Members of the press were recently treated to a preview of the historic Rancho Los Alamitos, in Long Beach. The public re-opening will take place on June 10 although special events will afford interested parties an opportunity to enjoy the site before then.
Rancho Los Alamitos is a deeply significant historic site – home to a 19th century homestead that today offers a 7.5 acre oasis in the middle of a densely-populated urban area -- and the ancestral birthplace of Los Angeles’s Tongva people. For most of its existence it belonged to the prominent Bixby family before it was donated to the City of Long Beach in 1968, when it was apparently converted into a corny tourist trap. In 1986, the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation took over and this grand re-opening is the culmination of a quarter century’s worth of their restoration efforts.
Under Long Beach’s watch, the barn area buildings on the site were rearranged in a semi-circle, effectively turning the once-proud site into a Harbor Area answer to South Dakota’s 1800 Town. A “Wisteria Walk” was added. Grass was put in and visitors got to make candles. It may’ve all been good fun to the grade-schoolers who visited at the time but it probably wasn’t the ranch’s most dignified era. When the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation took over and pursued a different approach, there were predictably grumblings. This is SoCal, after all, and Southern Californians are very serious about kitsch.
The restoration was a massive undertaking. I never saw the ranch before my arrival this on the spring day of the preview but, having worked on a ranch (OK, for two weeks), the current lay-out seems to make much more functional sense. One of the most impressive aspects is how inconspicuous the modernizations are. The structural upgrades are unobtrusive and the offices are underground; so too is the geothermal system that provides the heating and cooling. The site isn’t simply a museum piece but probably more hi-tech (and quieter) than most of its modern neighbors. It kind of reminds me of the illusion created the Melkotians for Captain Kirk and his landing party or, for you Battlenerds, the planet Equellus minus (hopefully) the Cylons.
This soft-handed attitued is extended the museum’s overall manner. Information isn’t conveyed via lengthy, explanatory texts written on placards mounted beneath shelved artifacts. Instead, they’ve employed a variety of less-didactic ways to educate visitors. A short documentary film, Rancho Los Alamitos: An island in time, is available for viewing in a small theater. The displays contain information drawn from over 130 oral histories.
Being something of an amateur cartographer, I was thrilled by the floor of the Rancho Center, which features a large, beautiful map that superimposes the modern freeways, shoreline and some communities’ locations over a map of the historic Spanish Ranchos, simply conveying to the viewer a sense of their relationships to one another and their connection. The walls are adorned by large murals designed by the famed and recently-deceased Dugald Stermer. The connection to past and present is an obvious theme and one embodied in the flesh by Toni Castillo, a docent who used to live on the site. With 160 volunteers and no mannequins, the Rancho is a living, breathing place and barely resembles Olvera Street (or the Alamo -- at least as depicted in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure).
Rancho Los Alamitos is named after the Fremont Cottonwoods which fed off the local spring at the time of its foundation. The Tongva established the village of Povuu'nga (also spelled Puvunga and meaning, approximately, “Place of the Crowd“) there sometime around 500 CE. At that time, most of the immediate area was a flat, fertile floodplain where the shifting mouths of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers emptied into a shallow, briny marsh adjacent the San Pedro Bay. Rising slightly above the flats is Alamitos Mesa, on which the Rancho was later built, and subsequently renamed Bixby Hill. There, habitation was additionally aided by Puvunga Spring, which flowed continually until 1956. Additionally, Povuu'nga is also said to be where a legendary Tongva figure named Chinichnich decreed Tongva laws, rituals, and beliefs.
The Spanish first explored the area in the 1500s but didn’t conquer the Tongva until 1784. Alta California governor Pedro Fages granted Manuel Perez Nieto (a former sergeant in the conquering army) a huge land grant which was reduced in size to resolve a dispute with the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. Nieto’s adobe was located in present day West Whittier-Los Nietos. After Nietos’s passing in 1804, the grant was subdivided. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain. In 1834 the missions were secularized.
In 1844, the rancho was purchased by Massachusettsan Abel Stearns. Along with his wife, Arcadia Bandini, his ranch went on to provide much of the beef that fed new immigrants who arrived during the California Gold Rush of ’48, the year the land was conquered from the Mexicans by the US. Two years later, when California became a state, Rancho Los Alamitos was the biggest beef ranch in the country. Stearns’s bovine empire crumbled in the 1860s when a long and disastrous drought necessitated Stearns’ subletting of the land to other farmers. In the early 1880s, John W. Bixby (whose cousins Jotham and Llewellyn Bixby owned the adjacent Rancho Los Cerritos) was part of a group of buyers of the rancho.
The 1880s witnessed Southern California’s first major land boom and Bixby developed Alamitos Beach which was later absorbed by Long Beach. The land was worked by the Tongva, who remain to this day, as well as new arrivals from Europe (including Basque, Belgians, Portuguese, Swedes, and more) Mexico, Japan and China (until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882). The land boom ended in 1888 and Bixby died suddenly, the same year, apparently of appendicitis. Rancho Los Alamitos was again divided. In the 1890s, Jotham Bixby convinced wealthy gold and silver mine-owner, railroad baron and all around loaded William Clark to build a sugar beet refinery on the Rancho Los Alamitos property. When the Long Beach Oil Field was tapped, so was a new source of revenue. Water and oil helped expand the Bixby’s wealth, if not acreage, and they built themselves a beautiful home.
THE BARNS AREA & TENANTS
In the Barns Area, the main area of restoration, there’s a book store and a new education center/project room inside the horse stable built by Fred Bixby in 1948, the year after a fire destroyed the old Big Red Barn (whose outline is marked by six California Pepper Trees). As part of the restoration, all of the post-1968 plantings have been removed and the historic plantings preserved. Formerly surrounding the home were small, tenant communities, organized around ethnicity and origins. Belgians, for example, mostly lived to the east and Japanese, on the other hand, worked to the south. Nowadays the site is surrounded by a gated community. At the time of my visit, all of the ranch animals were off-site but will be returned for the opening, bringing with them more sights, sounds and smells. In addition to the stallion barn, blacksmith’s shop, dairy barn, and feed shed, there’s also a new chicken house and duck pond.
THE RANCH HOUSE
The Ranch House typifies the site’s continual adaptation and repurposing as well as the past owners eclectic but particular tastes. What began as a small adobe was gradually and organically expanded into a larger home with an interesting layout and distinctive and charming air. In the adobe’s entryway, Japanese prints share space with a mirror in an Egyptian-inspired frame. In the what was once the parlor was later converted to the dimly-lit billiard room. A Frank Tenney Johnson vies with a Hardie Gramatky for attention and the floor is covered with Navajo rugs. Next to it is the music room, which has a much more feminine quality, where a Persian miniature faces reproductions of paintings by Mary Cassatt, Frederick Frieseke and Claude Monet (the originals were donated to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park which later moved evolved into Midtown’s LACMA). The vibe throughout the home is both rough and refined.
The Gardens around the house extend the varied but sophisticated and specific vision of indigenous and immigrant tastes. Next to the house is a majestic Moreton Bay fig tree that was planted around 1888.
The oldest garden, The Old Garden, was planted in the late 19th century and redesigned in 1921 by Paul Howard.
The Geranium Walk, was designed in 1922 by Pasadenan business and life partners Florence Yoch and Lucile Council, whose landscape gardening was famously featured in Gone with the wind.
The Cactus Garden was designed with input of William Hertrich (who designed the Huntington Estate Gardens in San Marino) in 1924.
The Native Garden was originally envisioned as an alpine garden but that, not surprisingly, proved unrealistic. In 1925, Paul Howard and Allen Chickering instead designed a garden focusing on California native plants. The Oleander Walk was designed in 1927 but the titular trees were felled by disease or weevils (I can't remember) and have since been replaced by more resiliant mulberry.
Brookline, Massachusetts’s prolific Olmstead Brothers landscape team was founded in 1898 and until 1980 famously undertook many preeminent projects throughout the nation. The Cypress Steps and Patio were designed by the duo in 1926 and inspired by a trip to Italy. The Friendly Garden was designed in 1927 and The Cutting Garden was added the following year.
And finally, their Jacaranda Walk was built on a former Tongva kitchen midden where ancient remnants of seashells still remain embedded in the earth.
On May 20, USC professor, historian and author of the California Dream book series joins Marc Pachter, interim director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution and retired director of the National Portrait Gallery in a special preview of the Rancho Center with their program titled Rancho Los Alamitos: A View of America in California. As with everyday admission to the Rancho, all programs are free. However, they're limited to 150 people, whose reservations are taken on a first-come, first-serve basis. Please see the website’s calendar for it and all subsequent events.
MUSIC OF LOS ALAMITOS
Sounding one final note, music plays an important part in the feeling that the Rancho remains a vibrant, functioning space. Craig Torres, a Tongva, serves as a Native American Advisor as well as educator, singer, educator and entertainer. And, if I recall correctly, he drives a truck rather than arrive in a ti’at.
On April 28, the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Enrique Arturo Diemeck, will perform Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian dances 5-7 and Symphony no.3, and Antonín Dvořák’s Concerto for violencello. Closing the program will be the debut performance of the first movement of Robert Cummings’s Suite for double string orchestra for Rancho Los Alamitos, a fitting end to the night and beginning of a new phase in the Rancho’s continued existence.