Historic preservation group wants to save Orange County landmarks

They stand as windows to the past, reminding us of our triumphs and warning of our trespasses.

A church that served as a refuge for Japanese-Americans during trying times. One of the first schools in the state to voluntarily desegregate.

Though their histories hold important dictums for society, their walls can be under siege in a region defined by unyielding development. But a new organization, Preserve Orange County, hopes to combat the industrial colossus from devouring history.

The Santa Ana-based nonprofit seeks to preserve the historical parts of the county through advocacy and education. It is the only historical conservation group to include all 34 cities and the unincorporated areas of the county in its platform; however, there are many groups that work on a citywide level.

Krista Nicholds, president of the group’s board of directors, said the organization officially launched earlier this month. They are planning events and formalizing their mission for the next year.

Nicholds, 51, of San Juan Capistrano said one of their major initiatives will be to identify and lobby for the addition of at-risk places to the National Register of Historic Places, the country’s official list of historic sites worthy of preservation. It’s controlled by the National Park Service.

In its overall mission, the group is paying particular heed to sites that are affiliated with historically underrepresented minority groups, like Latin Americans, African Americans and possibly the LGBTQ community.

That goal is represented in the group’s list of endangered places on its website that includes the Lydia D. Killefer School in Orange, the Sexlinger Orchard in Santa Ana, Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach and Villa Park Elementary School in Villa Park.

The Killefer School was constructed in 1931 in a Mexican American neighborhood, though initially the school primarily served white children. It desegregated in 1944, three years before the Mendez v. Westminster ruling, which abolished segregation in California schools. It’s considered to be one of the first schools in the state to voluntarily desegregate.

The site is facing a redevelopment proposal to transform the building into housing for Chapman University students. According to Preserve Orange County, the preliminary environmental review determined the proposal was incompatible with current building standards.

“[The school] is a very good example of the real diversity of Orange County,” said board member Alan Hess, 65, of Irvine. “The stereotypical view of Orange County is white Republicans. In fact, the history of the county is much more diverse than that.

“It’s important to remind people and to give Orange County people an idea of their diverse identity and to bring to the forefront the contributions of our many minority communities over the years.”

Historic Wintersburg represents more than a century of Japanese American immigrant history. The 4.5-acre property includes a Japanese Presbyterian Church that served as one of the few gathering places where Japanese pioneers could come together in the county.

The site also has ties to Japanese internment during World War II. Much of the congregation was shipped off to relocation camps and a minister was interrogated by the FBI on the property.

These sites are valuable to the eight-member board of Preserve Orange County who all have backgrounds in either history, urban planning, law or preservation.

Aside from the national register effort, the group is developing workshops for the community and for planners, city governments and historic commissions.

They’re hoping their efforts will save these remnants of the county’s past because history is a valuable educator.

“History acts like a teacher in so many ways,” Hess said. “You can read about something in a book and that’s certainly important. But, if you have a real, three-dimensional space that people can actually go to, it brings history alive.”

The public may sign up for membership on the website, which includes access to a newsletter and roundtable discussions that will be held in 2018. For more information, visit preserveorangecounty.org.

benjamin.brazil@latimes.com

Twitter:@benbrazilpilot

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