June 14, 2017

Photo Essay: How to Grow a City, From the Ground Up

As much as Orange County was once known as the "Orange Empire," you don't see many signs of that today.

All the orange groves—and orchards of other citrus fruits—seem to have given way to real estate developments.

And for that, you can blame the very same family (and company) that created such a massive agricultural enterprise in the first place: the Irvines.

Those who started out gangbusters as citrus-growers (shifting the area's land use away from ranching, grazing, and lima bean farming) ended up growing something far more profitable than any fruit: a city.

And while Irvine has already shown tremendous growth—from the ground up—since the late 19th century, it doesn't show any signs of stopping.

As early as 1897, after the death of the first James Irvine (a.k.a. James I), James II began giving away some parcels of the family's expansive Irvine Ranch. Those donations created wilderness areas, open spaces, and—in the case of Irvine Regional Park (then known as Orange County Park)—a gigantic, 160-acre playground for picnics and other recreation that's also Orange County's oldest park and California's first county park.

Over the course of the 120 years that followed, the quiet canyon park grew to a total of 477 acres—preserving many historic coast live oak and sycamore trees, some more than 500 years old, throughout the "little hollows and gullies" of the diverse ecosystems that range from native oak and riparian to coastal sage scrub.

The county park remained pretty wild for the first 10 years of its existence; but in 1913, its officials dredged the spring-fed marsh and banked it to form a lake. A year later, they added a boathouse and, in 1928, rechristened Orange County Park as Irvine Park.

It wasn't until the 1930s, though, that the Works Progress Administration contributed the picnic tables, BBQ pits, and Craftsman-style structures—like the hexagonal "Exhibit Hall" and the restaurant, both designed by Santa Ana architect Frederick Eley.

Those buildings are now used today as a ranger station and a nature center.

And, fortunately, there's still a lot of nature to be had at Irvine Regional Park—including a cacophony of birds—even though it spent years during World War II as a military training facility called Camp Rathkey (and a while even as a tuberculosis camp).

The most efficient way to get to know this historic park—and brush up on your Irvine history—is to take a ride on the Irvine Park Railroad.

Over the course of 12 minutes, you'll learn more about the park's centuries-old trees and poison oak grove than you ever would on your own.

The current 1/3 scale railroad didn't open until 1996 (as a venture to save the bankrupt county and inject some cash into the then-failing park)...

...but it recalls the bygone days when park visitors used to ride the rails upon a tiny train, back in the 1920s to the 1950s

The propane-powered train itself is a miniature replica of an 1863 C.P. Huntington mini at locomotive, manufactured by Chance Rides in Kansas.

It chugs along at a leisurely 7 mph...

...with a horsepower clocking in at 60.

The meandering, three-quarter mile ride transports you as much back in time as through the park.

While some of the Irvine-donated lands went to other good, non-commercial causes (like the UC Irvine campus), the Irvine Company eventually evolved from large-scale citrus growers to real estate developers.

And so once that train ride is over, and you eventually have to leave the park, you're catapulted back into modern-day Irvine—a corporatized city of massive shopping centers, master-planned residential communities, and other real estate holdings of The Irvine Company that seem to be in a never-ending phase of new development.

The Irvine Spectrum outdoor mall, for example, opened in 1995 and added a modern (but vintage-inspired) carousel in 2001. Manufactured by Barrango from South San Francisco—which has only part of carousel culture since the 1980s—the carousel at Irvine Spectrum certainly isn't the first one to have been plopped down into a shopping center.

But its placement there is interesting nevertheless, with a Spanish-themed design that matches the aesthetic of the plaza it's in—itself inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Among its 32 figures are fiberglass horses... well as other menagerie animals that represent the designs of many of the renowned carousel carvers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There's the flying mane horse...

...which was originally sculpted by M. C. Illions and Sons Carousel Works (1908-1927)...

...steed horses (sculpted by D C Muller Brothers, 1890-1928)...

...and armored horses...

...which were sculpted by Brooklyn's own Charles Carmel...

...a former carver for Charles Looff.

Carmel was also responsible for the design of the jeweled horses found here.

Among the menagerie, there's the not-very-Spanish camel design by Allan Herschell, as well as a white tiger, a cat with a fish in its mouth, a wild boar, an ostrich, a bear, a jackrabbit, and a deer by Gustav Dentzel.

And as though Irvine Spectrum hadn't gotten big enough already, The Irvine Company added a ferris wheel just one year after it had installed the carousel.

Not just any ferris wheel, either—but a "Giant Wheel" that rises 108 feet high off the ground.

Although made in Italy by Westech Limited, its dangling gondolas have been named after cities in Spain—like Madrid, Ronda, and Pamplona.

From up there, more than 100 feet off the ground, you can catch just a glimpse of what's become of the Irvine family's land empire: now totaling 93,000 acres, more than 1/5 of present-day Orange County. That includes nine miles of coastline and 22 miles inland.

And you can also see how the Irvine Spectrum continues to add new stores, restaurants, and parking structures—with active construction sites clattering away as that big wheel keeps on turning.

Of course, it's not all retail, residential "villages," and workspaces. Irvine Regional Park isn't even the exception when it comes to open spaces.

The Irvine Company has permanently preserved more than 60 percent of Irvine Ranch, carving out 57,000 acres for wilderness and wildlife so they won't fall prey to paved roads or any traffic other than that of the foot.

Look at it as The Irvine Company saving themselves... from themselves.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Ranch That Built An Empire of Oranges
Photo Essay: The Dead Mall of the Carousel
No Single Riders
Photo Essay: The (Temporary) View from Above Vegas
Video of the Day: From the Ferris Wheel

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