Orange had an immense empty building and the public got together to turn it into a community center.
The building became the “Orange Youth Center.” It had a skating rink, ping pong tables section, billiards room, lounge, and concession stand. All kinds of clubs and groups had activities and meetings in the center.
The Orange Community Band had a rehearsal hall. The Orange Junior Rifle League had a rifle and pistol range. OCARC began there and had a section to use. The Orange Art League had a studio.
The Youth Center opened in June 1958 in a former hospital. The sprawling building was constructed during World War II as a hospital to serve the city’s population of shipyard workers here for the defense effort, estimated as 60,000.
Las Sabinas, the journal of the Orange County Historical Society, in 2007 had a history of the Youth Center, which was later named the Thomen Community Center in honor of Martin K. Thomen Sr., a former mayor. (His son and grandson later served on the city council.)
After the war, hundreds of the Baby Boomer generation were born at the hospital. Later, they would go to the same building for club meetings, art lessons, roller skating, birthday parties, teas, and bridal showers.
The Las Sabinas story used research from Orange City Commission (now the council) minutes along with newspaper articles to report the history.
Industry executives, community leaders,and government officials had joined together to build a new public hospital, leading to Orange Memorial Hospital. The city was faced with a vacant building and land.
The hospital was on an irregular triangle formed by Park Avenue, Burton Avenue, and 20th Street. It is now the parking lot for Shangri La Gardens, along with a small city park.
City officials first had the idea of building a sewer station on the site. But they were also looking for a way to provide recreation for the youth in the city, which had a population of 31,556.
The city commission appointed a committee to study the needs for recreation. Commissioner Robert N. Whitehead Jr. chaired the committee. Other members were Mrs. Laura Colburn (head of the Orange Camp Fire Council), Paul Pearson (principal of Stark High School), Louis M. York, Merrill Stringer, and Carolyn Rains.
The commission reported that the old city hospital offered “potentialities” of all kinds for youth and the community. The commission decided to start remodeling plants.
It didn’t take long for clubs and organizations to start going to commission meetings for requests. Parents of special needs children wanted to start a sheltered workshop, which became OCARC. The Civil Air Patrol for boys wanted to use the laundry area.
The American Association of University Women wanted the city to turn the small building constructed as a polio ward into a public library. The Junior Police needed a room, as did the Cancer Society.
As the effort continued, Whitehead asked for local youth to get involved in the planning and fundraising. The remodeling cost $75,000, about $652,000 in 2018 dollars, according to the federal inflation calculator.
The remodeling included 8,970 square feet for the Youth Center, 1,000 square feet for the library, and 20,000 square feet for other purposes.
The Youth Center opened in June 1958 with a ceremony and an estimated 1,000 people touring the building. Herb Meeks was mayor, and city commissioners were Lawrence Smaihall, James D. Gilliam, Elvin E. Bonnin, and Whitehead. Teenagers Joyce Craig and George Jones, seniors at Stark High, were on the advisory committee.
The Youth Center was open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. in the summer, including Saturday nights. A free movie was shown on Wednesday evenings. Teens ages 13-19 who lived in Orange got membership cards to use the center.
The skating rink had booted skates to check out free to members. The ping pong tables were adjacent, as was a concession stand with tables and chairs. The concessions sold included chips, candy bars, and soft drinks. A separate billiards room had several pool tables.
The Orange Service League in 1959 opened a junior museum in part of the Youth Center. It had displays of local history and artifacts. The museum organized a variety of educational activities for children, including field trips.
The Service League also used rooms there to rehearse for the Follies fundraisers.
Residents of the city could reserve a room for free. Birthday parties, family reunions, club meetings, company parties, and other gatherings were in a variety of rooms of different sizes.
One of the double rooms was known as “The Elephant Room” because it had a child-sized slide shaped like an elephant with the trunk as the slide.
The Orange Junior Rifle Club, which practiced there, traveled the country for target shooting. The club brought home a national championship in the 1960s.
The center was renamed the Thomen Center in the 1970s and continued to thrive, though the town and times changed. Still into the 1990s, people took exercise classes, played in the band, and played bridge at the center.
However, the building was not used as much by the public. Parts of it fell into disrepair. Hurricane Rita brought more damage, even though the Thomen Center was used for a community meeting with U.S. Representative Kevin Brady a few days after the storm.
The city eventually decided to abandon the building and it was torn down.
The Orange City Council now, 60 years later, is preparing to turn the old natatorium into a recreation center.
If anyone has a photographs of the old Youth Center or Thomen Center activities from meetings, parties, or play, please send them to email@example.com.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-