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FOCUS : Historical Area Holds Its Ground

June 07, 1990|Clipboard researched by Elena Brunet / Los Angeles Times

When William Newland and his wife, Mary, set out from Illinois in the late 1800s, their destination was Northern California. After a brief stop in Compton, however, they ended up in what was then called Pacific City, now Huntington Beach.

They at first leased land on the Irvine family's San Joaquin Rancho and grew grains, earning for William the nickname "the barley king." Sometime after 1897 he purchased 500 tule-covered acres--by any other name a swamp.

But Newland recovered the land for cultivation and in this very fertile ground produced celery, lima beans, chili peppers and sugar beets in the low areas. Atop a nearby mesa he also continued the grain production for which he was best known.

The bluff-top site of the Newland family home provided an excellent view of the ocean and the farmlands. That building, a 13-room, wood-frame farmhouse built in 1898, is said to be the last remaining example of Queen Anne-style Victorian architecture in Huntington Beach and today houses a museum--the Newland House.

The survival of the Newland House, designated now as an Orange County Historic Site and placed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a familiar story. The house and surrounding farmland were leased to the Signal Oil Co. after Mrs. Newland's death in 1952. Public outcry forced the company to abandon plans to build a refinery on the property. Signal subsequently offered the house and 30 adjacent acres for a city park.

But vandalism and a devastating fire nearly destroyed the house in 1974. Then the city threatened to tear it down unless the Huntington Beach Historical Society undertook a restoration.

The renovation was almost complete in 1980 when a Signal subsidiary, Signal Landmark Inc., proposed surrounding the building with a 190,000-square-foot shopping center. Numerous meetings and public hearings produced a compromise: The farmhouse would be accentuated as the focal point of the development, a planned two-story office building would be lowered 10 feet in order to preserve the Newland House's view of the sea, and the color and architecture of the proposed shopping center would complement the house.

Another challenge came that year from an unexpected source whose claim to the land predated the white man's settlement in Orange County. Archeologists, having excavated artifacts dating back more than 1,000 years, had determined that the Newland property was originally the site of an Indian village. Thus the historical society's plans to plant rose and herb gardens and to install an irrigation system had to be put on hold until the excavation was complete.

Many of the Newland House's rooms have been restored to a semblance of their original state. The working kitchen, which once fed more than 50 field hands, holds a wood-burning stove and pantry. The dinnerware, tablecloth and chairs in the dining room are all original, as are the booties and other clothing on display in the birthing room near the rear entrance. The enclosed sun porch at the front of the house, with its reclining lounges, was originally built for a sickly Newland child.

The wooden cabinets installed in the sun porch at one time held Indian baskets that Mrs. Newland collected (all but the one on display in the house are now at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana). The tower room held William Newland's office; later Mrs. Newland turned it into a sewing room, as it is cast today.

These days the uninterrupted ocean vistas no longer exist but are shared by housing developments. The lot, at the northwest corner of Beach Boulevard and Adams Avenue, is now the Newland Center, with the museum as its centerpiece. Shops, restaurants, banks and gas stations surround the grounds.

The future of the Newland House Museum and its environs are currently under discussion by the City's Historic Issues Committee and members of the private sector. One of the concepts being discussed is the creation of a historical village: The Newland House is already there, and the land is currently a temporary holding site for two other structures worthy of preservation, an old church and an unrelated pastoral residence that originally stood in the downtown area.

The proposals being considered are currently in staff hands, said Jim Engle, director of community services. An analysis of three alternative concepts is being fashioned and will specify "where the funding will come from," he said. The analysis is to be presented to the City Council within the next few months.

"We've got the land, we've got the time, just not the money," said Karen Topolewski, a museum aide.

Money would not seem to be the problem in the rest of this rather affluent neighborhood. Median family income countywide is around $40,000; here it is close to $75,000--a cool 125% increase during the last decade.

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