Two of the structures at Historic Wintersburg were bulldozed by Republic Services. (Courtesy Historic Wintersburg)

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Following a fire on Feb. 25 at Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach, a second building was needlessly demolished, according to the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force.

“[Property owner] Republic Services also took a bulldozer to the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission, which was not impacted by fire,” the task force said on Feb. 27. “We are calling for an explanation.

“Each of the six structures at Historic Wintersburg … are designated as eligible for the National Register in the historic and cultural element of the City of Huntington Beach General Plan. That designation on a California municipal document automatically places it on the state’s list of historic and cultural resources. That triggers the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“Republic Services also previously removed the front porch of the 1913 Furuta bungalow, technically a project under CEQA. This has been demolition by neglect and removal of nationally significant structures, piece by piece.”

Task force leader Mary Adams Urashima issued the following statement on Feb. 27: “Shortly before 9 a.m., Friday, Feb. 25, there was notification of a fire at endangered National Treasure Historic Wintersburg, located at Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane in Huntington Beach. Community preservationists have worked since 2012 to save and preserve this property, which holds over a century of Japanese American history.

“The 112-year-old manse (parsonage) of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission has been lost. Within a few hours, Republic Services brought in a bulldozer, demolishing and removing evidence needed for an arson investigation and archaeological artifacts.

“Historic Wintersburg and its six structures were named one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places in 2014 and designated a National Treasure in 2015. Preserve Orange County named Historic Wintersburg one of Orange County’s Most Endangered Historic Places in 2017.

“In recent years beginning in early 2016, Historic Wintersburg was targeted with anti-Asian hate, social media harassment and threats for which police reports were filed.

“With local and national partners, the Historic Wintersburg community preservation group has engaged since 2012 Rainbow Disposal and in 2014 new owner Republic Services in discussions to purchase the property for historic preservation purposes. Republic Services has publicly stated to the media they would work with the community effort on the sale for historic preservation purposes but have disengaged the past two years.

Tadashi Kowta in front of the manse in 2013. He lived in the manse as a child when his father, Rev. Sohei Kowta, was clergy for the Wintersburg Japanese Mission. Tadashi Kowta recalled his father being interrogated by the FBI after the attack by Japan at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and their life during WWII incarceration at Poston. He remembered children with the Ocean View elementary school coming to say goodbye to his family. (Photo by M. Urashima, 2013) (Coutesy of Historic Wintersburg)

“Over the past decade, the community preservationists have contacted Rainbow/Republic repeatedly to provide more security and regular maintenance of the property. The community has provided thousands of dollars’ worth of tree trimming and brush removal, to remove vegetation that put not just the six historic structures at risk, but also the adjacent homes, and the Ocean View School District’s Oak View preschool and elementary school at risk.

“As recently as two weeks ago, Republic Services and City of Huntington Beach leaders were contacted in writing with photo documentation about vandalism at the property. They did not respond.

“The Historic Wintersburg Preservation group, and partners Preserve Orange County and Heritage Museum of Orange County call upon Republic Services and our community leaders in Huntington Beach, Orange County and California leadership, and national preservation organizations to take action to save and preserve this rare and significant National Treasure historic place. We are calling for an arson investigation.”

The cause of the fire remains undetermined.

Historic Wintersburg, which dates back more than a century, was once the hub of the Japanese American community in Orange County. The two buildings that were destroyed were “once prominent on Wintersburg Road, a statement of pride and intention by the Issei who founded the mission effort,” according to the task force.

Sunday school students in 1926 in front of the 1910 Wintersburg Japanese Mission. (Courtesy Historic Wintersburg)

“Republic Services needlessly demolished the 1910 church when it began removing the remains of the manse with a bulldozer following Friday’s fire,” said Preserve Orange County. “The destruction of two irreplaceable structures hours apart is an enormous loss for the Japanese American community, preservationists, and the City of Huntington Beach. Historic Wintersburg has been identified as the most complete Japanese American historic resource of its kind in California.”

Regarding donations, the task force has cautioned, “There is no official or sanctioned Go Fund Me for Historic Wintersburg. We have been made aware of a possible reference to that on social media. It would not be legitimate.

“The only official online or mail donation collection for the planning and preservation for Historic Wintersburg is on our partner organization Heritage Museum of Orange County’s website:”

Letters of support for Historic Wintersburg have been sent to Huntington Beach Mayor Barbara Delgleize and the six-member City Council by, among others:

• Michael Okamura, president, Little Tokyo Historical Society

• David Inoue, executive director, Japanese American Citizens League

• Marlene Shigekawa, president, Poston Community Alliance

• Stephen Kitajo and Erin Shigaki, co-chairs, Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee

• Shirley Ann Higuchi, chair, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

• Kimiko Marr, Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages

• Nancy Ukai, project director, 50 Objects/Stories of the American Japanese Incarceration

• Filmmaker Emiko Omori (“Rabbit in the Moon”)

• Sam Mihara, 50-year resident of Huntington Beach

The letters call for an investigation for arson as well as negligence by the property owner; for the right of Japanese Americans to enter the property and collect artifacts, to save what is left of the site; and for the city to facilitate a response from the owner regarding purchase of the property by Preserve Orange County, Heritage Museum of Orange County and Historic Wintersburg. Updates are being posted at:

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