The last time you were shopping at the Irvine Marketplace, you probably didn’t even know it was there. If you were speeding down Jamboree westbound towards the 5 freeway, you might have missed it altogether. But tucked away behind old eucalyptus and pine trees, on the corner of Irvine Blvd and Jamboree, sits the Irvine Ranch Historic Park, home of the Katie Wheeler Library.
A visit to the Katie Wheeler Library in Irvine is more than a trip to check out books. It’s a journey back in time, to a haven of local history. Even though the original building was destroyed by fire in 1965, it was painstakingly recreated in 2008, using photographs and drawings. This was the private home of the Irvine family, completed in 1908. Katie Wheeler was the granddaughter of Irvine Company founder James H. Irvine, Sr. She was born in the family house, and after her mother died in childbirth, she was raised by her grandfather. There’s a picture of Katie Wheeler as a little girl displayed above the fireplace in the children’s reading room upstairs, pushing a doll’s baby carriage.
Visitors enter the library the way guests would have in the past, under the porte cochere and through the front door. Once inside, you are greeted by the grand staircase, a perfect replica of the original. To the right is the main fireplace where a portrait of Henry Rice hangs above the mantle. It’s fitting that Senator Rice’s picture is on the wall. Not only was he Katie Wheeler’s great, great grandfather, but he was also responsible for establishing public schools and libraries in Ohio. I learned this fact from the Self-Guided Tour pamphlet that I picked up at the front desk. I spent the next half hour walking from room to room, reading facts about the Irvine family, lingering at the glass display cases filled with rare photographs.
It was nice spending time in a new place created to honor something old. Libraries seem to be a dying breed in this new era of internet research and Kindle e-readers. It was a joy to spend a quiet hour turning actual pages in the Irvine family parlor, descending their staircase and walking through their gardens. Their faces are everywhere. Family photographs remind you that real people once lived here, people that witnessed the transition from a pastoral Rancho San Joaquin to the blossoming metropolis of Irvine.
A trip to the Katie Wheeler library wouldn’t be complete without a walk around the Irvine Ranch Historic Park that surrounds it. I followed the palm tree lined driveway from the ranch house to the old, wrought iron gate that use to welcome the Irvine family home. Since it was Tuesday, a farmer’s market lined the road outside the gates. There I joined others who were browsing for fresh local vegetables and flowers. I bought warm chicken empanadas and enjoyed a picnic lunch in the shade of an avocado tree. Afterwards, I walked past the old red barn and dormant ranch houses, long abandoned by the workers who once lived there. This was once ground zero of one of the largest cultivated farms in the world. At one time, James Irvine II owed nearly a third of the land that is present day Orange County. Today, the quiet stillness of this place is a rare reminder that the busy, energetic lifestyle of Orange County once moved at a much slower pace.
Back at the library, I walked out onto the shaded back porch where Katie Wheeler’s Grandmother Frances once relaxed with her children. I wondered what she thought of as she looked out onto the ranch lands in front of her. I’m sure she never dreamed that one hundred years in the future the view from her porch would include a Target and an International House of Pancakes. Today, the Katie Wheeler Library is an island of sorts; a little historical treasure surrounded on all sides by housing developments and chain stores. It stands as a precious souvenir from the past, a living monument to the family that once lived there and the people who shaped the history of Orange County.
If You Go…..
Be sure to check out the Friend’s of the Library Bookstore in the basement and Toddler’s Story time Thursdays at 10:30am.
Katie Wheeler Public Library: 13109 Old Myford Road. Irvine, CA 92602 (714) 669-8753
Hours: M-Th. 10am – 9pm, F-Sa 10am – 5pm, Sunday 12pm – 5pm.
After browsing for books at the library, enjoy fresh local produce and gourmet treats.
Irvine Farmer’s Market: At Irvine Ranch Historic Park, 13109 Old Myford Road. Every Tuesday.
9am – 1pm (rain or shine)
For more information on Irvine family history, contact the Irvine Historical Society
6 San Joaquin, Irvine, CA 92612. (949) 786-4112.