isn’t historic because the authors contend that the title insurance industry wasn’t a significant factor in the city’s or county’s pattern of history. Historian and archivist, Chris Jepsen, has drawn a different conclusion based on his research. Chris explains that recording property title was an essential service needed by the business and property owners in the newly formed County of Orange. See Chris Jepsen’s blog about First American here.
For the assessment of the site commissioned for the current project, click here, and scroll down to Appendix C.