By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
HUNTINGTON BEACH — Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach, once the center of the Japanese American community in Orange County, has a new lease on life now that it has been named to the 2014 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The announcement by the National Trust for Historic Preservation was made Tuesday at the Huntington Beach City Council chambers.
Historic Wintersburg consists of six vacant buildings — including the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission (1910) and the home of goldfish and flower farmers Charles Mitsuji and Yukiko Yajima Furuta (1912) — located on property in the Oak View neighborhood owned by Rainbow Environmental Services. Four of the buildings predate the Alien Land Law of 1913, which barred Japanese immigrants from owning land.
The fate of the buildings was debated last year before the Huntington Beach Planning Commission and City Council, with preservationists stressing the historical and cultural significance of the buildings and the company seeking demolition or relocation of the buildings to make way for development. In November 2013, the council voted to allow demolition and Rainbow agreed to give preservationists until mid-2015 to find a way to save the buildings.
Christina Morris, director of the Los Angeles Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said at the press conference that Historic Wintersburg is one of 11 “important examples of the nation’s architectural, cultural, and natural heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage … threatened by blight, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy.”
This designation “has proven to be an incredibly powerful tool for raising awareness and rallying resources to save endangered sites from every region of the country, sometimes by garnering public support to quickly rescue a treasured landmark, or at other times serving as the starting point in a battle to save an important piece of our heritage,” she said.
“Historic Wintersburg is a unique cultural site that tells the important story of early Japanese immigrants as they sought to make a new life and build a community in Southern California. Unlike many prominent Japanese American historic sites, Wintersburg is not just a story of confinement, but instead focuses on the everyday lives of immigrant families, documenting three generations of Japanese American experience from immigration in the late 19th century to the return from incarceration following World War II.
“The six surviving pioneer structures and open farmland at Wintersburg form an incredibly rare cultural site that encompasses a century of history and tells its stories through the experiences of the Furuta family, the Wintersburg congregation, and the Japanese American community. The site managed to survive despite California’s exclusionary land laws and forced evacuation during World War II, and it now celebrates the often overlooked contributions of Japanese Americans in settling, establishing, and cultivating the western United States.”
Morris called for collaboration among all the parties involved. “By working together, we hope to re-imagine this site in ways that will promote and honor Japanese American history and bring new amenities to Oak View so that Historic Wintersburg can resume its long-standing role as a resource for local residents.”
Huntington Beach Mayor Matthew Harper said he was “absolutely ecstatic” about the announcement. “This year we’re marking a lot of historic things going on within our city. We just celebrated 100 years of our 1914 pier … We’re also celebrating 100 years of surfing here in the City of Huntington Beach … This is another landmark, a historic occasion … to be able to preserve something for all Huntington Beach citizens …
“I believe in historic preservation, but I’m also a very outspoken advocate for private property rights. So this gives us the opportunity to be able to work with both of those principles together … We have an outstanding opportunity here. This is not the end, this is the beginning of a new step and hopefully a step toward conclusion, because the reality is all of us have to work together now to come up with the funds to be able to acquire this property for historical preservation. This is a great opportunity. Let’s seize that opportunity today.”
Mary Adams Urashima, chair of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force and author of “Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach,” said, “To the future donors and potential partners who will work with us in acquiring the property and realizing its potential … we look forward to meeting you now that you know we’re here.”
Noting that “the clock is ticking for us,” Urashima emphasized, “America’s 11th Most Endangered is a national appeal for help. America, California, we need your help … Historic preservation needs financial support and creative minds … We are also looking for benefactors … that have an interest in America’s cultural heritage.”
She added, “We have a rare and precious part of the story of Japanese American settlement in the American West. Much of this is a history people are not familiar with … the story of Japanese American pioneers who faced the most extreme challenges on their path to becoming Americans. It is truly a miracle that Historic Wintersburg with its six historic buildings … still exists.”
The task force’s goal is to keep the buildings where they are. “Because of the importance of the history at that site, because it is a pre-Alien Land Law of 1913 site, and because it’s also a mission site, we feel that the location is essential to the preservation of the history,” Urashima explained.
Speaking on behalf of Rainbow Environmental Services was Sue Gordon, vice president of public affairs. “We are an employee-owned waste collection and recycling company with strong ties to this community,” she said. “In 2004, we purchased the Wintersburg property to prevent multi-family development, which was an incompatible use given our operations across the street. We’re not developers. What we’re looking for … is finding a viable buyer for this property within our time limits.
“As Mary said, the clock is ticking. We applaud the National Trust for their efforts and we look forward to the opportunities that may arise and the resources that may come forward as a result of this listing.”
Furuta Family Memories
Norman Furuta of San Francisco, grandson of Charles and Yukiko Furuta and son of Raymond and Martha Furuta, spoke on behalf of his family. He was accompanied by his mother, his brother David and other relatives.
“I was actually raised on the farm property in question, so for the first 18 years of my life I called that home,” said Furuta, whose parents’ house, built in 1947, is one of the six Wintersburg buildings. “Even going off to college, it was the place I looked forward to going back to during all the breaks.
“The last 24 hours have been pretty mind-boggling. If anyone had told me I’d be standing at a press conference like this a year ago, I’d never believe that. For me and for members of my family, the structures in question were just a place that my family called home or went to church, not something that we considered historically significant and certainly not something that might be of interest to the community at large.”
Furuta expressed gratitude to his grandparents “for their perseverance through all the obstacles faced by Japanese immigrants during the first half of the 20th century,” and his parents, “who carried on the family business for 50 years after World War II, up to my father’s passing in 1995 … My mom spent many hours, many years working on the farm, picking the flowers that the family raised. She probably picked more flowers than anyone else.”
Furuta gave special thanks to his father. “He chose to turn down countless offers to purchase the property for development starting in the 1960s and on, during a time when almost all other Japanese American farms were lost to development. He did so simply because he just loved farming. We tried many times to encourage him to take it easy, retire, enjoy life, but for him enjoying life was continuing farming, so he did so and that’s probably the main reason these buildings have existed to the present day.
“Our family just last week recognized the 100th anniversary of his birth on June 15. This is a wonderful birthday present for him.”
The Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project at CSU Fullerton also deserves credit, Furuta said. “If it weren’t for those efforts recording the histories of the county’s first Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens, we wouldn’t have nearly the understanding of what these structures stood for, what the people who inhabited them endured in their efforts to become part of the fabric of American life.”
Urashima and the task force “have turned what I thought originally was a noble but quixotic effort to try to preserve these structures into a goal that is even more noble today with this announcement, and probably quite a bit less quixotic,” Furuta added. “She probably knows more about our family than we do.”
Having viewed a video about the 11 endangered sites, which include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Spring House in Tallahassee, Fla., the Music Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Palladium Building in St. Louis, Furuta commented, “All of the other structures that are on this list are these monumental structures around the country, either architecturally speaking or in a historical context … but I guess I need to thank the National Trust for recognizing that structures can be monumental simply by reflecting the spirit of those who occupied them.”
Two board members of JACL’s Pacific Southwest District came to show their support. Kanji Sahara, who gave a talk on the Alien Land Law the next day for the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, said, “We have to preserve these buildings on that land instead of moving them to some other location … Now I think everybody realizes that the location itself, the land itself, is a significant part of the structure.”
Ken Inouye, PSW treasurer, said, “I think it’s a question of having the resources to do it. The owners of the property understand there’s significance to it, but first they’re a profit-motivated company. I think this designation as a historic site will give some momentum to the efforts of the community.”
Other city officials in attendance included Councilmembers Joe Shaw and Jill Hardy and Planning Commissioners Mark Bixby, Dan Kalmick and Mike Posey.
Donations may be sent to: Historic Wintersburg Preservation Fund, City of Huntington Beach, 2000 Main St., Huntington Beach, CA 92648. For donation information, visit www.huntingtonbeachca.gov/i_want_to/give/donation-wintersburg.cfm.