By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
HUNTINGTON BEACH — The company that owns the Historic Wintersburg site in Huntington Beach has gone on record as saying that the buildings from Orange County’s pre-World War II Japanese American community won’t be demolished as stakeholders work toward a mutually beneficial plan.
The statement was made by David Hauser, market vice president for Republic Services, after a media tour of the site on May 25. Republic purchased the previous owner, Rainbow Environmental Services, in October 2014, the same year that Historic Wintersburg was named one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Mary Adams Urashima, chair of the Historic Wintersburg Preservaton Task Force, Kevin Sanada of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Hauser accompanied reporters on the tour of the 4.5-acre site at Warner Avenue and Nichols Street, which is currently unoccupied and closed to the public. Although the buildings were once threatened with demolition, Hauser stated, “That’s not going to happen.”
The six structures in question, located on farmland dating back to the turn of the 20th century, are:
• The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, founded in 1904, the oldest Japanese church of any denomination in Orange County (1910)
• The Manse, home to the first Japanese ordained clergy in the area (1910)
• The home of Charles Mitsuji and Yukiko Yajima Furuta, who established a successful goldfish and flower farm (1912)
• The Furuta barn, Huntington Beach’s last pioneer heritage barn (1908-1912)
• The Depression-era Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church (1934)
• The post-World War II home of Raymond and Martha Furuta (1947), representing the family’s return from the camps
Historic Wintersburg, which became a hub of the Japanese American community in Orange County, is a rare example of Issei land ownership before enactment of the Alien Land Law in 1913, which prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning property in California.
The fact that the buildings are still standing is all the more remarkable given what happened to other Japanese American properties during the war, Urashima said, pointing out that in Placer County, north of Sacramento, “peach farmers they were removed from their land and their houses were burned to the ground” and the same fate befell Masami Sasaki’s chili pepper warehouses in Huntington Beach. These incidents represent “the erasure of history, some of it very violent,” she said.
In past years, the possibility of relocating the buildings was raised as an alternative to demolition, but Urashima said that is not a viable option. “The buildings and where they were built are a big part of the history. The configuration … is part of what tells the story … It would diminish the integrity of the historical site to move them off the site.”
Stakeholders — including preservation advocates, Rainbow and Republic, the City of Huntington Beach, the National Trust, the local school district and residents of the Oak View neighborhood — are holding talks to determine possible uses for the property that would address everyone’s concerns and meet everyone’s needs.
The parcel currently serves as a buffer between the neighborhood, which includes a school, and Rainbow/Republic’s waste transfer facility and dump, where large trucks are constantly coming and going. Although it is zoned for residential use, there are no plans to build housing on the site.
In terms of immediate steps, Sanada said, “There’s a massive branch right here hanging over the Manse, something we’ve been worried about for more than a year now,” and there were large branches hanging over the church and bungalow as well.
To avoid damage to the already dilapidated buildings during the next storm, “we’re going to look forward to getting rid of at least that threat … stabilize the buildings, making sure that even if the future may not be certain for now, at least these things are standing while the discussions are taking place,” Sanada said.
In the long term, “it’s important to clean up the site and make sure it’s safe,” he noted. In its current state, uneven terrain and debris would make the property hazardous for visitors. Anyone entering the site is required to wear a hardhat and vest.
After safeguarding and protecting the buildings, the next step would be “actual, hands-on preservation,” Urashima said.
Sanada said it was too early to say how much it would cost to fully restore the buildings.
The tree-trimming began on June 9 and was conducted by Mike Tsuzuki of Fountain Valley-based Tsuzuki Tree Service. He was introduced to the task force by Glenn Tanaka of Tanaka Farms in Irvine and Marvin Masuda, son of World War II veteran Mas Masuda and nephew of the late Kazuo Masuda, who was killed in action while serving in Europe. Tsuzuki donated the equivalent of $10,000 worth of work to protect the structures.
Regarding the discussions, Urashima noted, “The neighborhood around the site is now much more aware of this history … They are predominantly Spanish-speaking and it remains an immigrant neighborhood. As they understand this history and the connections to what they go through today, there are many more voices from the neighborhood telling us that they would love to see the preservation of this site to create a heritage site. They think it would be an asset to this neighborhood …
“Once we have more certainty on what can happen here, that’s what donors are looking for. We obviously want engagement from all the stakeholders. We want everyone to assist with that effort … We’re also willing to roll up our sleeves and do what we can to gain that support, keeping in mind that … it’s a property that has gained national recognition. More and more people are aware of it.”
Urashima, who has been doing research and public speaking on Wintersburg for eight years and has authored a book on the subject, stressed the importance of education and outreach. “This history was pretty much erased from the books …a majority of Huntington Beach and Orange County had no awareness that there was a Japanese pioneer community and rather large and thriving one, part of which was here in Wintersburg Village … The archives at Huntington Beach had no photos, no references to the Japanese community … part of the fallout from World War II.”
She noted that there was so much activity at Wintersburg that The Rafu Shimpo established a branch office there a hundred years ago.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Historic Wintersburg a National Treasure in 2015, and the site is considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A, Japanese American Settlement of the American West. Organizations that have lent their support include the Japanese American National Museum, the JACL, the Manzanar Committee, the Orange County Historical Commission, and the Huntington Beach Historical Society.
“You have something very unique and rare … There’s nothing else like it anywhere else in California, let alone the country,” Urashima added. “… We want Republic to be a full partner with us. We think that they are gaining an understanding of this history and we really appreciate that cooperation.”
Hauser said that other short-term actions include “fumigation to make sure there’s no rodent or termite damage” and “stabilization so we can go into the buildings without anybody getting injured.”
Noting that the National Trust has consulted with a preservation architect and a structural architect, Sunada said that a long-range goal is to create a plan that “protects the neighborhood … but at the same time creates some kind of benefit for the neighborhood here, [addresses]lack of green space, finds that middle ground that works for everybody.”
Hauser said the process is difficult because “every stakeholder has a little different angle … If there was an easy solution we would have had it already … We can’t really say what that final answer’s going to be, but large-scale development is not something that we’re looking at.”
Urashima agreed that “there a lot of issues to work out, a lot of technical issues. It’s much more complex then just repainting and fixing the buildings … How do you make it sustainable? … My vision would be a heritage park, open space, restoring the farm, the buildings, having all kinds of educational uses … It could also become a pilgrimage site because so few of these places remain in terms of Japanese American heritage.”
She is already working with Huntington Beach High School to incorporate the Historic Wintersburg story into its U.S. history curriculum and has discussed the possibility of field trips. Currently, students have to travel to JANM in Little Tokyo or Harada House in Riverside to learn first-hand about Japanese American history, but Historic Wintersburg could be a resource “right here in the community,” Urashima said.
Filmmaker Brian Maeda, who participated in the tour, suggested that it would be useful to look at what the American River Conservancy has done with the site of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, which was established in Gold Hill, El Dorado County, in 1869.
In addition to restoring a mid-19th-century farmhouse and protecting the grave of Okei, a young Japanese woman who was part of the colony, ARC “purchased land to keep it as much as possible in a natural state … They have put two farmers on the property … refilled and restocked the pond … It’s much better than it was back then.”
The Wakamatsu Community Farm, a cultural heritage site, is open to the public and educates visitors from as far away as Japan, Maeda said, adding that there will be sesquicentennial celebration in 2019.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)