COSTA MESA — In the early 1960s, he wrote advertising copy about missiles, and his work caught the eye of a bean farmer who had lost part of his hand in World War II.
The ad man, looking to leave his marketing job in the Missile Systems Division of Atlantic Research Corporation, interviewed three times with the Purple Heart winner before he got the job that would change both their lives.
Together, Werner Escher and Henry Segerstrom helped turn dirty lima bean fields in central Orange County into a shopping and cultural destination that attracts the wealthy. In 1966, Segerstrom hired Escher to be his director of marketing and public relations at a new place called South Coast Plaza, which at the time featured a carousel and air conditioning as its major attractions.
Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of South Coast Plaza, the Segerstrom family’s once regional shopping center. On March 15, 1967, it was anchored by Sears and May Co.
Today, it’s a luxury landmark with 250 stores, 30 restaurants, office towers, world class music and theater, 22 million visitors each year and almost $2 billion in annual revenue. In those 50 years, South Coast Plaza and its surrounding artistic environs became the county’s cultural heart.
It also helped make Orange County a place that could exist independently from its giant neighbor to the north.
“South Coast Plaza became a powerful economic engine that created great wealth for CJ Segerstrom and Sons, provided a large sales tax revenue stream to local governments, and enabled philanthropy that created the Segerstrom Center for the Arts,” said Art Goddard of the Costa Mesa Historical Society. “The Theater and Arts district is significant in establishing Orange County’s cultural independence from Los Angeles.”
Neither Escher or Segerstrom lived to see the golden anniversary. Segerstrom died in 2015. Escher died in January. For almost five decades, their lives were connected by the Segerstrom family’s dream.
“Henry had the plan, and my father helped him take steps to achieve it,” said Sally Niebuhr, the daughter of Werner Escher. “Henry had the anchors. He had the land. He had the vision. My father helped him make it international.” Or, as Segerstrom’s son Anton called Escher in a recent interview, “Our beloved Executive Director of Tourism.”
If you were around in 1967, you may remember how unlikely it was that the shopping center on Bristol Street would become iconic. About 1 million people were living in Orange County (a number that’s more than tripled in 50 years) back then. The 405 Freeway, which had cut through Los Angeles County since 1957, was being extended to meet up with the 5 Freeway in south Orange County, but the extension wouldn’t be complete for two years. And the center, with its Sears and its carousel, was surrounded by miles and miles of bean fields and orange groves and the like. Henry Segerstrom famously said he was advised that a shopping center would never survive in a place with such a small population.
“At the time, Orange County was a beautiful agricultural area,” Anton Segerstrom said. “Our family was a farming family and we were very much tied to the land … In the early years, I have many memories of our farm and ranch house, especially during the harvest period. One fond memory I have was around 1970 when my father came home and shared with us a bag of baked lima bean chips. He thought it would be a wonderful product for us to produce. We all liked them, but nothing really came of the idea.”
Niebuhr was one of the children featured in the first advertising for the center’s May Co., as she was photographed in 1967 wearing an Easter dress and bonnet and, later, back-to-school clothes on the South Coast Plaza escalator. She remembers running around the shopping center on Thanksgiving night as her father oversaw the installation of Christmas decorations.
Escher initially focused on attracting local customers. He organized art shows, athletes of the month presentations, tea dances on summer evenings and even a dog sled race on Bristol.
From its earliest days, no one was allowed to call the South Coast Plaza a mall. It evolved into an international shopping and tourism destination.
“If you called it a mall, my dad would lose it,” Niebuhr said.
But with so few local people to draw from — and with the growth of Fashion Island, which also opened in 1967 — luring shoppers from beyond the county became ultra-important.
Toward that end, Escher found himself inspired by two places — Disneyland and Japan.
“My dad said, ‘We don’t offer rides, we offer retail,’” Niebuhr said. So Escher put together a bus system from John Wayne Airport and local hotels to get visitors to shop at South Coast Plaza. The all-time, single-day record for South Coast Plaza is 64 buses filled with 3,000 shoppers.
And, critically, Escher started marketing South Coast Plaza in Japan.
“He recognized the Japanese had a culture of gift giving,” Niebuhr said. “They give gifts as a way of life.”
That’s the kind of atmosphere Escher wanted to promote at South Coast Plaza — the love of giving.
In the 1970s, Segerstrom took a leap. He went after retail tenants from across the world.
“We opened our first international boutiques – Courreges and Yves Saint Laurent – which was the beginning of our ascent to become a global destination,” Anton Segerstrom said. “Based on the successful performance of these stores, we were able to attract other luxury and designer brands, many of which opened boutiques that were the first in Southern California or the West Coast.
“As the number of stores grew, so did South Coast Plaza’s reputation worldwide.”
In 1986, almost 20 years after the shopping center opened, the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now called Segerstrom Center for the Arts) opened across the street. Now, the Town Center, as it is called, has two concert halls, Broadway-style theater, and a repertory theater.
“The original master plan from the ‘60s included an arts center, hotel, office buildings as well as the shopping center,” Anton Segerstrom said. “As the South Coast Plaza town center continues to evolve, we look forward to the relocation of the new Orange County Museum of Art to Segerstrom Center for the Arts.”
Today, South Coast Plaza remains populated with tour groups from all over the world. Some shoppers carry luggage because they have come straight from the airport.
South Coast Plaza is also, among other things, a sanctuary for the highest of high-end shoppers. Women shop in full makeup and heels; retailers suggest you can tell the reputation of a shopping center by the height of women’s heels.
And then there’s what some of those shoppers go after. You can buy six-figure watches, $5,000 shoes and $1,000 sunglasses without walking more than a few hundred feet.
The ultra rich get an invitation-only pass to ACCESS, a double-doored section of the mall that looks like a hotel lobby. It features private rooms, meeting areas, desks with computers and a Muslim prayer room. Inside South Coast Plaza, the Chinese Lunar New Year is celebrated. Translation services are offered in dozens of languages. Stores accept Union Pay international credit cards.
Louis Vuitton has an invitation-only boutique on the third floor that only a few people know about.
And across Bristol Street, the Town Center continues to grow. The plan is to add a new building to house the Orange County Museum of Art. Sandy Segerstrom Daniels, the co-managing partner of South Coast Plaza, dreamed about the next 50 years.
“I hope the arts will continue to be vibrant,” she said. “It is so important now to involve the next generation in shaping what will come to Orange County. With the Orange County Museum of Art coming to Segerstrom Center for the Arts, I think there can be an incredible synergy between the visual arts and all of the performance arts. What is most important is that we listen to what the community is asking for.”
In his later years, Werner Escher traveled extensively in Asia, representing South Coast Plaza. Last March, he took a trip to China. For his reputation in building South Coast into an international retail hub, Escher was given the Peace Through Commerce medal by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“He developed a sharp insight of the robust Asian market,” Niebuhr said. “He supported not only South Coast Plaza’s vision for the future, but the U.S. government’s national tourism strategy.”