The sweat may be gone from its brow, but the muscle of the Segerstrom family continues to shape the history of the city.
From toiling in the fields to hustling in the boardrooms, Henry Segerstrom has watched Costa Mesa grow from a farm community to the “City of the Arts.” Unlike others who have lived in the city since before incorporation, the family patriarch has the distinction of helping forge the city’s history, not just living through it.
Henry Segerstrom was 30 years old when Costa Mesa was incorporated. Just getting started in the family business, Segerstrom became a strong component of the city’s evolution.
“Personally, I believe the most important decision the Segerstrom family ever made was the decision to annex properties to Costa Mesa rather than Santa Ana,” Segerstrom said. “That determined the growth potential of Costa Mesa, and from that point on, it has been an experience of very rapid growth and transition from farming to development.”
Where lima bean fields and dairy farms once abounded stand the world-class shopping center South Coast Plaza, a premiere performing arts district, the Home Ranch property and a business district housing skyscrapers with views of all of the above mentioned.
Always the polished professional, Segerstrom focused on business, the family name and the pride of helping to shape the city’s past, present and future. The gleam in his eyes when he talked about his heritage, his favorite spots in the city and the future of Costa Mesa gave insight to his deep-rooted affinity for the area once known as Greenville.
“I get a thrill out of the Performing Arts Center,” he said. “Going to Segerstrom Hall and seeing how many people enjoy it and what it means to people.”
In 1882, Charles John Segerstrom, 28, and his wife, Bertha, took their three young children and left Sweden — where C.J. had learned to farm — for the United States. The family landed in Orange County in 1898.
After a wagon trip to present-day Costa Mesa, the family sowed its rural roots. At first, they leased the 40 acres, growing alfalfa to feed cows and starting a dairy. After some success, Segerstrom bought the land on Fairview Road north of where the San Diego Freeway now runs. The family still refers to the land as Home Ranch.
Segerstrom said he has always been very proud of his family, from its farm worker roots to the white-collar branches. The family agricultural operation once covered land as far south as Wilson Avenue in Costa Mesa and as far north as Warner Avenue in Santa Ana.
“Personally, I enjoyed very much the exhilaration of [farm work], but I am very proud of our family for accommodating the needs of a growing community,” Segerstrom said.
While the agricultural business was still booming, the family ventured into development. In 1948, the family took its first step away from agriculture and purchased the warehouse and supply area of the former Army base in Santa Ana. Coincidentally, that was the first year Henry Segerstrom started working for the family business, he said. “I was involved in the leasing of those warehouses,” Segerstrom said.
Considered the leader of the family’s successful transition from farming to the world of development, Henry Segerstrom — third generation — is best known for developing South Coast Plaza and the South Coast Metro area and providing the vision and money to build the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory theater. His involvement in the performing arts is extremely rewarding, Segerstrom said. The cultural district puts the gem in the city’s crown.
“When I was younger, we didn’t have those presentations. The community was too small,” he said. Segerstrom enjoys the occasional peaceful visit to the Estancia Adobe, which sits on five acres of park land his family donated to the city.
“I like to walk around there and I am very proud our family had a part in saving that land,” he said. And, of course, he never gets tired of going to South Coast Plaza. Segerstrom holds near to his heart the very firm belief that his family developed Costa Mesa while always taken into account the integrity of the land and the interests of the community.
When the family started construction on May Co., people questioned the wisdom of placing a retail store in the middle of desolate land. When the beams for the Westin Hotel went up, people were skeptical.
“People thought we were crazy when this 17-story building was in construction,” Segerstrom said.
The community continues to marvel and criticize the family’s development decisions, but it all comes with the territory. Segerstrom said he will continue looking forward, bringing high-quality projects that he believes will have the same success as those in the past.
“Time has proven those decisions were well made,” Segerstrom said.