American Horror Story’s Creepy Briarcliff Manor is Actually a Courthouse
Like many, I’ve been sucked into the anthology series that is American Horror Story. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it is a horror inspired show, where each season season has its own individual story to tell while also loosely linking the seasons together. And while the show has taken place across the United States, many of the locations are right in our own backyard, such as the gloomy and ominous Briarcliff Manor of the show’s second season, Asylum.
While Asylum takes place in Massachusetts, the building that was used for the exterior of Briarcliff Manor is actually the old Orange County courthouse, which was near the starting location of the Women’s March, so we swung by after the march, which means you get some bonus outfit shots too.
When Briarcliff is introduced to the audience, it is abandoned and overgrown, but later the show flashes back to 1964 where it’s a bit more cleaned up.
Briarcliff makes another appearance in Freak Show, one of the moments that links the seasons together.
The show did an amazing job of digitally creating trees around the building (after all palm trees aren’t all that common in Massachusetts) and digitally altering the building ever so slightly, but adding an additional story, and altering the gables. They also used practical effects to cover up the iconic El Camino Real bell, various plaques, and a pair of cannons out front. These are all mild changes, leaving the building still very recognizable to fans just passing by.
The Orange County Courthouse was designed by C.L. Strange in the Richardson Romanesque style, and was built out of Arizona red sandstone in 1900, opening its doors the following year. In 1933 it suffered from an earthquake, sadly forcing the removal of many original fixtures and tile work.
After World War II, Orange County was a relatively sleepy agriculture community, but in 1947 the area was rocked by a trial fit for a Hollywood film noir that took place right in this very courthouse. Beulah Overell, who was regularly reported as a “plain” looking gal, but an heiress nonetheless, was engaged to Bud Gollum, much to her parents’ objections. One March day the pair met with parents aboard her family’s 47 foot yacht, the Mary E, moored in the Newport Harbor. As the evening grew late, Beulah’s father sent her and Bud off to get hamburgers on shore. Minutes from midnight, as Beulah and Bed sought a bite to eat, the waters erupted with a loud noise as the Mary E exploded. With an unapproved engagement and Beulah set to inherit somewhere between $200,000 to $600,000 (sources vary) from her parents, the lovers were prime suspects, especially when it was discovered that the pair had bought dynamite just the previous day, supposedly at Beulah’s father’s request. Locked away prior to the trial, the pair exchanged love letters in jail, reading of passion, suicide threats, and even a possible jail break, only to have the letters intercepted and splashed across the front pages of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. The trial lasted 19 weeks, and at the end of it all the couple was found not guilty. The conclusion was that Beulah’s father was actually facing financial ruin, and orchestrated his own suicide. Soon the couple’s fame dissipated, they never wed, and Beulah ended up dying of acute alcoholism in Las Vegas in 1965, while Bud struggled to get into medical school, before quietly living out the rest of his life, passing away in 2009.
As for the courthouse, by 1968 Orange County had done a lot of growing, and a new courthouse was built. The old courthouse became home to county offices and various historical exhibits, and in 1977 officially became a California Historic Landmark. But in 1979 everyone had to clear out, as the building was deemed seismically unsafe. In 1983 the old courthouse was retrofitted to meet seismic safety codes, and was fully restored, reopening in 1992.
Today the ground floor is home to the Orange County Archives, and the second floor is where couples find wedded bliss with the marriage license bureau and chapel, along with two hearing rooms, while the third floor is a museum. Sadly, the old courthouse is closed on weekends, and we stopped by after the Women’s March on Saturday, so I didn’t have a chance to explore inside.
In addition to American Horror Story, scenes from Legally Blonde also filmed here, both inside and out, and one of the courtrooms was used in one of my favorite films, Catch Me If You Can.
You can visit the Old Orange County Courthouse at 211 W Santa Ana Blvd. in Santa Ana. If you wish to take a peek inside, be sure to visit sometime Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 4:30. It is also closed on county holidays. Learn more from OC Parks.
Scarf, Earrings & Bangles: ???
Coat: Belonged to my mother
Cervin, Michael. “An Explosive Affair.” Pasadena Weekly.
Dodson, Marcida. “Overell and Gollum — The Most Famous Trial in the Old Courthouse.” Los Angeles Times.
Marsh, Diann. “Old Orange County Courthouse.” Santa Ana History.
Taylor, Lisa. “Old Orange County Courthouse.” Preserve Orange County.
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One comment on “American Horror Story’s Creepy Briarcliff Manor is Actually a Courthouse”
I love this 60’s outfit! That pink dress is so fun!