Saturday, July 13, 2024

Historical Preservation, O.C., and the Neutras

I just came across my notes for a panel discussion I participated in on February 12, 2011 in conjunction with "The Amazing Neutras in Orange County" exhibit I helped Dion Neutra create at the Old Orange County Courthouse Museum. The point of the exhibit was to draw attention to the dwindling number of buildings designed by Richard and/or Dion Neutra in Orange County and particularly to shine a light on the deteriorating state of Richard Neutra’s “new” Courthouse – the Central Justice Center (1969) in Santa Ana. 

While the exhibit itself was (of necessity) low-budget, my fellow panelists were as impressive as they come. From left to right, in the photo above (courtesy Les Katow) are architect (and son of Richard Neutra) Dion Neutra, noted architectural historians Barbara Lamprecht and Alan Hess, me, and architectural designer Josh Gorrell. To say it was an honor to be asked to participate with such an impressive group is an understatement. I wish I had recorded all their comments that day, but alas, all I have are my own notes…

Good afternoon.

There are no better people in the world to talk to you about the Neutras’ architecture than the folks up here with me today. It would be foolish for me to take up time telling you things I've read in their respective books. But as a local historian, perhaps I can provide an Orange County perspective.

From Mission San Juan Capistrano forward, Orange County has a track record of great architecture. Our record of preserving it, however, is much spottier.

Historical preservation began here in the 1890s, when Charles Fletcher Lummis' Landmarks Club began trying to preserve the ruins of California missions, including Mission San Juan Capistrano. 

In 1910, Father St. John O'Sullivan was put in charge of the Mission, and he undertook a massive preservation and restoration project that would eventually be copied at the old Franciscan missions up and down the state. 

But with the exception of the missions, California's byword was "PROGRESS." And progress didn't always leave much room for preserving historic architecture.

The birth of the modern preservationist movement in Orange County was introduced, forcefully, by Adeline Cochems Walker, or Mrs. Weston Walker, as she preferred to be known. In 1974, Mrs. Walker gathered a number of like-minded locals and formed a group to save the beautiful Victorian Dr. Howe-Waffle House (just across the street from us now,) from being bulldozed for a parking lot. Already well-respected for her work in civic beautification, Mrs. Walker was a force to be reckoned with. Her well-crafted letters were polite and adamant, and somehow put the fear of God into elected officials.

Walker’s preservation group became the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society. She and her strike team of preservationists changed the way (at least some) people thought about the destruction of old buildings. Even in her last years, she led the charge to save the very building [Old Orange County Courthouse] in which we’re now sitting. 

Mrs. Walker (center) and historian Jim Sleeper (left) at the dedication of the Old O.C. Courthouse as a State Historical Landmark, 1970.

Today, of course, preservation and restoration projects have taken place all over the county, historical districts are not uncommon, and a number of cities have even adopted tax incentive programs like the Mills Act to encourage preservation. 

But there's still an enormous amount of work to do here. Indeed, compared to most of the country, Southern California - and particularly in Orange County -- is still living in the preservation Dark Ages. Important historical structures are torn down every day without so much as a murmur of dissent.

Now let’s take it a step further, to modern architecture. 

If we have to work hard to educate the public about the need to preserve important older historic architecture, we have to work at least twice as hard to convince them that buildings built during their own lifetimes may have historical value. 

Some of Richard Neutra's work at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa.

Our long-range goals should be to educate the public and civic leaders, and to strongly encourage local government to adopt preservation-friendly policies. Until we've got that support behind us, our short-term goals should be to choose our battles carefully - saving the best examples of each era and style of architecture as they become threatened.

In the case of the work of the Neutra Office, so little remains intact today that it behooves us to save all of it. 

Neutra's work started appearing here during what was Orange County's most important era: Our astonishing post-war boom. Our population went from 131,000 in 1940; to 219,000 in 1950; to 700,000 in 1960; to a whopping 1.5 million by 1970! We were building housing tracts, apartments, schools, shopping centers, malls and professional buildings at a shocking rate. 

The story of Richard Neutra's Santa Ana Courthouse is a perfect illustration of the times:

Since 1901, County government and the courts had all fit into about four buildings: The Old Courthouse we're sitting in now, the jail, the Courthouse Annex (the former St Anne's Inn), and the Hall of Records (added in the 1920s).

And although we saw the post-war boom coming, we wildly underestimated it.

The County began in the early 1950s with a plan for a new courthouse, just across the street from the original. By the time the plans were ready for approval, population growth had already outstripped those plans. They went back to the drawing board, only to find that growth had again overshot their expectations and yet another major revision and expansion was needed before the ink was dry on the revisions.

And so on, and so forth.

This process continued until finally a plan was hatched to create a towering courthouse that it would theoretically take generations for all its floors to be put into use. They would start by outfitting the lower floors first and gradually furnishing and utilizing each floor above -- one at a time -- as they were needed. This would continue until the whole building was full.

Orange County Central Justice Center, Santa Ana

To design that tower, they hired Richard J. Neutra who was assisted in his vision by the Santa Ana firm of Donald Ramberg and Robert Lowrey. Neutra’s courthouse featured golden louvers that moved throughout the day to block the glare of the California sun.

The empty floors filled more quickly than predicted, of course. But as local government funds dried up in the wake of Prop 13, each floor got progressively cheaper interiors. The building also fell victim to poor maintenance. New utility lines were simply tacked across the carefully designed ceilings and walls, signage went from integrated to haphazard, ceiling panels were not replaced as repairs were needed, and - infamously - the water features were not tended to. 

The water feature in back of the Courthouse was turned off almost immediately. And one night, when it had been raining heavily, the neglected front water feature sprang a leak and dumped water down into the basement where the judges kept their files. Today, that water feature is also dry.

I once told [noted architectural photographer] Julius Schulman, that a good friend of mine had written a history of the Old Orange County Courthouse, and that someday I may have to write a history of the "new" Neutra-designed County Courthouse. He said, "I have your opening line for you: 'It was a dark and stormy night!'"

Indeed, maintaining, preserving and -- when necessary -- restoring buildings of historic and architectural significance is heartaches and pitfalls. The preservationists of today and tomorrow have their work for cut out for them. But with intelligence, heart, and persistence, they can win their share of victories.

By the way,... If I ever do write that book, what do you think of the title, “50 Ways To Love Your Louvers.”

Saturday, July 06, 2024

O.C. Q&A: Potpourri Edition

Q:  I've discovered historical plaques in the boonies left by a group called El Viaje de Portola. Who are they?

A:  This equestrian group, formed in 1963, raises money for restoration projects at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Members include big landowners, businessmen, politicos, and even some real cowboys. Their annual three-day, men-only, horseback camping trek follows the still-undeveloped portions of explorer Gaspar de Portola's 1769 path through Orange County. It's about a 30-mile round trip and they often dedicate historic markers along the route. I would crack wise about the fully stocked bar that follows them in a wagon, but I'm still hoping to get invited someday. 

Q:  Is my house historic because it sits on an old Mexican rancho?

A:  Not so much. It actually takes work to find a part of Orange County that isn’t on one of the nearly 20 local Mexican land grants made during the 1830s and ’40s. (Prior to that, land was just “on loan” to rancheros from Spain.)  To find out what rancho your property was part of, borrow the Thomas Brothers Road Atlas (a.k.a. Thomas Guide) out of grandpa’s Buick. You'll find the old rancho boundaries and names printed in red. (Or alternately, check my map, here.) Once you figure out which rancho you’re on, why not embrace the spirit of the land? Invite everyone over for a fandango, build a horno (mud oven) in your yard, or practice lassoing the neighbor’s Rottweiler. Olé! 

Q:  Did Orange County invent orange juice?

A:  No, but we were certainly involved in making it synonymous with breakfast across America. 

When the citrus industry ruled our local economy, the California Fruit Growers Exchange, a.k.a. Sunkist, marketed the regions’ citrus to the whole country. Among the seven charter members of this coalition of local packing house associations was the Orange County Fruit Exchange. 

In February 1916, Sunkist ran a full-page ad in the Saturday Evening Post launching the national "Drink an Orange" ad campaign. The campaign highlighted its health benefits, flavor, and its association to sunny, romantic California. Many of the ads included promotions for inexpensive orange juicers. In short order America went from being unfamiliar with orange juice to making it a daily breakfast staple. Orange County became wealthier in the process.

Q:  Why does Orange County have so many eucalyptus trees?

A:  These tall, odiferous, Australian immigrants arrived in vast numbers and thrived. The fast-growing eucalyptus first appeared in California during the Gold Rush. In 1895, state forester Abbot Kinney wrote a book extolling the tree’s commercial potential. He claimed, incorrectly, that eucalyptus wood was good for construction, railroad ties and cheap fuel, and that the tree’s oil cured a host of health problems. This, combined with a hardwood shortage, led to a flood of eucalyptus-growing get-rich-quick ventures across California in the early 1900s. One local example was El Toro pioneer Dwight Whiting, who planted 960 acres in eucalyptus, thereby putting the “forest” in today’s “Lake Forest.” 

By the mid-1910s, it was clear that eucalyptus weren’t commercially viable. But they added shade and beauty to a largely treeless region and made fine windbreaks for citrus groves. Many rows of old eucalyptus trees still mark the boundaries of former orange groves.

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Remembering Downtown Huntington Beach

Councilmen kick-off demolition of old Downtown Huntington Beach, 1980s.
In the 1980s, Huntington Beach tore out most of its historic downtown, with dreams of turning it into the raucous tourist zone it is today. A few historical preservationists -- with historian Barbara K. Milkovich notable among them -- fought to save the city's historic buildings, to no avail. Visitors from elsewhere seem to like the end result, but local residents still resent having what was once the heart of their town torn away from them. 

A while ago, I stumbled across a little booklet produced in the 1980s by the city’s Public Information Office, entitled, It’s Our Town! Questions and Answers on Modernizing Downtown Huntington Beach. Those who know how things turned out may "enjoy" it. Excerpts follow...

Q:  [One of] the objectives of the [redevelopment] agency [is the] improvement of traffic circulation within the area… [and] making sure the general public has continued access to the beach and water areas for recreation.

A:  Some [property] owners who would like to sell out might prefer use of eminent domain since there are income tax and other financial advantages over just selling the property outright…

Q:  Doesn’t redevelopment mean bulldozing the area clear and then building all new hotels, houses, shops, etc.?

A:  Certainly not. Redevelopment is a means for cleaning up a blighted area, remodeling old, but structurally sound buildings, assembling land where lots are too small for modern construction projects and for financing improvements such as streets sewers and lighting.

Q:  Will the businesses now in the area be allowed to remain?

A: ...Those businesses which depend on a dying neighborhood are likely to be eliminated as the commercial section prospers.

Q:  How about the Golden Bear?

A:  The GB is an institution in Huntington Beach, a historical landmark according to the redevelopment environmental impact report. No one is proposing to eliminate a business which has done so much for the area…

Q:  Is the city going to build a 20-story hotel?

A:  The idea of a high-rise hotel was put forth by a consultant as one of the many possibilities. It does not appear to be an economically feasible project. Such a project is not envisioned by the council…

If you care about the direction of your community, your state, or your country, watch your elected officials like a hawk and vote accordingly. 

View up Main St. from the foot of the Huntington Beach Pier, circa 1932.