Smoke billows as fire crews work to contain a blaze at Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach on Friday. The video was taken by Councilmember Dan Kalmick and shared on the Preserve Orange County Facebook page.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

An important piece of Japanese American history was lost on Friday, as the 112-year-old manse (parsonage) on the Historic Wintersburg property in Huntington Beach was destroyed in a fire.

Huntington Beach City Councilmember Dan Kalmick was dropping his daughter off at daycare when he witnessed the blaze at 8:55 a.m. at the intersection of Nichols and Warner. He took video of the fire and posted it to social media. A former volunteer firefighter, Kalmick said, “I saw the manse was fully engulfed. There were multiple fire apparatus that had knocked the fire down after 20 minutes.”

The manse was a small building located adjacent to the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission, where clergy and their families lived as they ministered to the parishioners.

Fire officials are investigating. Mary Adams Urashima, chair of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, is seeking an arson investigation. She said the fire follows numerous calls for the city of Huntington Beach and property owners Rainbow Environmental Services to address concerns regarding vandalism and neglect of the property.

In 2014, Historic Wintersburg was named to the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

“This loss is devastating. Not only is it a loss of a structure eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the fire was alarmingly close to our neighbors in Oak View and the Oak View preschool and elementary school,” Urashima said.

The manse, pictured in 2016, was where the clergy resided. The first residents were Rev. Joseph Kenichi Inazawa and Kate Alice Goodman, who took up residence in 1910. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

The fire comes just days after the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. It also follows a cold wave that has seen the temperature drop into the 30s.

Kalmick said that he didn’t want to speculate about the cause of the fire, but noted the loss of an important part of local history. He said one of his first votes on the Huntington Beach planning commission was to vote against a permit to demolish Historic Wintersburg.

“It was really, really disappointing to see the smoke, the header of the fire coming out,” he said.

Urashima explained that a can of kerosene had been found in the Furuta home and there was graffiti and evidence that transients had broken into the structures.

“We pointed out fire hazards and lack of security,” she said. “We have offered repeatedly to help with maintenance, graffiti removal and trash clean-up. Enough is enough. They have allowed demolition by neglect.”

“This tiny building is not very big but it holds monumental history,” Urashima said, in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo. “It is one of six buildings that hold thousands of stories.”

The building was one of six structures, including the mission (1910) and the home of goldfish and flower farmers Charles Mitsuji and Yukiko Yajima Furuta (1912) — located on property in the Oak View neighborhood owned by Rainbow Environmental Services. Four of the buildings predate the Alien Land Law of 1913, which barred Japanese immigrants from owning land.

Among those to call the manse home was Rev. Sohei Kowta, who led Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church from 1938 to 1942. In recollections posted on the Historic Wintersburg blog, Tadashi Kowta, the eldest of the Kowta children, recalled living in the manse.

The manse (left) next to Wintersburg Japanese Mission. Rev. Joseph Kenichi Inazawa is on the front steps of the mission with clergy and church elders. (Courtesy of Historic Wintersburg)

“I remember the very high ceiling in the bedroom (of the manse), which seemed like a social hall,” said Kowta. “When I visited the manse about 10 to 15 years later, I bumped my head on the ceiling of one of the back rooms.”

The Kowta family was in the manse when the FBI came to interrogate Rev. Kowta after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Members of Wintersburg and most of the Huntington Beach Japanese American community were incarcerated in Poston, Ariz. during World War II.

The Historic Wintersburg fire follows incidents at Konko Church in Boyle Heights, which was struck by an arsonist twice last year. A fire was set and lanterns broken at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in March 2021.

Urashima urged the community to send emails to Huntington Beach city leaders demanding an arson investigation, Mayor Barbara Delgleize, Barbara.Delgleize@surfcity-hb.org, City Council, city.council@surfcity-hb.org.

The 112-year-old manse at Historic Wintersburg was destroyed in the fire. (Courtesy Historic Wintersburg)

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