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

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

The Feb. 28 letter from Interim City Manager Sean Joyce to Republic Services President and CEO Jon Vander Ark, who is based in Phoenix, reads as follows:

“I am writing to inform you of a structure fire that occurred at 7642 Warner Avenue, Huntington Beach, CA, on Feb. 25, 2022. The fire destroyed an historic building at the Wintersburg property, which has resulted in the irreplaceable loss of an important historic structure on a property of vital historic heritage to the Japanese American community.

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

“Historic Wintersburg parallels the rise of Orange County as a major agricultural and economic hub, and today it is among the only surviving Japanese American properties acquired before California passed anti-immigrant land laws in 1913 and 1920. Everyone associated with the Furuta farm and the Wintersburg mission was 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 urgency to immediately commencing discussions between the City of Huntington Beach and Rainbow Environmental Services-Republic Services to discuss how, together, we might transfer the property to the city and/or its partners in historic preservation so that we may preserve and restore this historic property and its structures and properly honor the site and Japanese Americans of Orange County, the State of California, and of the United States of America.

“I look forward to speaking with you at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss how we can meet our mutual interests for the property 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 manse (parsonage) of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission, was destroyed in the fire.

According to the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, “Within a few hours, Republic Services brought in a bulldozer, demolishing and removing evidence needed for an arson investigation and archaeological artifacts.”

According to the task force, the loss was compounded when “Republic Services also took a bulldozer to the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission, which was not impacted by fire. We are calling for an explanation.”

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

Among those who have sent letters are the Japanese American National Museum, Japanese American Citizens League, Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium, Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages, and organizations dedicated to the preservation of former confinement sites at 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 from 1910 resounds greatly with our institution, as our mission is to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.

“Amidst the recent rise of anti-Asian prejudice and hate sweeping the nation, Historic Wintersburg and its preservationist community have been targeted by ongoing harassment and threats. City officials and Republic Services were made aware of anti- Asian targeting on Historic Wintersburg and were also notified in writing for years of concerns about security and maintenance at the property to prevent vandalism and fire risk.

“It is deeply troubling that the Historic Wintersburg site is currently open to additional vandalism and fire risk, which follows a history of inadequate propert security and lack of maintenance …

“As recently as 2018, JANM expressed to 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 prior to California’s 1913 Alien Land Law, Historic Wintersburg is an extremely rare and priceless piece of Japanese pioneer history, and is of importance to the multicultural history of California, the greater Japanese American community, and indeed to the cultural landscape of our national history. It is unfortunate that these expressed concerns would turn out to be prescient.

“I urge you to take swift and significant action to preserve the remaining Historic Wintersburg site and structures for future generations.”

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