History of the Great Park

Learn how a retired military base, with a rich agricultural history, began a whole new life as a great metropolitan space — the Orange County Great Park.

Agricultural History

In 1864, James Irvine Sr. and two partners bought and assembled the Irvine Ranch from three major Spanish-Mexican land grants south of Los Angeles. Making up nearly a third of present-day Orange County, these 110,000 acres dominated the region’s agriculture in the first half of the 20th century. Tenant farmers living and working on the land farmed cash crops such as lima beans and oranges. Nearly 20 years after assembling Irvine Ranch, James Irvine Sr. passed away and left the land to his son, James Irvine Jr.

Agricultural enterprises fueled the economic development of Orange County in the years leading up to World War II, and James Irvine Jr. became one of California's major agricultural farmers. By 1910, Irvine Ranch was known as one of the state's most productive growing enterprises. The ranch would also become the top producer of lima beans in the world. 

Military History

The morning of December 7, 1941, changed U.S. history forever, including the future of the James Irvine holdings. The devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor marked the start of the U.S. entry into World War II  and the end of the Irvine Ranch as a solely agriculture enterprise. In May 1942, Lt. William J. Fox discovered Irvine’s expansive lima bean fields on a trip to the region to identify a potential location for a new Marine Corps air base. Construction on the base commenced on August 1, 1942. 

During World War II, the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro served as a training base for pilots, aircrews, and ground personnel. It was a major debarkation location for military personnel being deployed for overseas duty. After the war ended, Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was placed on the list of seven locations to be maintained in active status. It was officially closed July 2, 1999. 

History of Park Plans

As Orange County continued to be an economic powerhouse with massive population growth, developers and community leaders saw great potential in the former base to bring more history, art, culture, housing, and people together for decades to come. Initial proposals after the retirement of the Marine Corps Air Station included an international airport, housing, and the Great Park. In 2001, Orange County voters passed ‘Measure W,’ authorizing the former air station's use as a central park/nature preserve and multi-use development. The measure was passed, which led to the designation of the land as the Orange County Great Park.

For development agreements, environmental impact reports, and more on history of the park plans, visit the Great Park Key Documents webpage here.

Historical Aspects of Current Park

The Marine Corps Air Station El Toro’s World War II-era atmosphere and architecture have been preserved by means of adaptive reuse of existing buildings, a strategy that aligns with the Great Park's ecological values. Re-purposed military structures in the Palm Court Arts Complex now form a cultural campus supporting the development of a fresh approach to establishing an interdisciplinary, public arts program.

Additionally, the historical Hangar 244 features historical images, displays, and artifacts that tell the story of the Great Park from its agricultural roots to its role in the military as Marine Corp Air Station El Toro. Learn more at ocgp.org/arts.