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A Problem Preserved : Rancho Proposal Would Trade Old Plaster for Older Adobe

July 23, 1989|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

The courtyard at Rancho Los Cerritos in Long Beach is a pleasant place to while away a summer afternoon.

Covered by neatly trimmed grass, the 120-by-60-foot yard contains palm trees, orange trees and a bird of paradise plant. Near its center, a quiet reflecting pond plays host to a family of goldfish. And leading to a large glassed sun patio at one end, the seemingly endless white plastered walls bespeak the casual elegance of a bygone era.

Within those walls, however, lurks a potential danger that could result in the radical alteration of everything familiar the courtyard holds.

The culprit is moisture. Unable to escape through the plastered cement that coats the facility's original adobe walls, engineers say, water is literally being sucked up from the ground into the interior wall, causing severe deterioration that has already resulted in visible cracks and major crumbling. Unless something is done, the engineers say, the ranch house--built in 1844 and designated as a national, state and local historical landmark--may become a structural hazard.

To solve the problem, employees of the city, which has owned and administered the site since 1956, have devised a drastic plan. Remove the exterior plaster cement so that the adobe can breathe, they say. And, in the process, make dramatic structural changes that would return the rancho to its original historical condition circa 1870 when it was a thriving sheep ranch with primitive dirt floors and flat tar roofs.

Early Type of Construction

The changes also would greatly enhance the rancho's educational value and visitor appeal, they argue. Because the project would rely on earlier, simpler forms of construction, they say, it would cost less than preserving the site as it now exists.

But it would also virtually undo a major 1931 renovation performed by the Bixby family, the site's former owners whose history is inexorably tied to that of the city and the rancho. That renovation preserved the facility for posterity, transforming Rancho Los Cerritos from a dilapidated ranch house to the elegant 1930s mission revival style of home that visitors now see. And the specter of reversing it has raised eyebrows.

"I don't think it's appropriate," said Llewellyn Bixby, 81, who remembers living in the house as a young man during the period that his father--also named Llewellyn--performed the needed alterations. "Dad would probably be very disturbed."

Said Louis Skelton, a local architect and member of the city's Cultural Heritage Commission, which earlier this month heard an informal presentation on the plan: "I have (serious) reservations about removing something that has been here for more than 50 years and has become a recognized part of the community. Based on what I know right now, I would be reluctant to vote for it."

The deep feelings for the rancho stem from its history.

Located in the Bixby Knolls area of Long Beach, the 4.7-acre site was originally part of a 300,000-acre land grant awarded by the Spanish government to Manuel Nieto in the late 1700s as a reward for his military service. After years of joint ownership by his children, the lands were eventually divided into six parcels, one of which was Rancho Los Cerritos bordered on the west by what is now the Los Angeles River and on the south by the Pacific Ocean.

In 1843 a Massachusetts-born businessman named John Temple purchased the site and the next year constructed the present adobe house as headquarters for his large-scale cattle operations. By 1866, however, successive years of drought and flood had put a severe dent in the cattle business, prompting Temple to sell the ranch to a firm called Flint, Bixby & Co. which was in the business of raising sheep.

That company sent Jotham Bixby, the brother of one of its founders, to manage the new ranch. Eventually the young manager bought into the property, formed his own company, and from 1866 to 1881 resided with his wife and seven children in the old Temple adobe.

Portions Were Sold

By the late 1870s, with the sheep industry declining, Bixby began leasing or selling off portions of the estate. Four thousand acres in the southwest corner were purchased by William Willmore in 1881. Willmore lost his option on the acreage and was forced to give up his contract in 1884 to the Long Beach Land and Water Co., which renamed the area Long Beach. Downtown Long Beach now occupies the acreage.

Other parcels evolved into the cities of Downey, Paramount and Lakewood.

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