Found  /  Explainer

Orange County, Colorado

How a California homebuilder remade the Interior West.

MANY STORIES OF THE POSTWAR housing boom stop there. But GI ranch houses are a thing of the past: Since 1975, homes have nearly doubled in size. Americans have traded “little boxes on the hillside” for spacious cookie-cutter homes. Ranch houses clumped together in small developments by local builders have been replaced by planned communities built by national corporations.

Once again, the changes came from California. And it was this next generation of homebuilding that my dad stumbled upon the day he showed up at Mission Viejo, Aurora.

After World War II, the federal government didn’t stop investing in the West—in fact, during the Cold War, its spending in the region surpassed prior expenditures. As Los Angeles’s population continued to grow and cheap, developable land became more scarce, homebuilders moved into Orange County, then comprised of large cattle ranches and citrus farms. The county’s population multiplied tenfold from 1950 to 1987, from 200,000 people to more than two million—spurred especially by Disneyland’s opening in 1955.

Two developers competed neck and neck to dominate the county’s construction. In 1963, the Irvine family unveiled a master plan to transform their 93,000-acre ranch, whose lands had been incorporated as the Irvine Company since the 1890s, into a master-planned city that would be the largest private development in the world. That same year, Mission Viejo Corporation formed to build out the 53,000-acre Rancho Mission Viejo in the southern half of the county.

Though Mission Viejo began building slightly after construction started on the Irvine Ranch, it built faster and sold more homes than its competitor. It also did all the building itself, while the Irvine Company contracted with eight other firms, some from the Bay Area. Orange County historian Jim Sleeper attributed this success to Donald Bren, Mission Viejo’s urban planner and principal builder. “Bren’s house designs better reflected what Californian’s [sic] thought a typical dream house should be,” he noted in the 1970s. They were “more in the California ranch house tradition,” he said, while Irvine’s were more “architecturally oriented.” By fiscal year 1968, Mission Viejo had 1,300 housing starts; the Mission Viejo Reporter, the company’s weekly newspaper for residents and prospective buyers, said it was “believed to be the largest single-family residential construction program by one firm at one site in a decade.”