Fifty years ago there was not a 405 Freeway, there were no luxury resorts along the Orange County coast and there was little reason to visit the area other than a trip to Disneyland or a day at the beach. Locals looking for a little luxury in their life had to make the trek to Los Angeles to shop.
Now, thanks in large part to South Coast Plaza, Orange County is an internationally known destination, with millions of visitors traveling from throughout Southern California and around the world to enjoy the iconic shopping center’s 250 stores and restaurants.
In 2017, South Coast Plaza will celebrate its 50 years of history with events, exhibitions, parties and, yes, plenty of shopping.
In 1967, the Segerstrom family that owns South Coast Plaza was still mainly known for growing lima beans. Theirs were the best in the United States, and had been for decades. The family of Swedish heritage first settled in Southern California in the last years of the 19th century. They bought and farmed more and more land over the years, until their agricultural empire covered 2,000 acres of prime land.
In 1948, Henry Segerstrom returned to Orange County after years away. He had served on the battlefields of Europe, where he earned a Purple Heart, and graduated from college and graduate school at Stanford. He would bring an MBA and life-changing experiences to the family farming business run by his father and uncles. Soon, he and his relatives realized there were ample opportunities in real estate as the area experienced a post-war boom. While the farm continued as a success, the Segerstroms became developers of commercial buildings that drew the aerospace industry and other businesses to the area.
In the 1960s, department stores such as Sears and May Co. were looking for locations to expand. They contacted the Segerstroms, who saw the opportunity to build a shopping center on the part of their farm next to where the new 405 freeway would soon be built.
The family hired Victor Gruen to design what they’d call South Coast Plaza. The architect is considered the person who invented the shopping mall.
Henry Segerstrom showed a unique talent for courting luxury brands and convincing them to come to South Coast Plaza, often seeing their potential to be popular in Orange County before they did.
South Coast Plaza debuted in 1967 with some 70 stores, with Sears on one end and May Co. on the other. Soon, the Segerstroms would begin expanding the shopping center, both in square footage and in luxury appeal. Henry Segerstrom showed a unique talent for courting luxury brands and convincing them to come to South Coast Plaza, often seeing their potential to be popular in Orange County before they did. Many opened their first West Coast stores at the shopping center.
Segerstrom convinced Nordstrom to open its first department store outside of Seattle at South Coast Plaza, with immediate success. Saks Fifth Ave., Barneys and Bloomingdale’s would be among the many top department stores that would come to Costa Mesa in subsequent years.
Tiffany and Co.’s debut at South Coast Plaza in 1988 was a coup, and its success helped pave the way for top New York and global jewelry and fashion boutiques that followed. Hermès, Chanel, Cartier, Dior, Gucci, Cartier, Harry Winston, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino are just a few of the remarkable names are among the incredible mix of luxury merchants at South Coast Plaza.
Fifty years after it opened in the middle of what must have seemed to be nowhere, South Coast Plaza is one of the most successful shopping centers in the world, with sales of some $2 billion a year. It’s surrounded by an arts and culture campus, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, that was built on land donated by the Segerstrom family and that has grown into the creative heart of Orange County.
As South Coast Plaza marks its 50 years in Orange County, Beyond the Curtain will have much more about this remarkable story.
Early Segerstrom family farming operations
The site of South Coast Plaza
Henry Segerstrom and Victor Gruen during the design phase of South Coast Plaza
South Coast Plaza ribbon cutting ceremony
The South Coast Plaza entrance
South Coast Plaza circa 1973
South Coast Plaza Today
South Coast Plaza in 2016