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OC Icons

Fifty landmarks, legends and locales that make Orange County amazing.

What makes a place great? As avowed Orange County exceptionalists, we have a long list of local favorites that help make OC a magnet for visitors and residents, new and old. But which rise to iconic status? We came up with 50 movers and makers, buildings and businesses, places and spaces from the past and present without which OC would be a very different place. Though numbered, they’re in no particular order (really!). So let the debate about who and what we left out begin.

1 The Freeways
Love them or loathe them, the 5, 405, 22, 55, 91, 57, and even the 73 and its tollroad contemporaries form the foundations upon which modern Orange County was built. Our coastal identity was well established by the 1950s, but it was the construction of the Santa Ana and San Diego Freeways that connected us to greater SoCal, opened up our interior and inspired everyone from Walt Disney to Henry Segerstrom. And yes, the paving of the place was part of that deal. But so is a vibrant economy, diverse cultural opportunities and the very ability to access our modern lives. Today, crossing the county line from LA is a palpable expression of OC exceptionalism: Even our freeways are better.  

2 Madame Helena Modjeska
Our original celebrity resident, the master of Shakespearean drama was a member of Anaheim's original utopian experiment in 1876. It failed. But her name lives on in the OC canyon and peak that bear her name.

3 Irvine
It's the name of the family, the ranch, the city, the company, and the university that have since 1864 been the most important drivers of OC's march toward prosperity, innovation and modernity.

4 The Beach
We wouldn't be here without it. Would you?

5 The Segerstrom Family
It's hard to imagine a single family bringing such immense value, both commercial and cultural, to what (in the big land grant and Rancho scheme of things) was a fairly small piece of land. South Coast Plaza, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, works of architecture and art by the masters of our time on public display, and philanthropic support for causes of all kind are just some of their gifts that created a more cosmopolitan Orange County.



Noguchi's 'California Scenario'

6 Noguchi's California Scenario
Commissioned by Henry Segerstrom, the sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi was ahead of its time when created 30 years ago, and it still is. It's an abstract, even stark, representation of California’s landscape, and one of our most important examples of the creative collaboration between patron and artist.

7 Rueben Martinez
One of the most inspirational, idealistic and dedicated people in Orange County, the MacArthur genius grant winner is an icon of literacy whose charismatic concern for children is contagious. A barber, a bookstore owner and a true believer in the Latino community, his Libreria Martinez in Santa Ana is now a nonprofit sponsored by Chapman University.

8 Los Rios District
The oldest neighborhood in California is an eclectic and cool place to while part of a day away. The streets, railroad tracks and 200-year-old adobe homes remind us of people who were born, worked and lived on this land long ago, in countries not our own.

9 The Swallow's Inn
Whenever anyone says they understand the "real OC," we ask if they've been to the best honkytonk in California. Cowboys, bikers, billionaires, beach boys in board shorts and babes in bikinis – they're all there in San Juan Capistrano.

10 Balboa
Whether we're talking about the island, the ice cream confection, the ferry, the peninsula, the newly branded Village, or even the dance, Balboa is a name that rings with romance and history.

11 Balboa Bay Club
As the Balboa Bay Resort's much-needed aesthetic and culinary re-invention moves forward, we hope it recaptures the cool cachet the club has historically had with SoCal's celebrities, sailors and swells. But paying homage to the BBC's iconic old-school spirit is key to its future as OC's hipper host of the coast.

12 Botox
Of the numerous products, inventions and brands associated with Orange County, Allergan's production and promotion of a wrinkle-erasing injection captured the imagination of an aesthetically inclined population. With the graying of OC and the world's baby boomers, expect consumers to stick with the anti-aging program.

13 Knott's Berry Farm
Farmers Walter and Cordelia Knott invented the modern theme park experience, growing their Buena Park property from a stand selling boysenberries and chicken dinners into a tourist attraction that helped put Orange County on the tourism map, decades before Mr. Disney.

14 The Back Bay
Today the Upper Newport Bay is teeming with life, an essential ecological preserve that also serves as a recreational and aesthetic respite from our crowded county. Thank Frances and Frank Robinson, among many other Friends of Newport Bay, for fighting to preserve this magical place from 1960s-era development plans.

15 Military OC
From Newport Beach shipyards to bases in Santa Ana, Seal Beach, Tustin and El Toro, Orange County was a key recruit in the fight to save the world from Fascism. And the post-WWII boom of soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines who saw no reason to return to their hometowns, opting for lives in OC instead, drove everything from our housing build-out to the aerospace industry. Fortunes were founded during this era that fund philanthropy still, and the stewardship of the land that remains is part of our mutual legacy to protect for future generations.

16 Blimp Hangars
The Great Park and the twin blimp hangars in Tustin are the most visible reminders of the military's defining presence in OC. While the big orange balloon at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station may develop iconic status over time, the magnificent concrete structures that once housed helicopters and zeppelins are among OC's most visible reminders of an era of great deeds and greater heroes.

17 Crystal/Christ Cathedral
Robert Schuller’s landmark Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove will be formally renamed Christ Cathedral when its renovation to make it suitable for Catholic liturgy is complete in 2016. The campus, which is home to the most significant concentration of contemporary architecture by modernist masters in OC (Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson and Richard Meier), is also being re-imagined as part of the process.

18 Crystal Cove
The state park, preserved historic district cottages, restaurants and natural spaces form a unique hybrid of uses that captures something essential about the OC coast now, and into the future.

19 Donald Bren
Bren has done more to create modern Orange County than perhaps anyone, from building thriving communities, luxury resorts, vibrant retail centers and commercial spaces, to ensuring that 52,000 acres of the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch are permanently protected as open space.



Huntington Beach Pier

20 Piers
Our five promenades beyond the surfline (San Clemente, Balboa, Newport, Huntington and Seal Beach) answer the irresistable urge to go see the sea.

21 Ruby's Diners
The diners, shake shacks and restaurants of the Ruby's in OC are almost all at iconic locations. From piers to historic train depots and downtowns, from Crystal Cove and South Coast Plaza to Irvine, CdM and Laguna Beach, the family-friendly restaurants are part of what it means to be a kid in OC.

22 Mel Mermelstein
In the 1980s the OC-based, Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review offered $50,000 to anyone who could provide “proof that Jews were gassed in gas chambers at Auschwitz.” Newport's Mel Mermelstein, who survived the Nazi death camps, took the group on. When the IHR reneged, Mel sued and won. The judge in the case ruled that the genocide the IHR denied “is simply a fact.”

23 Gene Autry
The original owner of Orange County's major league baseball team, he brought the California Angels to Anaheim in 1966. Everyone wanted to win a World Series for the Cowboy, the great man's nickname from a long career in film, television and radio (a five-tool owner, Autry is the only person honored with five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). But it wasn't to be. Autry died in 1998; the Angels won the championship in 2002.

24 Nolan Ryan
He's the Hall of Famer that the Cowboy let get away. During his career with the Angels, Ryan pitched four of his career record seven no-hitters and broke Sandy Koufax's record by striking out 363 batters in a single season. That record still stands, and with changes in the game of baseball, it's not likely to be broken any time soon. In 1979, Ryan left the Angels after signing a free agent contract with the Houston Astros worth $4.5 million over four years, making him the highest paid player in any sport. He pitched for another 14 years.

25 Mike Trout
So much can happen over a career, a strong argument can be made that it's far too soon to put young Mike Trout on a list of OC icons. At 22, the Angels outfielder is already believed by many to be the best player in baseball. He recently signed a $144.5 million contract that will keep him an Angel until 2020. Let's reconvene then, and see if we are correct about naming him an icon now.

26 Train Depots
OC has a long and colorful history with rail. In the 1800s, James Irvine refused the powerful Southern Pacific’s efforts to run tracks across the Irvine Ranch, winning court battles, and then backing that up with gun-toting cowboys, who confronted railroad workers trying to trespass on the ranch. In 1889, Modesta Avila defied the Santa Fe Railway, going to prison for blocking the tracks with a railroad tie. And Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric trolleys ran across SoCal, opening OC up to be populated and developed. Today, Metrolink and Amtrak trains stop at historic depots in Fullerton, Orange and San Juan Capistrano, Anaheim's ARTIC station is well under-way and plans for light rail and trolley systems are moving along. All aboard!

27 Farmers, Ranch Hands and Citrus Workers
OC's legacy is in the land. Those who labored on it, growing, picking and packing its fruits should be remembered with honor and respect.

28-35 Iconic Disneyland

Walt Disney :: Once a part-time OC apartment dweller, Disney's impact on the county is immeasurable.

Main Street, USA :: Served by rail, trolley and streetcar, it's still OC's most transit-friendly and walkable downtown.

Mickey Mouse :: Though born elsewhere, this immigrant's true home is Anaheim.

Matterhorn :: Though not as impressive as it once appeared from the freeway, the mountain remains an OC landmark.

Monorail :: While not a practical transit solution for the masses, riding the elevated rail still offers an optimistic view of the future – and it's fun!

It's a Small World :: Since 1966, a kid-friendly cruise through a diverse world filled with song, friendship and fun.

Space Mountain :: Walt's original vision was ahead of the technology of his day.

Cars Land :: Honoring yesterday's traditions in an OC that's all about tomorrow.



The Wedge

36 The Wedge
Located at the very end of Balboa Peninsula, the Wedge is one of the best body surfing locations with waves that rise high above the sand as they bounce off the harbor jetty. The result is a spectacular shore break of a wave that only the most experienced should try to ride.

37 Hobie Alter
One of the founders of OC's surf industry, Hobie, who passed away this year at age 80, became synonymous with the beach lifestyle he pioneered.



Laguna Beach Lifeguard Tower

38 Laguna's Lifeguard Tower
The landmark stands proudly in Main Beach Park, itself a symbol of citizens taking a stand against coastal over-development.

39 Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez
Back in 1946, the three Mendez kids couldn’t go to the school next door to their home in OC. It was for whites only. So the Mendezes and other parents took the school district to federal court, and won at trial and appeal. The iconic case came eight years before Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional.

40 Tiger Woods
He is arguably the most accomplished athlete born, raised and trained in OC. Though we assess the champion golfer penalty points for not living here, he earns those strokes back for the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim.

41 Janet Evans
She won four gold medals in Olympic swimming, held numerous world records for historic lengths of time and is an all-around wonderful woman who does OC proud. Plus, she continues to live here with her family. OC's best ever? Perhaps!

42 Trestles
Though technically most of the surf breaks here are in San Diego County, the campground and state beach that have been at risk from toll roads have OC addresses, and local surfers, environmentalists and activists were key in saving them.

43 Richard Nixon
He died 20 years ago and resigned two decades before that, but the only U.S. president from OC still has the power to inspire animus and admiration. Detente with the Soviet Union and traveling to China are among his accomplishments, retiring to San Clemente in disgrace his legacy.

44 Little Saigon
One of OC's most vibrant communities came about as a result of the war that escalated during Nixon's term, and his anti-Communism is still admired among many here. Little Saigon is evolving under the leadership of succeeding generations and is one of the OC's most interesting, diverse and iconic places.

45 Arnold Beckman
A scientist and inventor, Beckman built the foundations of OC technology, philanthropy and academia, including the Beckman Laser Institute at UCI.

46 Lovell Beach House
Though many locals bike, walk and wander by the house on 13th Street and the Balboa Peninsula Boardwalk with barely a glance, one can regularly spot architecture buffs staring admiringly at the place. The house was designed by R.M. Schindler and built in 1926, and is considered one of the monuments of modern architecture in America.

47 Newport Harbor
One of the most picturesque places in California, the harbor was once blocked by sand spits and barely navigable, and destined to be developed as a crowded commercial harbor. Thank goodness San Pedro stepped in to fill that crucial SoCal role, leaving us our idyllic, island-dotted destination.

48 John Wayne
The longtime Newport Beach resident made a career out of playing heroic figures in film and brought much attention to OC as its most famous resident.

49 Tibor Rubin
One of the OC war heroes commemorated at Santa Ana's Civic Center, Rubin is a Holocaust survivor whose incredibly courageous actions in combat during the Korean War (and as a prisoner after being captured) earned him four nominations for the Medal of Honor, which he was finally awarded in 2005.



Sherwood Rowland

50 Sherwood Rowland
Few locals have helped save the world, but UCI’s F. Sherwood Rowland did. The 1995 Nobel Prize winner and his colleagues showed that chlorofluorocarbons from spray cans were damaging the Earth’s ozone layer. He then took the crucial step of explaining his discovery to a doubting world and leading the fight against the threat.

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