How the City of Orange Circled Its Towne Square

The Orange Plaza, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Orange Public Library.

Circle or square? There couldn't be a more obvious distinction between geometric shapes, but that hasn't prevented an endless debate over what to call the historic landscaped park at the center of the City of Orange. Casual acquaintances know it as the Orange Circle -- a reference to the park's circular shape and to the roundabout that surrounds it. Good friends of the park, however, call it Orange Plaza Square -- a reference to the rectangular space enclosure created by the surrounding buildings. That's also the name found in official documents, and a usage that's become the marker of a true local.

Whatever its name, the park has been the physical heart of the city since 1871, when William T. Glassell platted the town of Richland (renamed Orange two years later) around a rectangular plot of public land. In its early years, the plaza was little more than an undistinguished open square, 292 feet wide by 330 feet long. The town's two main streets intersected in the dusty void, and at the center water piped in from a local well leaked from a trough. Weeds grew everywhere. A local merchant improved the situation by planting a few dozen pepper trees in the early 1880s, but it wasn't until 1886 that Orange set about beautifying its central plaza.

Using funds raised privately through bake sales, bazaars, and stage productions, residents placed a bronze fountain at the center of the square. Around the fountain went a formal park navigated by two pairs of parallel walks and planted with palms and magnolias. (The original pepper trees were removed with some controversy.) Encircling the entire part was a dusty drive that linked up with the town's two main streets, Chapman and Glassell.

That basic plan survives today, even though the forces of traffic modernization have long threatened the circular park at the square's center. In 1956 the city reduced the number of crosswalks through the traffic circle from four to two. In the late '60s it shaved off the park's perimeter walkway in favor of an extra traffic lane and nearly banned pedestrians from the park altogether. Yet Orange has always resisted calls to replace the slow-moving roundabout with a more conventional intersection. And so the Orange Plaza Square -- home to the city's Christmas tree, the center of its annual street fairs, and now the heart of Old Towne Orange -- remains a circle.

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To learn more about the City of Orange and its historic circular square, see "A Brief History of Orange, California: The Plaza City" (2011, The History Press) by former Orange County Archivist Phil Brigandi. The Orange Public Library Local History Collection is also a treasure trove of historical resources, including photographs -- only a small sample of which appear here.

1893 survey map of the Orange Plaza. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

This is likely the oldest extant photograph of the Orange Plaza, taken in 1887. Courtesy of the Orange Public Library.

Another 1887 view of the plaza, showing two men who are often (but questionably) identified as Orange's founders, Alfred Chapman and Andrew Glassell. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

The Orange Plaza in 1888. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

The Orange Plaza, circa 1891. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

The Orange Plaza, circa 1905. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Downtown Orange, circa 1907. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Orange hosted its first street fair in 1910 -- a tradition that was revived in 1973 and continues to this day. Courtesy of the Orange Public Library Local History Collection.

The Orange Plaza Square decorated for the holidays in 1937. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

An aerial view of Orange in 1950. Courtesy of the Orange Public Library Local History Collection.

The circular park at the center of town has long been a popular place for relaxing. 1960 photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

Before a series of changes altered the original design, the park's perimeter walkway was wider with more outward-facing benches. 1960 photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

The Orange Plaza Square in 1975. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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