The Memorial Gardens Building at the Orange County Fairgrounds is slated to be demolished as part of the Pacific Amphitheatre renovation work. The venue's new plaza will to replace the building, an old World War II-era Army barracks. Local historians have expressed dismay that the building is likely to be gone forever. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / May 16, 2013)

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Nearly a decade after the conclusion of World War II, folks in Orange County decided that a small corner of Costa Mesa should be dedicated to those who didn't make it back home.

A 1.4-acre memorial garden — planned in 1953, erected the following year and dedicated to all who served — was built at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

In its heyday, the Orange County Memorial Garden had its fair share of plants: weeping willows, jacarandas, hibiscus and the like.

The once-quiet garden, though, is long gone, but the former Army barracks next to it — known these days as the Memorial Gardens Building — has been in the area since 1942. Through the decades the building has been fixed up and modified. It has hosted meetings and served purposes large and small.

But the site's 34-year status as a California Point of Historical Interest may not save the building from a planned demolition later this year.

Extensive renovation work for the adjacent Pacific Amphitheatre — whose excavated dirt berm looms closely behind the Memorial Gardens Building's front entrance — is anticipated to effectively drive out the old for the new at the end of this year's fair.

It's a future that some who care about preserving local history — especially something that was dedicated to veterans — hate to see happen, though fairgrounds officials say it was the gardens that had the most historical significance, not the building next to them.


One of some 800 others

The Memorial Gardens Building is a short walk from the O.C. Fair & Event Center headquarters off Arlington Drive. The garden's two-story, 4,800-square-foot structure — with its brown stucco walls, white window trim and red roof — is not particularly picturesque. Its plainness, however, likely stems from the fact that it was just one of many buildings built quickly as the nation prepared for war.

In the 1940s, the Memorial Gardens Building was one of about 800 structures within the Santa Ana Army Air Base (SAAAB) complex, whose 1,337 acres took up a sizable chunk of modern-day Costa Mesa, including the fairgrounds. The base opened in 1942 and was decommissioned in 1946.

Through the decades, the buildings found new uses or were torn down as Costa Mesa grew. A few have survived, notably the Memorial Gardens Building — and that's long been a good thing, said Chris Jepsen, president of the Orange County Historical Society.

"There are very few remaining in-situ remnants of SAAAB, and this was probably the nicest of the bunch," he said.


A better, connected entrance

The site of the Memorial Gardens Building — currently used as a meeting hall, office and archival storage location — is the planned location for a second Pacific Amphitheatre entrance plaza.

As part of the fairgrounds' $25-million master plan, approved in 2003, Pacific Amphitheatre's nearly $18-million renovation is expected to make the setting more intimate, connect the venue to the fair and possibly mitigate the neighborhood noise concerns, officials say.

Traditionally, amphitheater attendees, most of whom come from the fair, had to walk around the venue to get to the entrance facing the parking lot. The new plaza would help concertgoers avoid that walk and more directly connect the venue to fair activities.

The plaza, which will complement Pacific Amphitheatre's existing box offices and entrance from the parking lot, will be constructed within nearly three acres of "reclaimed" land, formerly the venue's dirt berm. The excavation process began in February to rebuild the area into a more festival- and park-like setting.

"It's not a berm removal," Gary Hardesty, the fairgrounds' acting chief technology and production officer, said during an informational meeting in February. "It's a berm enhancement, a berm modification, to allow us to be a more intimate setting, to allow us more of a sound modification."