Raising the Wintersburg Village banner

EARLY CONGREGATION — The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and congregation, May 8, 1910.   photo courtesy of Historic Wintersburg and Wintersburg Presbyterian Church

EARLY CONGREGATION — The Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission and congregation, May 8, 1910.
photo courtesy of Historic Wintersburg and Wintersburg Presbyterian Church

From a preservation blog title coined by journalist Mary Urashima that tracks its mounting advocacy campaign, “Historic Wintersburg” has become a familiar reference to a forgotten site in Southern California’s Orange County. Beyond protective chain-link fences, traces of the Wintersburg Village emerge to retell the history of a Japanese immigrant community that once encircled its mission church and goldfish ponds.

Upon first noticing the cornerstone on the church building that reads, “Japanese Presbyterian Church 1934,” Urashima wondered about the history of the property and the people who lived there. “I can only say that the Mission buildings and Furuta farm called out to me; there was something very compelling about the property.”

As the property changed hands to Rainbow Environmental Services in 2004, Urashima’s interest was piqued.

As part of Preserving California’s Japantowns research in 2007, Project Director Donna Graves was eager to uncover layers of local history in her hometown of Orange County. Because pre-World War II expanses of farmland had been taken over by suburban development, few sites were left from community listings in the 1941 Rafu Shimpo directory.

Not until she located the cornerstone of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church in Huntington Beach did the pieces of the former landscape begin to come together. “At the corner of Warner Avenue and Nicholas Lane was a modest stucco church structure,” Graves noted. “I could only catch glimpses of the historic buildings associated with the church behind a barrier of chain link fence and fabric.”

The PCJ statewide survey of Japantowns across California found that many Christian churches and Buddhist temples that once served as spiritual, cultural and social havens for Japanese immigrants remain vestiges of historic communities. Reinforcing its significance, Graves continues, “Wintersburg is unusual in holding an array of buildings and structures that show the development of the church over time and its connections to the community through the Furuta residence and goldfish farm site. It is the most complete cultural landscape of its type we found anywhere in California.”

The Wintersburg church complex and Furuta residence were described as the richest concentration of pioneer Japanese American structures in Orange County in a 1986 survey of historic buildings by the Japanese American Council of the Historical & Cultural Foundation of Orange County.

Contextualizing the history of Japanese Americans in Orange County through his seminal work with the Japanese American Oral History Project at California State University Fullerton, professor emeritus Art Hansen concurs, “The Wintersburg site, or ‘village,’ communicates to the present and posterity, not only the origins story of the Japanese American community in Orange County, but also the pre- and post-World War II story of that racial-ethnic community’s growth and development.” The history comes alive, Hansen states, “through a combination of its built environment — a 1910 mission church and manse, a 1912 bungalow and barn, and 1934 church, and the recorded memories of its past residents and others who were closely associated with it.”

The Furuta farm and Wintersburg Japanese Mission complex are the sole remaining properties in Huntington Beach that were purchased by Japanese prior to the passage of the California’s Alien Land Law of 1913. Three key interviews Hansen conducted with Issei established the historic framework for the property. He interviewed Yukiko Furuta, the widow of Charles Furuta, in the 1912 bungalow home that her husband had constructed. The Furutas donated part of their land for the Wintersburg

Presbyterian Mission built in 1910 and utilized the rest of the property for farming, vegetables, flowers and goldfish.

Interviews with the Rev. Kenji Kikuchi and Henry Kiyomi Akiyama documented the growth of the Nikkei community and construction of the larger Wintersburg Presbyterian Church in 1934, as well as Issei experimentation with goldfish ponds that proved promising for Wintersburg.

As the Environmental Impact Report process began and the property’s fate was in jeopardy in 2009, Chris Jepsen of the Orange County Archives raised concerns in the OC Roundup blog where he had been reporting on the property early on. Realizing there was no one spearheading efforts to save the property, Mary Urashima put her know-how into action. “I decided I could use my skill as a journalist to research and write the story of the property and Wintersburg Village,” she said. “It was important to humanize the structures, so those unaware of the history could begin to see the faces and lives of the people who created the farm and mission.”

As a government affairs consultant, Urashima knew that raising public awareness to engage interest was critical. She launched an active social media campaign, effectively utilizing the “Historic Wintersburg” blog to provide content, and outreaching through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to an international audience.

On Nov. 4, 2013 the Huntington Beach City Council approved re-zoning of the property to commercial/industrial and the demolition request by Rainbow Environmental Services. The Council added a stipulation granting the Historic Wintersburg Task Force an 18-month holding period, to raise funds to acquire the property or move the buildings from its historic site to create a heritage park.

The Task Force is also preparing a nomination for the National Register of Historic Places with the recommendation of the National Park Service and National Trust for Historic Preservation that the property is potentially eligible. Urashima remains optimistic, “Our hope is that we can accomplish preservation on site, due to the historic significance of a pre-California Alien Land Law of 1913 property.”

Tax-deductible donations to the preservation of Historic Wintersburg (with Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force and City of Huntington Beach oversight) can be made via mail or online at http://www.huntingtonbeachca.gov/i_want_to/give/donation-wintersburg.cfm. To further support preservation advocacy for the site, “Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach,” written by Mary Urashima and published by History Press, will be released in January of 2014. For more information, visit http://historicwintersburg.blogspot.com.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Nichi Bei and Jill Shiraki for featuring our effort to save Historic Wintersburg! My book with History Press—Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach—is expected for release in February / March and you’ll be able to find it via History Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. We ask for public support to save this remarkable history!

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