City official asks Republic Departments to begin talks on transfer of historic Wintersburg property

The damaged portion of the HIstoric Wintersburg site on February 27. (Courtesy Historic Wintersburg)

HUNTINGTON BEACH — A City of Huntington Beach official has asked the head of Rainbow Services, owner of the historic Wintersburg property, to facilitate discussions for transferring the property to the city or historic preservation groups.

Acting City Manager Sean Joyce’s Feb. 28 letter to Republic Services President and CEO Jon Vander Ark, who is based in Phoenix, reads:

“I am writing to notify you of a structural fire that occurred at 7642 Warner Avenue, Huntington Beach, CA on February 25, 2022. The fire destroyed a historic building on the Wintersburg property resulting in the irreplaceable loss of a significant historic structure on a historic heritage property vital to the Japanese American community.

“Unfortunately, the fire that destroyed the building comes as no surprise to those who have continued to worry about the continued deterioration and risk of fire damage to property owned by Republic Services. of this historic site and its structures cannot be overemphasized.The National Trust for Historic Preservation says of Historic Wintersburg:

“Wintersburg’s history parallels Orange County’s rise as a major agricultural and economic center, and today it is one of the only Japanese-American properties acquired before California adopted anti-immigrant land laws in 1913 and 1920. All people associated with Furuta Farm and the Wintersburg Mission were incarcerated during World War II, as were all Japanese Americans in Orange County. This historic site is a reminder of our nation’s civil rights history and the struggle for social justice that many immigrant communities continue to face today.

“In light of the destruction resulting from this recent fire, I believe there is an urgent need to immediately initiate discussions between the City of Huntington Beach and Rainbow Environmental Services-Republic Services to discuss how, together, we could transfer the property to the city and/or its partners in historic preservation so that we can preserve and restore this historic property and its structures and properly honor the site and Japanese Americans of Orange County, State of California and the United States of America.

“I look forward to speaking with you as soon as possible to discuss how we can meet our mutual ownership interests on behalf of those we each serve.”

Located at Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane, the property contained six historic structures. One of them, the 112-year-old parsonage of the Japanese Wintersburg Mission, was destroyed in the fire.

According to the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, “Within hours, Republic Departments had a bulldozer in, demolishing and removing evidence necessary for an investigation of arson and archaeological artifacts.”

According to the task force, the loss was compounded when “Republic services also took a bulldozer to the Japanese mission at Wintersburg in 1910, which was unaffected by fire. We demand an explanation.

Several community organizations have written to Huntington Beach city leaders, calling for an investigation into the fire as well as the owner’s failure to protect the site from vandalism, and supporting the acquisition of the site by preservation groups historical.

Among those who sent letters are the Japanese American National Museum, the Japanese American Citizens League, the Japanese American Containment Sites Consortium, the Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages, and organizations dedicated to preserving ancient containment sites in Poston, Arizona, Heart Mountain (Wyoming), Minidoka (Idaho), and Fort Missoula (Montana).

Ann Burroughs, President and CEO of JANM, wrote, “The loss of these two structures dating back to 1910 resonates deeply with our institution, as our mission is to promote understanding and appreciation of the ethnic and cultural diversity of America by sharing the American-Japanese experience.

“Amid the recent rise in anti-Asian bias and hatred sweeping the nation, Historic Wintersburg and its preservationist community have been the target of continued harassment and threats. City officials and Republic departments have been told about the anti-Asian targeting on Historic Wintersburg and also been told in writing for years about concerns about security and maintenance of the property to prevent vandalism and fire hazards.

“It is deeply troubling that the Wintersburg Historic Site is currently at increased risk of vandalism and fire, which follows a history of inadequate property security and lack of maintenance…

“As recently as 2018, JANM shared with you our concerns that the sale of the historic Wintersburg property would jeopardize the future of the historic site, which is both a national treasure and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. As a site purchased before California’s 1913 Extraterrestrial Lands Act, Historic Wintersburg is an extremely rare and priceless piece of Japanese pioneer history, and is of significance to California’s multicultural history, the most large Japanese American community, and indeed for the cultural landscape of our national history. It is regrettable that these expressed concerns turn out to be prescient.

“I urge you to take prompt and meaningful action to preserve Wintersburg’s remaining historic site and structures for future generations.”