Old Courthouse Charms: The historic building bustles with Valentine’s Day weddings.

Photograph by Mimi Nguyen

It’s our Grand Hotel. Our little white chapel. I’ve always thought the deep red sandstone of the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana just shouts love. And so, apparently, do scores of people who wait to get married there on Valentine’s Day.

The courthouse stays open late on this day, to accommodate lovebirds who wheel in from other counties, states, and even other countries. The offices of the clerk recorder in Laguna Hills and Fullerton also extend their hours for Valentine’s Day. The county record for marriages in a day was set Feb. 14, 2012, with 310 licenses issued and 283 ceremonies performed.

DeAnn and Jim Bertella, both 45 and from Costa Mesa, planned their Valentine’s wedding at the courthouse so last-minute three years ago that DeAnn, an elementary school teacher, couldn’t get any red roses for her bouquet—all the florists had run out. Her parents and grandparents celebrate their wedding anniversaries on Feb. 14 too, and she and Jim wanted to carry on the tradition.

“The old courthouse is such a gorgeous location,” she says, “and we didn’t pay for anything but the license. Every walk of life was there, waiting to get married on Valentine’s Day. Everybody super-excited, everybody congratulating each other. All these full-blown wedding gowns with trains, and then there were brides in T-shirts and jeans.”

For those couples seeking a simple ceremony, the courthouse adds a glamorous gravitas.

“Weddings have gotten so over the top,” says Tristan Abel, 32, the fourth generation in a storied line of Abel family artists and architects who arrived in Laguna Beach in the 1930s.

“There’s such an expectation to put on an enormous event that sometimes people lose sight of each other,” Abel says. “My wife, Sarah (Yahnke), said, ‘What if we get married on Valentine’s day at City Hall?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love you so much.’ ”

Valentine’s Day weddings have been so successful that clerk recorder Hugh Nguyen realized he’d found a sweet spot.

“It hit me that people in Orange County are going to work during the week, they’re going to school, they aren’t able to get in here before 4:30 p.m. to get married,” Nguyen says. So five years ago, in addition to extended Valentine’s hours, he started opening one Saturday per month.

Nguyen seems to understand the laid-back vibe of our county. Marriage licenses are available on a walk-up basis—no appointment necessary. Couples can be both spontaneous and fancy: At the Old County Courthouse, there are three indoor rooms available, decked out in wedding decor. Nguyen even brought pews into one of the rooms.

He moves from office to office, performing many Saturday and Valentine’s services himself.

My kids and I often pass the old courthouse on Saturdays, and even on the grayest day, it’s a joyful thing to see the broad expanses of white tulle floating over the green lawn, the shy little ring bearers, tuxedoed groomsmen clowning on the steps to the courthouse.

One Saturday, I went inside to check it out. I was greeted by a grumpy sheriff’s deputy sitting beside a white bridal arch wearing a flak jacket and service revolver. The jacket and revolver were a little off-putting, but after I passed through, I could have been at any Orange County wedding in a gorgeous location.

Outside the ceremony room, I met a man in a black robe preparing to officiate a wedding.

Matt Cortez, 36, is a Huntington Beach realtor who says he has volunteered for many activities, but none give him as much happiness as marrying couples. Anyone—friend, co-worker, yoga buddy—can be an officiant at a courthouse wedding, as long as he or she swears the oath of office before the ceremony.

Cortez smiled as a bride and groom entered the room that has pews. Jessica Lemmens, 30, of Long Beach looked resplendent with her hair pulled back and adorned with baby’s breath. She wore a knee-length, lace Bisou Bisou dress with an exposed zipper, and cradled her 8-month-old daughter. Her three sons—ages 3, 6, and 9—were spiffed up in white button-down shirts and blue-striped ties.

“We’re here on a Saturday because we wanted our whole family to be in on it,” she said, nodding at the relatives from Medford, Ore., among the couple-dozen guests filling the pews. The children joined their mother and father at the altar, and though the baby squirmed, the boys seemed to understand the situation, stoically standing at attention.

The robed realtor moved with a certain practiced grace through the traditional ceremony—the I dos, the sickness and health, the rings, the richer and poorer, the kiss, all of it—and at the end, he departed from the script, asking the bride and groom to clasp hands.

“No matter the ups and downs on the road ahead,” Cortez said, “always remember this moment.”

As we walked out, he mentioned that he always adds that bit at the end. “I say it because I hope that when they do hit a rough spot on the road of marriage, remembering this moment might make all the difference.”

I asked if he was married and his smile clouded. “I was married, and it didn’t work out,” he said. “I guess we didn’t make it through the ups and downs.” But officiating at these ceremonies fills him with happiness—and hope.

When my husband and I got our marriage license 26 years ago, lining up at the counter behind a developer seeking an environmental impact report, there was no way to pretend it was romantic. So it’s satisfying to see the whole wedding business has moved across the street to the old red courthouse, making the license and ceremony a one-stop shop in the same setting that inspired so many Hollywood movie scenes, including “Catch Me if You Can.”

That it’s open one Saturday per month now and late on Valentine’s Day tells us something about who we are: We might be working stiffs in Orange County, but we are never too busy for love.

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