The small, circular island at the center of the iconic traffic circle at the heart of Old Towne Orange is one of the town’s most prominent celebrities (step aside, Amber Lynn). The Plaza or the Circle—the proper name is subject to a haughty, persistent debate—has been featured in shows such as Parks and Recreation and California’s Gold with Huell Howser. It consistently confuses us bumbling Americans not particularly accustomed to traffic circles, and it’s not uncommon to see a car stuck up on the island because some boob took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.
At its center is the island’s jewel: the fountain. A quaint and charming relic, the 1937 light-up Westinghouse electric fountain was installed as part of the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) program intended to revitalize and rejuvenate a stumbling American economy as part of FDR’s New Deal.
However, it’s actually not the original fountain from the early days of the Plaza (the modest park was built in 1886 and is Orange County’s oldest designated parkland, added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978). That distinction belongs to a gorgeous Victorian-era metal fountain which was erected in 1887 and stood there for 50 years.
It was brought to the town courtesy of the dogged efforts of the Victorian-era women who lived in Orange at the time. What started in 1870 as a remnant of a defunct rancho given to two lawyers in lieu of attorney fees—one named Alfred Chapman, the other Andrew Glassell—was blossoming into a full-fledged city of some 700 residents by the 1880s. Little old Orange had gotten itself a schoolhouse, a post office, a fancy hotel (now Wahoo’s Fish Tacos), even a newspaper.
At the center of this budding business district was a town square—essentially a dirt lot with wild foliage and weeds. Orange Post‘s early publisher, Alice Armor, once wrote, “Castoff boots and shoes, old hats, broken crockery and dead hens were scattered here and there. Such was the Orange plaza in the good old days.”
With the boom of the 1880s in full swing, residents decided it was high time to clear out the old boots and crockery (which would fetch a pretty penny within one of the antique malls that surround the area nowadays) eyesore and pretty up the Plaza.
It was the Orange Women’s Christian Temperance Union that banded together to raise funds and favor for a grand fountain to put at the center of the Circle. Seemed the good Christian ladies wanted a dry town with a wet fountain.
A fundraising effort began in 1886, with the first big to-do being a “June Jubilee,” which was met with rave reviews from the Orange Tribune. “The programme . . . was carried out to perfection and resulted in an entertainment of the highest order of merit and was greatly enjoyed by the large audience.” The two-day affair raised $160.
The gals purchased the fountain from New York before they had raised the funds required, and it was installed in March 1887 to much fanfare. But they were still $147.33 under water. Their solution: a play!
Local actors put their heads together and wrote something about Orange itself. The Plaza: A Local Drama In Five Acts poked fun at the town and the population boom of the 1880s. Characters such as Chatterman and Gaswell (Chapman and Glassell, natch) appear alongside Johnny-come-latelies from back East with names such as Ignorance Bliss. The play was a hit and ran for two nights on the second floor of the brand-new Bank of Orange Building (now occupied by Wells Fargo), raising well more than the amount needed.
The benefactor of the play—the fountain, that is—stood tall in the middle of the circle for some 50 years. It was moved to Hart Park in 1940, then later put into storage (WTF?!). That fountain was rescued from obscurity, restored and proudly displayed outside the City Council chambers in 1981. Today, it stands outside the main branch of the Orange Public Library, just a few blocks from its original location. And probably for the best, too, considering the current fountain is often subjected to the pranks of local high-school kids who clog it with bubble bath and half-naked, fully inebriated co-eds who’ve been known to jump in during the Chapman Undie Runs. Wouldn’t the Women’s Christian Temperance Union be proud?