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Pio Pico House May Get New, Authentic Look

May 05, 1985|VIRGINIA ESCALANTE | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — Cinco de Mayo celebrations this weekend mark a Mexican-French battle, but May 5 marks another historical event closer to home: the 184th birthday of the last governor of Mexican California whose ranch house still stands here today.

The house, though, stands amid crumbling adobe walls, a dispute over its docents and charges that it has not received adequate attention from the state.

Although one Whittier historian calls Pio Pico's ranch house "pretty sick," a new group of volunteers is vowing to give the 133-year-old house a better future.

The ranch house, which is part of the 3.5-acre Pio Pico State Historic Park, is at 6003 Pioneer Blvd., off Whittier Boulevard and the 605 Freeway. In Pio Pico's day, it had 33 rooms and a flat roof. The roof is peaked now as a result of an attempt in the 1970s to stop leaks, and only 14 rooms remain.

'Wouldn't Recognize It'

If Pico--who was born at the San Gabriel Mission in 1801--were to return, "he wouldn't recognize it," said Mary Ann Rummel, archivist for the Whittier Museum and past president of the Docents Committee of the Whittier Historical Society. It is Rummel who calls the condition of the house "pretty sick."

Dick Edwards, regional interpretative specialist for the state Department of Parks and Recreation, acknowledged that the house needs work, saying it "has a lot of room for restoration and improvement to fulfill the commitment we have for making it look the way it did in Pico's time."

As part of that commitment, he said, there are plans to refurnish the house after the state receives the findings of a study it has commissioned. Under that study, Howard Holter, a Cal State Dominguez Hills history professor, is researching what furnishings would be appropriate to the mansion and Pico's life style.

Because state funding for that work is not scheduled to be available until 1988, he said, the state will have to depend on fund-raising efforts by the newly formed 20-member Pio Pico Volunteer Assn. and will appeal to

corporations to "buy a room" for renovation.

Meanwhile, the state is trying to keep up with structural maintenance. Replastering of the adobe's deteriorating exterior walls began Wednesday with a $1,300 allocation from the state, which operates the park on a budget of about $38,000 a year.

In an attempt to make the grounds representative of the ranch house's original landscape, members of the Southern California Rose Heritage Group have offered to plant the kind of roses that Pico is said to have cultivated.

At the same time, the volunteer association is recruiting more help for the site's 10th annual summer festival, which will be held in July to bring visitors to the site and raise money for its restoration. Volunteers are also needed who can conduct tours and research or sell historical publications. Anyone with "a lot of enthusiasm" can contact Park Ranger John Brueggeman at the Pico house, where applications and training will be available.

Edwards said the association would especially like to recruit more volunteers from the Pico family and more members of the Latino community.

The first Pico descendant to join the association was Thomas Pico. His wife, Rose, who is researching her husband's family, says she would like the park to be a historical monument that would give "more reverence to the house and its history."

The new volunteer group replaces the docent committee of the Whittier Historical Society, which worked with the state for a decade before being ousted by the state in 1984. In terminating its contract with the Whittier docents, the state Department of Parks and Recreation said it wanted to increase the number of community volunteers, expand the exhibits and institute a docent training program.

The docents, Rummel said, had originally come to the rescue of the house when they saw that it was "quite bare" with no "homeyness." The state's neglect, she said, "would horrify anybody." When they were ousted, Rummel said, the committee members took with them the items they had purchased or collected over the years for the mansion.

'Picked Up Their Marbles'

Although the group had acquired and lent the items to the house, it never turned them over to the state and there is no dispute that they had a right to take them, Edwards said, adding, "There was some bitterness and they picked up their marbles and left."

Many of the objects, he said, had been installed simply because they were old or because the docents "decided off the top of their heads that they belonged there." Having them removed, Edwards said, "was no great loss."

In the long run, he said, when they took their belongings, the docents cleaned out the house, which will enable the state to replace the items with originals or replicas of furniture that would accurately depict Pico's era.

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