Historic Wintersburg Japanese mission suffers fire damage

Photo taken of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission in Huntington Beach, Calif. site inspection Feb. 27; the mission and dance in 1910. © Historic Wintersburg

A 112-year-old manse, one of six historic buildings at the Wintersburg Japanese Mission in Huntington Beach, Calif. caught fire on the morning of Feb. 25 and sustained “heavy damage,” the Orange County Register reported.

Mary Adams Urashima, chair of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation effort, stated in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly that the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission church structure and the 1910 manse, both made of old-growth redwood, were demolished by the property’s owner. “We do not know why the Mission building also was demolished by Republic Services, as it was not on fire.” 

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, six historic buildings remained on the historic Wintersburg property, the site of the oldest Japanese mission in Orange County: two homes the Furuta family built in 1912 and 1947, the 1910 Christian mission, the mission’s manse where the clergy once lived, the 1934 Wintersburg Japanese Church building and a barn built sometime between 1908 and 1912. All six structures at Historic Wintersburg are designated as “eligible for the National Register for Historic Places.”

Charles Mitsuji Furuta operated his Furuta Goldfish Farm on the five-acre Wintersburg property, with the northwest corner of the site set aside for the Japanese mission. Furuta had purchased the property in 1908 prior to the enactment of the Alien Land Law that banned aliens ineligible for naturalized U.S. citizenship from purchasing or owning land in California.

In 2004, the Furuta family no longer operated the farm and sold the property to Rainbow Environmental Services, a waste disposal company. Rainbow sold the site to Republic Services in 2014.

Photos taken of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission in Huntington Beach, Calif. site inspection Feb. 27; the mission and dance in 1910. © Historic Wintersburg

Supporters of the Historic Wintersburg preservation effort claimed that city officials and Republic Services were made aware for years of concerns about the property’s security and maintenance. Currently, the historic structures are not boarded and are open to vandalism and fire damage. The property’s security is completely inadequate and simple maintenance such as weed abatement is not being conducted, Adams Urashima said. 

The Historic Wintersburg Preservation group would like to see the property transferred to Heritage Museum of Orange County, “an established 501c3 historic organization and county level museum with whom we’re partnered. We do appreciate and want the City’s assistance to push for discussions with Republic Services and get them to earnestly engage with the preservation coalition. We are glad to hear them acknowledge that Republic Services has neglected the property, which contributed to the fire.”

Republic Services is a “recycling and waste services” company, its Website states.

There have been negative reactions to the Wintersburg preservation effort; the group has been bombarded by anti-Japanese rants in an “orchestrated online harassment” since 2016, said Adams Urashima, suggesting the fire may have been racially motivated. Many online messages call the anti-Asian hate crime accusations a “false narrative” or “hoax” and call it part of a disinformation campaign. It is “probably an attempt to discredit me or Historic Wintersburg, as it was known … that I had filed police reports due to ongoing cyber harassment and threats.” 

The Wintersburg preservationist group was notified by the city of Huntington Beach that the investigation is ongoing as of March 4 about how the fire started and who was responsible. Adams Urashima noted that Republic Services has not communicated with her organization regarding the fire and demolition.

The company did not respond to a request for comment before press time. 

“We have heard some distressed and angry responses, and from those who share our heartbreak,” she commented. “There also is an overwhelming national response from Japanese Americans and Japanese American organizations, for which we are very grateful.” 

Shocked, Dismayed, Outraged

Dr. Arthur A. Hansen, professor emeritus of history and Asian American studies at California State University, Fullerton, stated via e-mail, “I was shocked, dismayed, and outraged, though hardly surprised, since I have long felt that the shameful negligence of the City of Huntington Beach to offer serious support for the preservation of this invaluable racial-ethnic site, coupled with the willful failure of Rainbow and Republic to properly maintain and secure the Historic Wintersburg site, and the vitriolic anti-Asian animus of a sector of the general Huntington Beach population, made the destruction of the Wintersburg mission and manse a virtually self-fulfilling proposition.” 

Because of his half-century immersion in the fields of Japanese American and Orange County history, Hansen stated, “I was understandably upset to receive the news of the fire and unpermitted demolition late last month of the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese mission church and adjacent manse … I was acutely aware of the years of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian hate, orchestrated social media harassment and threats targeting those who, like Mary Adams Urashima, sought heroically to preserve the Historic Wintersburg site for the edification of posterity.”

The Wintersburg Japanese Mission mission and mance in 1910. in Huntington Beach, Calif.© courtesy of Wintersburg Church; HistoricWintersburg.blogspot.com ©

The importance of the Historic Wintersburg site is that “collectively it represents the social, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual cradle of the Orange County Japanese American community,” he added. “The destruction of any part of it is monumental in terms of memory and meaning.”

‘Culmination of Neglect’

The Japanese American Citizens League’s Executive Director David Inoue declared in a letter to the Huntington Beach Mayor and City Council that the nonprofit was “devastated to learn of the fire and unpermitted demolition of the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission’s manse at the Historic Wintersburg property.” He described the fire as “the culmination of years of deliberate neglect.”

“For 93 years … JACL has supported, honored, and advanced policies that safeguard the interests of those who are Japanese Americans, and all others who are victimized by injustice and bigotry,” Inoue proclaimed. “As an organization that actively works towards preserving and honoring the legacy of those Japanese Americans who were wrongfully incarcerated during WWII, the allowance of the Historic Wintersburg site to fall into such disrepair and the catastrophic loss of the Japanese Mission’s manse is particularly upsetting.” 

For Inoue, as a Japanese American and a Presbyterian, this site is “of particular importance personally,” he added. “If Huntington Beach continues to allow these historic landmarks to fall further into disrepair, they will be lost forever.” 

Open to Vandalism

Janice Harumi Yen, whose grandparents and much of the family on her mother’s side are devout Christians, stated via e-mail, “I was totally dismayed but not surprised when I heard the news of the fire.”

The Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress member said she had sent a message to the Huntington Beach City Council expressing deep concern about the vandalism and the destruction of the manse at the historic Wintersburg site. “The fire and unpermitted demolition on Friday, Feb. 25, of the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission’s manse … comes after years of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian hate, orchestrated harassment on social media, and threats to preservationists.”

Responding to Yen, Sandie Frakes, administrative aide for the City of Huntington Beach City Manager’s Office, stated: “It was with great dismay that we heard about the Wintersburg fire on Feb. 25. We are proud of the efforts put forth by our Huntington Beach Fire Department in responding to this fire and feel fortunate that they were able to save the historic church and that more damage wasn’t done. Like you, we understand the importance of this site. It holds vital historic value to the Japanese American community and to the Huntington Beach community as a whole.” 

In the aftermath of the fire, the Huntington Beach Fire Department and Huntington Beach Police Department are conducting an investigation to identify the cause of this fire, Frakes added. The city has also initiated discussions with Republic Services to “explore the possibility of transferring the property to the city and/or its partners as a means of preserving and restoring this property.” 

Yen said she doesn’t expect the city to actually follow through with their statement “because they’ve done so little in the past. I do hope they can take possession of the property. Republic Services has totally neglected the property. The Wintersburg group has tried to purchase the historic site but Republic has … ignored all offers … they bulldozed the structures that were damaged by the fire, without allowing preservationists to search for historic artifacts and for the city to examine the site for clues to suspected arson.”

She has been “heartened by the community’s response,” Yen added. “Within a few days, community groups like the Manzanar Committee and JANM posted their response on social media and in local newspapers. I would expect that the Japanese American community would be enraged by the news of the fire.”

Demolition Not Recommended

Gina Clayton-Tarvin, Ocean View School District board of trustees president, stated in a letter to the Huntington Beach City Council that a district board member was at the scene and was informed by the Huntington Beach Fire Department’s Fire Chief Scott M. Haberle that the fire department had not recommended the demolition of the structure. 

“Sadly, Republic Services ordered the demolition of two of the historical structures,” she said.

The OVSD president said the school district’s Oak View Preschool “is adjacent to the property, and we were concerned that the property had become overgrown with brush, posing a fire danger.”

Offering the historic property protection is a 2016 legal settlement agreement between the Ocean View School District and Rainbow Environmental Services-Republic Services that calls for land use encumbrances on the Historic Wintersburg property that prevent its development and to safeguard the property for historic preservation. Rainbow and its successor Republic had sought to rezone the property to industrial and commercial uses, along with demolition of all six historic structures.

Japanese American community members, historical preservationists, and other concerned citizens are calling for: 1) thorough arson investigation, 2) the right of Nikkei to collect ash and remains or artifacts from the two buildings to honor the heritage and history of a sacred site, 3) action by the city of Huntington Beach to bring Rainbow Environmental Services-Republic Services into genuine negotiations to allow the purchase of the property by preservationists and museum professionals partnered with Historic Wintersburg for the purpose of historic preservation as a heritage park.

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