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Fire Has Destroyed Part Of One Of The Oldest Japanese American Settlements. That May Be What It Takes To Save It

A black and white photo of two small wooden structures, a manse and a mission. Asian men in suits stand outside the larger mission.
A fire tore through part of one of the country's oldest Japanese American settlements, known as Wintersburg. An undated photo of the Wintersburg mission and manse, now rubble, built in 1910.
(Courtesy Wintersburg Church)
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The old Wintersburg Village in Huntington Beach was a rare, intact Japanese American settlement where three generations lived, worked and worshipped over the course of a century.

For the last decade, preservationists have been struggling to save it. Now tragedy may have boosted their cause.

A fire last Friday tore through a corner of the property occupied by a church, a mission and manse where clergy once lived. As the extent of the damage is assessed, attention is returning to efforts to protect the site, possibly by converting it into a historic park. That push had stalled as the land changed ownership, and, preservationists say, city officials' interest flagged.

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Assessing The Damage

Wooden boards are all that's left of the historic manse and mission
A fire tore through part of one of the country's oldest Japanese American settlements, Wintersburg.
(Courtesy Mary Adams Urashima)

A Huntington Beach spokesperson said arson investigators will uncover the scale of the damage. But preservationists who have visited the site since the fire, said the mission and manse, both built in 1910, are gone — a byproduct of not just the blaze, but ensuing demolition work. (I visited the site this week and also observed both structures appear to be missing.)

"I'm devastated. I'm heartbroken," said Mary Adams Urashima, a historian who writes extensively about Wintersburg and is leading the effort to protect the site. She said it's time for the city to step up.

"We are asking for the city to help bring [the property owner] back to the table and genuinely talk with us and allow our purchase and sale of the property," said Urashima, who has secured help in her quest from regional and national nonprofits.

What's Next

Huntington Beach spokesperson Jennifer Carey said Wednesday that the city has reached out to the property owner, Republic Services, a waste management company, about how to preserve the property. (Republic does not appear to use the site, which sits across the street from its waste transfer complex and is vacant aside from the Wintersburg buildings.)

"We obviously understand the importance of the site, and we don't want anything further to happen," Carey said.

Carey added that the city is mindful of Republic's private property rights as officials explore options, "whether that be the city taking control of the site or Republic maintaining control of the site."

Local preservationists would rather see the land transferred to the Heritage Museum of Orange County, in large part because of the opposition they predict city ownership would engender.

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"During our efforts, there were community members who said they did not want the city involved or city money being spent on the historic Wintersburg property," said Urashima, who has been the target of online trolls for years because of her advocacy for the site.

Republic, which is based in Phoenix, Arizona, has not responded to our inquiry about preservation efforts, but in an e-mail confirmed the blaze, stating that "a small structure on the Historic Wintersburg property caught fire."

Preservationists say the statement is inaccurate and minimizes the cultural and emotional significance of the manse and mission — which shared a walkway but were separate structures.

A Sacred Site

"We want it understood that this was a sacred site," said Urashima of the mission, which served some of Orange County's earliest Japanese immigrants as they navigated their new country, not to mention racist laws that kept them from becoming citizens or owning land. "It's a site of conscience but also a place of spirituality."

The manse and mission were among the six on a property identified as a "National Treasure" deemed worthy of saving by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2014, the trust named Wintersburg one of country's most endangered historic places.

A mural reading "Jesus Lives" is emblazoned on a boarded-up church.
A mural is painted on the now-vacant Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church.

The 4.5-acre property was bought in 1908 by the Furuta family, whose members farmed and lived on the land while dedicating part of their property to the mission, manse and church. Built in 1934, the now vacant-church sits on a busy street corner, recognizable to Huntington Beach residents for a "Jesus Lives" mural on its facade. The church, along with a barn and two houses that the Furutas built, are all still standing.

A black and white vintage photo of a Japanese American family with a mother and father and four children.
Yukiko and Charles Furuta with their four daughters and son.
( Courtesy of Mary Urashima)

The Furutas, along with many in the community, were incarcerated during World War II, but returned to their land afterward, shifting from goldfish farming to growing flowers such as water lilies and sweet peas.

The family held onto the property until 2004 when it sold the land to Rainbow Environmental Services, which was acquired by Republic Services in 2014.

Jason Foo, who had been researching Wintersburg for a piece he's writing for the non-profit Preserve Orange County, visited Wintersburg the day after the fire and was "shocked" by what he saw through the fencing.

"There's like nothing there," said Foo, a Huntington Beach resident. It's just wood on the ground."

A black and white photo of a farm with a sign that reads "Gold Fish Farm."
Charles Furuta had one of the country's first goldfish farms. The rectangular pools of fish took up most of the property, which is just under five acres.
(Courtesy of Mary Adams Urashima)

The partial destruction of Wintersburg is like losing a piece of history — a blow not just for Orange County, but for the country, he said.

The Furutas were the rare Japanese family to own property because they bought before California's Alien Land Law of 1913 banned immigrants from doing so.

"[Wintersburg] survived the land laws. It survived World War II incarceration," Foo said. "There's no other site like this."

And they're getting rarer.

"You know, in Orange County, we don't have a lot of 100-year-old buildings left," said Krista Nicholds, executive director of Preserve Orange County.

Nicholds said the modest construction of the manse and the mission belie their value.

"There's been an increasing recognition over the years that vernacular structures like the manse and the mission are as important to our field of historic preservation as architectural icons," Nicholds said.

The Fire's Aftermath

In the fire's aftermath, groups such as the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages have written letters calling on Huntington Beach officials to broker an agreement between Republic and preservation groups.

Community members and preservationists alike have been questioning why an excavator was used after the fire, leaving nothing standing.

Carey, the city spokesperson, said that fire officials wanted to eliminate risk of smoldering embers and the potential for another blaze, and make it safe for investigators to enter the space.

So the fire department asked Republic to use its excavator "to assist us in moving a portion of the building," Carey said. "But due to the instability of the building, the building, unfortunately collapsed."

Preservationists say it was only the manse that caught fire and are confounded why the mission has been reduced to wooden debris.

Carey said that the investigation would reveal what was destroyed — and how. For the present, "we're not able to definitively state if that was just one structure, or perhaps two structures that were connected."

The JACL and preservation groups are among those hoping to recover what is left of the structures. They're requesting members be allowed onto the premises to collect ashes from the fire and any surviving artifacts.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.