Continuity and Change at Historic Rancho Los Alamitos

Rancho Los Alamitos
| Photos courtesy of Rancho Los Alamitos

The mesa that overlooks Alamitos Bay has been home -- and a place of memory -- for at least 1,500 years. At the prow of the mesa, 55 feet above marshland that tangled the mouth of an intermittent river, a spring welled up that flowed even in dry seasons. Native Americans -- the Tongva -- gathered there and elaborated a culture based on the natural richness that lay between the bay and foothills to the north.

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Jacaranda Walk in 1928, Olmsted Bros. design

Spanish, Mexican, and Californio owners appropriated the mesa and the thousands of level acres of land around it at the end of 18th century. An adobe house -- just a rectangle of mud bricks -- went up near the spring in the first years of the next century. Cattle grazed, and their hides became shoe leather for the mill workers of Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Friendly Garden, Olmsted Bros. design, 1927
Abel Stearns -- the Californio who owned the land -- was rich in the 1850s. His cattle helped feed Gold Rush miners. Drought in the mid-1860s killed his cattle and bankrupted Stearns. The mesa -- now part of Rancho Los Alamitos -- passed through the hands of various creditors until the 1880s, when the rancho was purchased by John Bixby (whose cousins owned the adjacent Rancho Los Cerritos).

The Bixby's -- prosperous, but not very wealthy -- raised sheep for wool and stock animals for sale. They leased their land to tenant farmers. The Bixby's tried to go into the sugar beet business in the mid-1890s but didn't have enough capital to make the heavy investment in machinery the new industry required. They sold some of the land in the years following to the developers of Long Beach. They gave up some of it for a Naval hospital and a state college.

The adobe house on the mesa -- familiarly called Bixby Hill -- expanded more than once to fit children and grandchildren. Oil on Bixby land in the mid-1920s paid for European paintings and furnishings and -- most of all -- gardens.

?ª An oleander walk, a jacaranda walk, and smaller, more intimate gardens designed in 1927-1928 by the famed Olmsted brothers.

Oleander Walk, Olmsted Bros. design, 1927
Cutting Garden, Olmsted Bros. design, 1928

?ª A collection of Californian plants laid out in 1925 by garden designer Paul Howard and native plant expert Allen Chickering.

?ª A cactus garden designed in 1924 with the help of William Hertrich (who also designed the Huntington gardens).

?ª A geranium walk designed in 1922 by noted Pasadena landscape designers Florence Yoch and Lucile Council.

The Bixby family owned the mesa until 1968 when 7.5 acres -- the last remnant of the rancho's square miles of pasture and farm land -- were deeded to the city of Long Beach. The house, with its mixture of Californio simplicity and Victorian comfort, the barns and stables nearby, and the gardens became familiar to four decades of Long Beach children through school trips, but the mesa's singular presence in history was not well enough known.

Rancho Barns
Rancho Center's Great Map
Children of ranch workers and tenant farmers, 1920s

That will change, thanks to an ambitious program of preservation, restoration, and new construction that will be celebrated with the opening of the rancho's interpretive center on Sunday, June 10. The change is more than careful curating of historic buildings or an architecturally respectful Rancho Center or the new exhibits of life on the mesa through all its years.

What visitors will find -- as I did recently -- is something that's missing from our encounters with our place, which has become a zone of such rapid and frequent erasure that memory fails. They will find continuity.

The mesa and its buildings and gardens are secure against forgetting, now. Change has come -- again and as always -- to the mesa, but with continuity and as deep as time gets in Los Angeles.

(The Rancho Los Alamitos website has additional photographs, interpretive materials, and a schedule of future events.)

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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