Orange Coast College’s campus is one of the friendliest and most attractive you’ll ever encounter.
From whence did it come? That’s a good question. How were the pieces of this complex puzzle assembled over the decades? I’ll attempt to elucidate.
Founding OCC president, Dr. Basil H. Peterson, secured the property for the college in late 1947 – from the U.S. War Assets Administration – for the token fee of $1. The WAA generously awarded him nearly 20 percent of what had been the Santa Ana Army Air Base. The base, which opened in 1942, was closed down and padlocked in 1946, following cessation of World War II hostilities. The base was situated on 1,300 acres of wind-buffeted mesa above the small coastal town of Newport Beach.
“I remember how hard my father worked to secure the 243-acre campus site from the Federal Government in 1947,” says Richard Peterson, an OCC and UC Berkeley graduate, and the eldest son of Basil H. Peterson. “Everybody wanted that property.”
It’s said that Santa Ana College coveted the property for its own campus, and USC and UCLA were interested as well. Santa Ana, in fact, tried to torpedo the awarding of the property to OCC. SAC sent several telegrams to influentials in Washington, D.C. protesting the awarding of the buildings and land to the upstart new Orange County JC. (At the time, Santa Ana College was 32 years old.)
“You have endangered the entire war surplus program for the schools of the State of California,” remonstrated a furious Edwin Dale to Santa Ana College officials. Dale, director of war surplus for the California Department of Education, was livid that SAC’s telegrams had put in jeopardy his carefully crafted program. “If these telegrams are not retracted and California loses the entire war surplus program, your school will be held up as the culprit up and down the state.”
Duly chastised by Dale’s harsh rhetoric, Santa Ana College quickly withdrew its missives.
“My father spent five weeks in November and December of ’47 dealing with the War Assets Administration in D.C.,” Richard Peterson remembers. “Finally, at 11 p.m. on Dec. 23, the U.S. Senate – just before its Christmas recess – approved the bill to award the property to Orange Coast College. We were able to go home for the holidays.
“Over the ensuing months, my father and his vice president, James Thornton, interviewed 900 people for 33 teaching positions…and they hired the best faculty imaginable for that first year of classes. The college opened its doors on Sept. 13, 1948, and I was a Coast student on that first day of classes.”
The campus property sat due west of the deactivated air base’s “O” St. (known today as Fairview Rd.), and contained a vast assemblage of 76 empty, wooden military barracks buildings. The college officially took possession of its new property in January of 1948.
The month following, Peterson and his staff – vice president Thornton and assistant superintendent in charge of business, William F. Kimes – moved from their cramped temporary quarters at Newport Harbor High School to the OCC campus. Peterson set up shop in what had been the Santa Ana Army Air Base’s battalion headquarters, just off “O” St.
Peterson hired Fran Albers as OCC’s carpenter in February of 1948, and within a year he was promoted to director of maintenance and operations. Albers spent 33 years with the college, and ranks as one the most highly esteemed employees in OCC history.
His first assignment was to transform barracks buildings into classrooms, labs, lecture halls, dormitories and staff offices. He, along with his crew of 35 student workers (mostly Coast football players), who were paid 60 cents an hour, turned an Army movie theatre into an auditorium and concert hall; a service club into a 500-seat gymnasium, complete with basketball court and locker rooms; an Army chapel into a facility for theatre productions and student and staff weddings; a military storage building into a library; an Army PX into a student center; a battalion headquarters building into an administration building; and several cadet barracks into student dormitories and married student and faculty housing.
“I had to do the impossible without benefit of a supply budget,” Fran told me a decade ago. He died in 2004. “We didn’t even have finishing nails. But, Dr. Peterson’s hands were tied. He’d been granted the property by the government, but had very little money to expend on getting it ready,”
Fran and his loyal crew of student laborers converted a slew of barracks into classrooms and labs.
“We’d tear lumber out of buildings that were scheduled to be leveled. We cannibalized everything. Nothing went to waste. I took plasterboard ceiling panels out of buildings that weren’t to be used and turned them into wall partitions for buildings that we were converting into classrooms. We recycled all the nails from buildings that we tore down.”
Fran transformed one barracks into a chemistry lab. He built lab tables from scratch. The tables included sinks, drains, water, air, gas and Bunsen burners. A machine welding shop was placed in a POW mess hall, located a couple of hundred yards north, and just west, of today’s new Fitness Complex. That’s right, German prisoners were held at Santa Ana Army Air Base during the war.
Architectural drafting was also housed in the POW building. (For many years – until the 1990s when the POW building was finally torn down after being the last original SAAAB structure left standing on campus – it was used to house upholstery classes. For a time it was the college’s Skill Center. Finally, for many years, it was a general storage facility. Tongue-in-cheek, it was known by staffers throughout the campus as Watson Hall in honor of longtime chancellor, Dr. Norman E. Watson. The REAL Watson Hall materialized years later (it was dedicated in October of 2006) and has been used for more educationally indispensable endeavors.
Engine mechanics was located in a pair of service buildings situated east of the POW building (on today’s soccer field). Petroleum technology was housed in a single service building just south of the POW building (close to the current Fitness Complex).
“The shops were so far removed from the central portion of the campus and so inadequately housed that they became known as ‘Outer Slavonia,’” wrote William F. Kimes in an entry he penned for the 1965 book about the founding of the college, “Tumbleweeds to Roses.”
All the military buildings were considered “temporary.” They were to be replaced later by “permanent” structures.
“(The question that was most frequently asked by the public was): is it necessary to erect new buildings?” Kimes wrote. “Didn’t we have plenty of buildings? Our answer was that there were plenty of buildings, but they were not designed for a community college program, and maintenance would be a major factor.”
The construction of a permanent campus began in earnest in May of 1949 when district voters approved a 29-cents-per-$100 assessed valuation tax increase. The increase was set to run for seven years. More than $4.3 million was collected to build new buildings on Orange Coast College’s campus, and to remodel several existing military structures. A little bit of money went a long way in those post-war days!
Because of the dire condition of the technology shops and labs, the first permanent facility designated to go up on campus was the Technology Building. The 69,000-square-foot structure consisted of three large shop wings extending off a long classroom wing. The shops received abundant shadow-free light from saw-tooth, north-facing skylights. The building was constructed where today’s Arts Pavilion and the new Library stand. Project architect was Robert E. Alexander of Los Angeles. General contractor was the Curlett Construction Co. of Costa Mesa. The $360,000 facility opened in September of 1950, the beginning of the college’s third academic year. It won an American Institute of Architects national award of merit, and remained in use for 44 years until it was demolished in 1994.
In 1951, Dr. Peterson announced to the OCC community that parking lots would be located on the periphery of the campus, and that “no auto traffic” would be allowed through the campus. It was a stroke of genius.
Internationally renowned architect, Richard J. Neutra, and his associate, Robert E. Alexander, designed the theater, which was originally labeled the college’s Speech Arts Building – and most frequently called the OCC Auditorium. Built at a cost of $650,000, the facility – which included the Music Building – was officially dedicated on the evening of March 30, 1955. An OCC musical revue was presented. At that time, the Auditorium was one of the finest performance halls in Orange County.
The facility hosted the first of many summer musicals in August of 1956 – Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”
The new theatre replaced the “old” campus Auditorium – a converted Army movie house – that sat where OCC’s tennis courts are presently located, off Fairview Road. Students felt the “old” Auditorium was too far removed from the center of campus to be used effectively for student assemblies. The fresh Neutra structure anchored a newly emerging OCC quadrangle.
The old Auditorium, which held the college’s opening convocation ceremony in 1948, numerous student assemblies, and seven graduation ceremonies, was used as a storage facility for the Agriculture Department from 1955-59. It was sold to a salvage company in May of 1960 and dismantled for scrap.
The distinctive Neutra building was officially rechristened the Robert B. Moore Theatre in 1982, following the retirement of OCC's third president. Moore was a strong advocate for the arts in Orange County and on Orange Coast College’s campus. He personally attended hundreds of performances in the theater.
In 1992-93, the facility closed down for an entire year to undergo a dramatic interior facelift, and acoustical upgrade, at a cost of $1.6 million, nearly three times the original purchase price of the building. It reopened in the summer of 1993 with an encore production of “South Pacific.” The theatre has been undergoing additional remodeling this year.
OCC construction students built the 2,800-square-foot Faculty House in the spring of 1956. Cost of the facility was $11,000. The Faculty House is still used on campus, and has played host to the Academic Senate and several employee unions for many years.
The $500,000 Science Building opened in the spring of 1957. The crown jewel of the structure was OCC’s circular Planetarium, which offered classroom and community programs and presentations for decades. In addition to the Planetarium, the Neutra-designed facility included a general science room, three chemistry labs, two life science labs and two large lecture rooms. The 50-year-old structure stands to this day.
A $73,000 Agriculture Building opened in October of 1957. Because of changing economics and coastal Orange County demographics, OCC’s Agriculture Department closed down in 1989. The building was remodeled and today serves as an Allied Health Building.
The Home Economics Building opened in the fall of 1958. The building remains on campus today and, curiously enough, is still called the Home Economics Building. Frankly, the title seems slightly antediluvian. The building is home to food and nutrition, fashion, and interior design classes.
The Army chapel burned down on Jan. 31, 1959, sending shock waves throughout the campus and the local community. Inspectors ordered the burned-out shell to be demolished. The chapel sat adjacent to Fairview Road, where the men’s locker room stands today. A student from the college’s very first year visited my office a few weeks back and asked if the chapel still held residency on this campus. He seemed genuinely crushed when I told him that it burned down almost 50 years ago. He told me it had been his favorite building on campus.
By the fall semester of 1958, the chapel’s doors had been closed for a while (the Theatre Department had long since moved to the Moore Theatre). Plans were afoot by a pair of OCC professors – Lloyd Mason Smith (biology) and Bill Payne (art) – to move the building to the west side of campus and convert it into a museum. The fire dashed their hopes.
An arsonist was suspected and was apprehended a short time later as he attempted to set fire to an oil tank in Huntington Beach.
The chapel had become an important campus symbol…and was far more significant to Orange Coast College than it had been as one of eight chapels at Santa Ana Army Air Base. In the fall of 1949, the chapel was used to host the funeral of OCC football star, Rod Gould, who was killed in an automobile accident following a recruiting trip to Northern California.
At least two weddings were held in the chapel. In 1950 Herold Deardorff and Audrey Gray were married there. Audrey served as an OCC and Coast District staffer for several decades. Faculty members, Dr. Giles Brown (dean of the Social Sciences Division) and Beth Cosner (librarian), were married in the sanctuary in November of 1951. Students frequently utilized the chapel as a refuge from the bustling campus scene. It is said that lots of studying – and praying – went on there immediately preceding final exams.
From 1949-58, the chapel was periodically used as a classroom, theatre, lecture hall and community meeting place.
“It will soon be a forgotten part of the Coast campus,” predicted a Barnacle reporter in February of 1959, just prior to the building’s razing. “But for those who knew the peacefulness and solitude the chapel offered, it will live on in memory.”
An outdoor snack bar was constructed in the quad, between the Student Center and athletic field, in 1958-59. It opened for business on June 1, 1959. Cost of the 1,100-square-foot structure was $34,200. It was remodeled several times over the decades and became the Portside Café in the early 1990s. It was torn down this summer.
OCC’s 300-seat Forum – named the Dr. Giles T. Brown Forum during the spring of 2007 – opened its doors in February of 1960. Aside from the Moore Theatre, it was the first large lecture hall to be constructed on campus.
Dr. Giles Brown, an OCC charter faculty member who headed the Social Sciences Division from 1948 through 1960, played a substantial role in designing the building. The exterior is a smaller replica of the globular Robert B. Moore Theatre. The mirror image Forum sits across the quad from the expansive Theatre. Architects Penhall, Blurock and Musick made certain that the Forum conform to the design of its Neutra-created big brother.
During the summer of 1960, the two barracks buildings that served as OCC’s dormitories were torn down. Tragically, one of the workers involved in the demolition was killed when he pulled out a nail and a wall collapsed on him. For a dozen years the dorms had accommodated hundreds of male students and student athletes.
Old gym heads south on Fairview
In January of 1962, OCC opened its sparkling new $757,000 gymnasium. The facility was officially christened the Basil H. Peterson Gymnasium during halftime ceremonies of the OCC-Santa Ana basketball game on Feb. 6, 1962. The gym was packed, and the Pirates won the game, 60-52. Designed by architects Pleger, Blurock and Ellerbroek, the new gym replaced the old wooden Army service club. In April of 1962 the old gym was cut into thirds, placed on huge trucks, and driven south down Fairview Road and east across Fair Dr. to the Vanguard University campus, where it sits today. When it first opened, the brand new Peterson Gym accommodated 2,640 fans, and, in addition to a gymnasium with three basketball floors, it contained dance, weight training and gymnastics rooms, as well as men’s and women’s locker rooms.
Peterson Gym dedication
Peterson Gymnasium hosted the eight-team State Junior College Basketball Tournament in March of 1962. City College of San Francisco captured the state title.
In September of 1962, Orange Coast College sold off seven parcels of campus property, totaling 32.61 acres, fronting Harbor Blvd. The sale helped to finance the purchase of property in Huntington Beach for the Golden West College campus. GWC opened in September of 1966.
The Business Data Processing Building, now called the John Clark Computing Center, opened in the fall of 1963. Tilt-up construction of concrete panels was employed to accommodate future expansion. The building was later expanded several times, as well as remodeled.
The 374-seat Science Hall – the largest lecture hall on campus, excluding the Moore Theatre – opened in the spring of 1964. Modeled somewhat after the Forum, the Science Hall was built on a 70-degree angle, as opposed to the Forum’s 90-degree angle.
By 1965, just 19 of the campus’ original 76 barracks buildings remained standing. The last of the barracks was torn down more than 30 years later, in the late 1990s.
In February of 1965, the OCC Student Bookstore opened a new facility at the north end of the quad, adjacent to the snack bar. Previously, the Bookstore had been situated next to the front of the main entrance to the Student Center (where OCC’s student government offices are today). The new bookstore was constructed at a cost of $100,000. It more than doubled the size of the previous location. The size of the store was doubled again during a 1981 expansion project funded by students.
The Social Sciences Classroom Building opened on the site of the former barracks dormitories in 1965. The new building contained a dozen classrooms. The interiors of the classrooms were dramatically upgraded, enhanced and remodeled during the summer of 2006.
A second campus snack bar – located between the old Art Center and the Technology Building – was completed in September of 1965. The $50,000 structure was commonly referred to as the Art Center Snack Bar and, in the 1990s, took on the persona of a coffeehouse and was known as Campus Grounds. During its 35-year lifespan it was particularly popular among faculty and staff members. It was torn down in 2000 when the Art Center demolition took place, making room for the new Arts Center, Arts Pavilion and Starbucks Cafe.
For nearly 20 years, a road entered the campus off Adams Ave. Called S St., the road followed the agriculture field in a southerly direction through the western periphery of the campus. The road was situated east of the Ag Dept. field and west of the partially paved Adams parking lot. S St. dropped through the campus, passing just west of the Science Hall, Science Building and Technology Building, and then cut through what is today the Merrimac parking lot. S St. then made an abrupt left turn – becoming Merrimac Way – and proceeded due east to link up with Fairview Road.
In 1966, S St. no longer went through campus but was truncated at the Science Hall. The paved portion of the parking lot at that time reached to within a few feet of the Science Hall. In 1976 and 1980, the Literature and Languages and Chemistry buildings were carved out of the first six rows of the parking lot. In the mid-1970s, the entire Adams parking lot was paved. The new paving increased the lot’s size by almost two-thirds. The new asphalt extended from directly behind the southern edge of the stadium, up to Monitor Way. The blacktop put a halt to rainy-day frustrations regularly suffered by students.
Merrimac was straightened so that it directly linked Fairview with Harbor Blvd. Merrimac contained left-turn pockets so that students could drive east into the campus from Harbor and make left-hand turns into the only two parking lots that existed at that time on the southern flank of the campus, the Auditorium lot (Lot C) and the Fine Arts lot (Lot D). Lot E, the Merrimac lot, came along a few years later, and both of the other lots – in several increments – were dramatically increased in size.
In April of 1967, two barracks buildings on campus were intentionally set ablaze by firemen from several surrounding departments to test their “mutual aid” skills. The blaze was choreographed to simulate a plane crash. The buildings had been used by the college for classes and storage since 1948.
The four-story brick Library opened in March of 1969. It was given its name – Norman E. Watson Library – in May of 1984 in honor of retiring chancellor, Norman E. Watson. The 52,500-square-foot building was placed on an athletic field just north of the Santa Ana Army Air Base barracks building that served as the college’s Counseling Center (the center was situated due north of the Student Center on what is now the grassy area in front of the Bursar’s Office). The Counseling Center was torn down in 1970 after its occupants were relocated to the clock tower building. Watson Library remained in operation until September of 2000, and then was closed down for earthquake retrofitting. In October of 2006, it reemerged – after a lengthy hiatus – as the college’s sparkling new Enrollment Center, Watson Hall.
OCC’s Science Lecture Halls 101 and 102, located next to the Science Building and Science Hall, opened in the fall of 1970.
The Center For Applied Science Building (across from Science Lecture Halls 101 and 102, and later called the Lewis Applied Science Building) opened in March of 1971. The building contained distinctive aquarium tanks on its exterior front wall, and marine science and geology labs inside. Today the brick structure is undergoing an extensive renovation.
The $551,000 Environmental Center opened in January of 1972. The 10,000-square-foot building faced Merrimac Way on the oblique, on the approximate footprint of the current Children’s Center. The relocatable building – constructed of prefabricated sections and utterly lacking in personality – was never relocated. It was torn down in the 1990s.
The 25,000-square-foot Skill Center situated next to the western perimeter of the Merrimac Parking Lot – and housing OCC’s Welding and Aviation Technology programs – opened in the spring of 1975. It was named after the college’s first technology dean, John Owens.
Orange Coast College’s $800,000 Administration Building – on the drawing board for more than 20 years – finally opened in the spring of 1975. It’s located between the Student Center and Robert B. Moore Theatre. Dr. Moore, president of the college at the time, predicted at groundbreaking ceremonies that the interior of the building would look “much like a bank.” Unfortunately, he was right. On its site, the new building replaced a Santa Ana Army Air Base wooden barracks building that had been used as a general classroom building. The “old” Administration Building – which contained lots of “character,” and had served as battalion headquarters for the air base – was bulldozed after 27 years of OCC service. It sat just off Fairview Road, on the plot of land between OCC’s parking lots A and B.
The Horticulture Building opened in the fall of 1975 along with the Special Services Building that housed the college’s Tutorial Center and faculty offices. Today the Special Services Building is also home to the Disabled Students Programs and Services Office.
The $1.2-million Fine Arts Building, containing two large lecture halls, a gallery, Photography Department dark rooms and faculty offices, opened in September of 1975. The $250,000 indoor handball-racquetball facility opened next to the men’s locker room in September of ‘75. It was christened the Joseph R. Kroll Racquetball Courts in honor of OCC’s dean who’d died two months earlier. The facility contained a classroom and six 20x40-foot courts with hardwood floors.
OCC’s third snack bar, The Cove, opened in September of 1975 on the west side of campus, near the Center for Applied Sciences. Decades later, in the 1990s, the facility was amicably taken over by Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.
The $485,000 Drama Lab Theatre and Drama Lab Studio annex opened on the backside of the Robert B. Moore Theatre stage in December of 1975. The Drama Lab Theatre accommodates 250 people, and the Studio seats 50.
The “conversation area,” designed by OCC construction technology student, Hal Woods, was completed in the fall of 1976. It’s located between the Computing Center and the Business Education Building.
The $2 million, 27,000-square-foot, two-story brick Literature and Languages Building opened in the fall of 1976. Designed by William Blurock and Partners, it contained classrooms, several language labs, and 28 faculty offices. In February of 1993, the facility was renamed the Virgil D. Sessions Literature and Languages Building in honor of the man who served as Literature and Languages dean, from 1964-84. Virg died in Spring City, Utah in October of 1991.
The $660,000 annex to the Business Education Building, which housed 6,280 square feet of space for the merchandising, display and visual promotion, and office management labs, opened in the spring of 1978.
The $1.8 million, 12,000-square-foot Student Health Center – funded through federal grant funds and local revenues – opened in the fall of ‘78. It was situated between OCC’s Library #3 and Peterson Gym, and was one of the first full-scale community college student health centers to be built anywhere in the country.
The $4.5 million two-story Chemistry Building, located off the Adams parking lot, and west of the Literature and Languages Building, opened in the spring of 1980. Designed by William Blurock Partners, the 33,000-square-foot structure contained six chemistry labs and two large lecture halls.
In June of 1993, the Community Services Office moved into a new 3,100-square-foot facility located between the recently remodeled Student Center and the four-story Norman E. Watson Library. In 2003, the Community Services Program was disbanded, and the building was modified to house the Bursar’s Office.
With the opening of fall 1994 classes, OCC officially unveiled its beautiful $9.6 million, 78,000-square-foot Technology Center. The gleaming steel, glass and masonry structure is located on the western perimeter of the campus, on what had been grazing land for the college’s herd. The building was designed by the Hill Partnership of Newport Beach, headed by OCC graduate and Alumni Hall of Fame member, Rush Hill.
OCC’s spectacular $2.8 million Children’s Center opened in 1995 on an empty parcel of land that had housed the Environmental Center from 1972 until the early 1990s. The 13,000-square-foot Harry and Grace Steele Children’s Center features a “village” of seven cottage-style classrooms situated around a main kitchen. An additional classroom was constructed in 2004. The Children’s Center, originally established on campus by the Associated Students in 1969, was housed in several temporary locations before the Harry and Grace Steele Center was finished in ’95.
The college’s Maintenance and Operations Building, located on the extreme southwestern corner of the campus, off the Merrimac parking lot, opened in 1998. In the spring of 2007, it was named the Fran Albers Maintenance and Operations Center, honoring OCC’s first maintenance and operations director.
Orange Coast College’s $15 million, 60,000-square-foot Arts Center opened in October of 2002. The Center sits on a two-and-a-half-acre site where the 1953 Art Center stood. The Los Angeles architectural firm, Steven Ehrlich Architects, designed the new Arts Center.
In the spring of 2002, OCC dedicated its beautiful state-of-the-art polyurethane-surface track. The 400-meter all-weather surface is one of the finest in the country. In August of 2004, the college christened its state-of-the-art artificial-surface soccer field, north of LeBard Stadium. The surface material is called FieldTurf.
LeBard Stadium was remodeled in 2004, making it more accessible to disabled fans. A new scoreboard was installed. FieldTurf was placed on the stadium floor, and the facility was painted in OCC’s school colors, orange and navy blue.
Orange Coast College’s remarkable $22 million, four-story enrollment center, Watson Hall, opened in October of 2006. It houses virtually the entirety of OCC’s enrollment and student services operation. It’s unique. No other community college in the state has a facility to match it.
OCC broke ground on March 14, 2006 for its $33-million Learning Resource Center (fifth Library). The two-story, 88,777-square-foot center replaces the college’s Norman E. Watson Library, which closed down more than five years ago. The new library will open its doors to students in January of 2008. It will be the largest facility on campus and will include a large study area, computer labs, a 100-seat lecture hall, an archive storage area, book storage, and faculty and staff offices. It sits between the Arts Pavilion and Lewis Applied Science Building.
Construction got under way last February on the Robert B. Moore Theatre and Music Complex upgrade. A new set design shop, costume shop and dressing rooms are being added to the Moore Theatre backstage area. The ticket office and restrooms have been enlarged at the front of the house. The Drama Lab Theatre and Drama Lab Studio are both being upgraded. The project will be completed this fall.
Construction began during the summer of 2007 on a remodel of the Lewis Applied Science Building. That building is expected to be ready for occupancy in early 2009. An extensive upgrade and overhaul has been carried out on the campus’ complex underground utilities system.
There you have it, a comprehensive list of campus construction and conversion projects over the past 60 years. Stay tuned. Many additional projects are on tap for the decades ahead.