Vets Museum Project Moves Forward at OC Fairgrounds

A World War II Army barracks known as the Memorial Gardens building is moved in 2013 to avoid demolition in anticipation of its use as a veterans museum.

OC Fair & Event Center

A World War II Army barracks known as the Memorial Gardens building is moved in 2013 to avoid demolition in anticipation of its use as a veterans museum.

Print More

Plans for an Orange County veterans museum are moving forward, with fairgrounds officials recently gaining state approval for an architecture firm to design the facility.

The museum, Heroes Hall, is slated to be built at the county fairgrounds in a relocated World War II Army barracks that had previously been scheduled for demolition.

At this week’s fair board meeting, staff announced that they had just received approval from the state to use the firm ATI Architects for the project.

The firm designed the fairgrounds’ administration building, main mall and hanger building, and is tasked with creating conceptual drawings for Hero’s Hall with the input of a veterans advisory group.

Members of that advisory group said in a video presented Thursday they were excited to see the museum come to life.

“We’re protecting this once-barracks used by the Army, and it’s going to be our hallmark presentation building. And we hope that you’ll all come out” and visit, said Terry McCarty, commander of AMVETS Orange County, in the video.

In comments to the board, Costa Mesa resident Beth Refakes noted that time is of the essence when it comes to World War II veterans.

“I’m very happy to see that we’re moving forward with this project,” said Refakes, a member of the Costa Mesa Historical Society.

“We’re losing our World War II veterans at an astronomical” rate, she added, citing a forecast that none will still be living in about five years.

The historical society has a living history program, in which veterans come to schools and discussion their experiences and “the cost of freedom,” Refakes added.

It’s very emotional experience, she said, with World War II vets coming with their caregivers, walkers and wheelchairs to speak to students.

Fair board President Ashleigh Aitken, meanwhile, asked the fair’s technology director to work with the historical society on getting copies of video of local World War II vets sharing their stories, so they could be used at the museum.

The fairgrounds themselves are steeped in military history.  During World War II, the land was part of the 1,300-acre Santa Ana Army Air Base, a major training ground for pilots in the war.

About 128,000 pilots, navigators and bomb aimers graduated from training at the base, according to the historical society.

It also served as an exit point for returning service members, with over 72,000 combat returnees processed there in the mid-1940s, according to the historical society.

Today, the former base’s land includes the fairgrounds, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa High School, the Costa Mesa Civic Center, Tewinkle Park and an Air National Guard combat communications squadron.

Over $1 million has been allocated by the fair board for the museum, officials say, with plans to raise funds from other donors.

Organized labor is ready to help, said fair board member Nick Berardino, who is also general manager of the county’s largest public workers’ union, the Orange County Employees Association.

“I think that the labor community is anxious to step up,” said Berardino.

Refakes said many in the community want to make donations, and want to know how long it will be before they’ll know which organization to give to.

That issue is slated for discussion by the fair board at their next meeting, on March 26.  The meetings are held at the administration building, through Gate 4 off of Arlington Dr. and Fairview Rd.

While the museum won’t be finished by this summer’s fair, plans are in the works to have a small preview exhibit to show fair attendees what it will look like.

The fairgrounds also has a website for the museum project, at