Chris Jepsen will present the story of Santa Ana’s famed Saddleback Inn and its founder, Bruce Gelker, at the Oct. 9, 2014 meeting of the Orange County Historical Society, 7:30 p.m., at Trinity Episcopal Church, 2400 N. Canal St., in Orange.
The path of Bruce Gelker’s life is completely intertwined with the very fabric of Orange County: From the adobe home he grew up in at Olive, to cowboys, Indians, citrus packing, Santa Ana College football, roadside attractions, the Marine Corps., the post-war development boom, the rise of the Disneyland resort area, the Nixon administration, El Viaje de Portola, and professional sports teams,… just for starters. But probably his most significant Orange County moment was in 1964 when he opened his $1.5 million Saddleback Inn. It had a distinctive style, was much more than just a hotel, and swiftly became a key local landmark and gathering place for businessmen, government officials, politicos, professional athletes, and Orange Countians in general. Celebrities and dignitaries often stayed there when visiting the area.
The Saddleback Inn was located at 1660 E. First St., near the Santa Ana Zoo. It featured an architectural look based loosely on Bernardo Yorba’s home, and was decorated in a style Gelker called “Orange County Americana.” In addition to the hotel, restaurant, lounge, and meeting and banquet rooms, the Inn also featured a variety of shops including The Coachman (men’s clothing), the Western Art Gallery (fine art and antiques), Joan Buck (ladies’ fashions), a wine cellar, a barber shop, a beauty salon, a travel agency, an investment company, the Gelker, Riffle & Rohrer Insurance Agency, and the radio station KYMS 106.3 FM.
The Western Art Gallery was a very high-profile feature of the Inn, drawing all the top Western artists of the day. Gelker’s love for art depicting the Old West continues today, and we will also see samples of some of his favorite works by artists once shown in his gallery.
In the 1980s, the movers and shakers moved and shook their way to newer digs in Newport Beach and Irvine. Meanwhile, the area around the Saddlback Inn was not faring well. In 1984, Gelker sold the Saddleback Inn to a group of investors that included former President Nixon’s Chief of Staff (and key Watergate figure) H.R. Haldeman. From then on, the Inn went into a steady decline, and a series of owners, culminating in a string of fires and the demolition of the majority of the buildings in 2013.
But between its rise and its fall, the story of this landmark Orange County business was full of twists, turns, fascinating personalities, and historic moments.
Our speaker, Chris Jepsen is a local historian and the Assistant Archivist at the Orange County Archives, in addition to serving as president of the Orange County Historical Society. He also maintains The O.C. History Roundup blog and writes the “Ask the O.C. Answer Man” column for Orange Coast magazine.