The Hidden History of the Riverside's Center for Social Justice & Civil Liberties


The Center for Social Justice & Civil Liberties in downtown Riverside is a happy accident. It came about in a serendipitous confluence of timing, buried treasure and an abiding respect for history. For the last fifty years, the building at 3855 Market Street in downtown Riverside had been a bland box of brick, a nondescript take on 1960s modern. It was slated for demolition in 2011, along with the former Hollyrood Hotel next door, to make way for Riverside Community College's sleek new culinary academy and district offices, part of the planned "Renaissance Block" that will also include a new school of the arts. RCC was aware that a 1920s building was hidden beneath the plain facade; when structural analysis showed that the original building was sound, they decided to see whether they could keep it in place to preserve the city's architectural heritage. No one, however, was prepared for what they found, or what it would mean for Riverside.

The city's Historic Preservation office expected the architecture to look like the White Park Building across the street -- which was also built in 1926 -- solid, sturdy, a bit of embellishment along the roofline. When they started to chip away the brick, however, they were met with a dramatic black curtain that had been put in place by architectural historian Carl Fowler along with beams to keep the original building protected. The curtains parted and a pale turquoise building in the Churrigueresque style -- just as ornately carved and baroque as the name suggests -- revealed itself. A building so lovely and elaborate, so stunning in its sudden, unexpected appearance, it caused many near-accidents on Market Street.

 Original facade of 3855 Market Street | Courtesy of the Old Riverside Foundation.
Original facade of 3855 Market Street | Courtesy of the Old Riverside Foundation.   

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The building was designed by Stiles Oliver Clements, architect of some of the most famous, and gorgeous, theaters in Los Angeles, including the Wiltern, the Mayan and the El Capitan. It is his only known work in Riverside County. Originally constructed for the Riverside Finance Company, it became the Citrus Belt Savings and Loan Building in 1951 and was painted the sea-foamy shade found behind the curtain. An unearthed vintage postcard revealed the building's original color, and an historical preservation expert was called upon to find the perfect shade of white to match it in the restoration. That same white will be incorporated into the culinary academy building to bring cohesion between old and new.

RCC involved the Old Riverside Foundation every step of the way, sharing plans, offering salvage, asking for advice. "They did everything right," says David Leonard, President of the Foundation, calling the process "a perfect example of how to approach renovation activity." Leonard particularly appreciates how faithful RCC has been to the original intent of the building, painstakingly reconstructing the heads of Balboa and Cortez that had been sheared off the front, and using the bank vault as a climate controlled room for archival material.

RCC had planned to use the building for classroom space until they were told the structure isn't Field Act compliant and therefore can't be designated for student use. The college was stumped. What should they do with this beautiful building?

Unbeknownst to the planners at the time, the RCC Library had been looking for a site to display their Miné Okubo Collection, a vast repository of the Nisei artist's work that had been donated to RCC by Okubo's estate in 2008, seven years after her death.

Miné Okubo was born in Riverside in 1912 and attended Riverside Community College (then named Riverside Junior College) from 1930-1933. She went on to get her B.A. and M.F.A. from UC Berkeley, studied further in Europe, and began to work widely as an artist, creating murals for the Federal Art Project, the U.S. Army, and the W.P.A., where she collaborated with Diego Rivera. Then, in 1942, five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Okubo and her brother were forcibly relocated to a Japanese internment camp. Okubo documented her time in internment -- first in Tanforan, later in the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah -- through her art, sketching her daily indignities. She later wrote a book about her experience, Citizen 13660, the first to explore the firsthand experience of living in a Japanese relocation camp. Okuba became an outspoken activist for human rights as well as a widely exhibited artist, showing her work in places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The collection bequeathed to RCC contains over 2,000 paintings and sketches, many of which have never been publicly displayed.

Riverside postercard | Courtesy of the Old Riverside Foundation.
Riverside postercard | Courtesy of the Old Riverside Foundation.   

When Orrin Williams, Associate Vice Chancellor of Facilities Planning and Development, learned of the collection, he told the library "You need a place to put this art; we need a use for this building" and The Center for Social Justice and Civil Liberties was born. "It just made sense," he says. "And it fits right in with Riverside calling itself 'The City of Arts and Innovation.'"


The Center for Social Justice and Civil Liberties, which will feature a museum on the second floor, a library on the first, will open its doors June 27, 2012 to celebrate what would be Miné Okubo's 100th birthday and give people a glimpse of the $5.1 million renovation before the Center opens permanently in the fall. The papers and memorabilia found in the Okubo collection will serve as the anchor archive of the Center, and act as a jumping off place for visitors to explore other crucial civil liberty and social justice issues.

Miné Okubo once said "To me, life and art are one and the same, for the key lies in one's knowledge of people and life. In art one is trying to express it in the simplest imaginative way, as in the art of past civilizations, for beauty and truth are the only two things which live timeless and ageless."

Beauty and truth live on in both Okubo's body of work and Stiles Clements' architecture. Through their careful preservation, we can remember where, and how, our human family has been so we can move toward a more just and beautiful future.


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Top Image: Feature of Cortez. Courtesy of the Old Riverside Foundation.

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