Is There A Future In The Past?

Nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif., are 4.7 acres of Spanish, Mexican and American history, where families helped transform southern California from its ranching beginnings to a modern, urban society.

Rancho Los Cerritos includes an 1844 adobe building, formal gardens and landscaped grounds. It is a national, state and local landmark, owned and operated by the city as a public museum and historic site since 1955.

As the country’s economic crisis works its way to the regional and local municipal forefront, the Rancho has found itself on the list for possible budget cuts. It begs the question, “Can one put a price on historic culture?”

While the answer seems obvious, the reality from a fiscal viewpoint is that this rare community treasure does not sustain itself financially.

From The Start

The original Rancho site was 27,000 acres of pastures for cattle and sheep that, starting in the late 19th century, gave way to development of the cities of Long Beach, Lakewood, Signal Hill, Bellflower and Paramount.

The site boasts a two-story adobe building with 22 ground-floor rooms and a serene central courtyard. It possesses outstanding potential for an interpretation of historical themes, beginning with the period of Native American occupation and continuing through the romanticized Spanish Colonial Revival Period of the 1920s and 1930s. The rich artisan materials of the area are present throughout the building. The 2- to 3-foot thick walls tell the story of the Native Americans who made adobe blocks using mud from the site. The beams were hand-hewn redwood from the Monterey area, and a majority of the rooms in the east wing contained redwood planked floors.

The construction of the ranch house began in 1844 by then-owner John Temple. The building was one of the largest and most impressive domestic adobes of its time for colonial Southern California, and its extensive gardens were unique for the time period. Temple built the ranch house as a country home and headquarters for his cattle-ranching operation. Its second owners, Flint, Bixby & Co., stocked the land with sheep. During the 19th century, horses, carriages and buggies were saddled and prepared in the courtyard. There were troughs and hitching posts, and blacksmithing and cooking facilities.

The ”milk room” opened onto a second courtyard north of the house, and contained rows of shining pans filled with cream both for churning and for the table--“clotted cream, thick enough to spread with a knife upon hot baking-powder biscuits, or a steaming baked potato.” Other original buildings on the site were a barn, corn crib, adobe brick oven, wool barn, a dip for the sheep after they had been sheared, a sheep barn and a granary. The large, 2-acre garden planted by Temple appeared to be a mixture of New England and subtropical influences.

Round Two

In 1930, the well-known landscape architect, Ralph Cornell, created a garden plan for the new owners of Rancho Los Cerritos. He incorporated native plants, preserved many of the trees and plants surviving from previous owners, and reintroduced some plant species from the 19th-century garden. Surviving landscape elements included an osage orange, three pomegranate, two citrus, two olive and three Italian cypress trees. Several black locust trees also survived, along with a large Moreton Bay fig.

Cornell’s overall plan called for a sweeping driveway for the southern entrance and western boundary, bordered by curving layers of trees and shrubs. Outside the south wing, he planted a grid of both familiar and exotic fruit trees. A central lawn surrounded the Moreton Bay fig, bordered by trees and shrubs along a walkway. Through his use of rich materials and plantings, Cornell created a pleasant garden atmosphere to surround the remodeled living quarters. Even today, over 80 years after he created the gardens, many of the historic plantings are still alive and well.

A Red-Carpet Reputation

In March 1934, a Historic American Building Survey was made of Rancho Los Cerritos. Three years later, it was designated by the Department of the Interior as possessing “Exceptional historic or architectural interest,” being “most worthy of careful preservation for the benefit of future generations.”

In 1943, the city began working to acquire the Rancho as a historic site. The city opened a museum, and completed the purchase in 1956 for use as a historical monument, park and library. Rancho Los Cerritos was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Presently, the city administers the Rancho through the Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine. The city holds title to the site and provides the entire funding for its operations. The Friends of Rancho Los Cerritos is a volunteer support group, which assists the site with its programming, and supports the educational and preservation mission. The Rancho Los Cerritos Foundation, a non-profit arm of the organization, was established in 1994, and is tasked with fundraising and development for restoration, capital projects and educational enhancements.

Funding Failures

As the city faces a looming $52-million budget deficit next year, policymakers will be faced with difficult decisions. What public programs and services can be eliminated with the least impact? With public health and safety as a priority, fire, police and health services should take precedence.

Libraries and parks are further down the list. How important are the cultural and historic resources to overall city operations and function? Many say these resources are “optional” and not core services.

In 2007 and 2008, Rancho Los Cerritos raised $37,700 in revenue from programs, donations and gift-shop sales. The operational cost has a $467,000 price tag, subsidized by the city. Can the city afford to keep the site open during a financial crisis?

These are extraordinary times. Numbers on a spreadsheet tell a very different story than the one that is tangible at the Rancho. Translation is lost between profit and loss statements and the general atmosphere of the site.

Bookmarking History

Gazing at the magnificence of the 130-year-old Moreton Bay fig that sits on the back lawn area of the Rancho, one wonders about the Native Americans, the families and visitors who have enjoyed its grandeur and elegance over the centuries. This place, which represents a lifestyle reminiscent of the earlier tranquil days of ranch living. This place, where the owners entertained guests and played bridge after Sunday dinner, lit the large, two-story Christmas tree with real candles, and was the site of the annual Easter-egg hunt.

These were real experiences, of real people. It is the story of many generations from all walks of life--entrepreneurial businessmen, close-knit families, people who helped shape the community and region. Theirs are stories about land and economic development, cultural diversity and the growth of the city. And if there remains no choice but to close down this historic landmark, what is in store for this tree and these buildings that have survived and been a part of so much?

Despite the engaging history of Rancho Los Cerritos, these modern times force us to deal with funding realities.

Rancho Los Cerritos will soon turn a new page in its history book. One can only hope that the vivid memories can be kept alive through continued education about this neighborhood jewel, and a bookmark will steadfastly remain in its place until we are again able to forge ahead in better times.

Sandra Gonzalez , FASLA, is the manager for the Planning & Development Bureau for the city of Long Beach’s Parks, Recreation and Marine Department. She can be reached via e-mail at