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.
A new organization, Preserve Orange County, hopes to keep the region’s development from devouring some of its historic sites.
The Santa Ana-based nonprofit seeks to preserve the county’s historical structures 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. It is planning events and formalizing its mission for next year.
Nicholds, 51, of San Juan Capistrano said one of the 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, which 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 vs. 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 that would 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.”