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Architectural Heritage Draws Families : Riverside: The historic section is the heart of the city and the preferred area for homeowners who like its small-town ambience.

August 28, 1994|PAM WATERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Waterman is a Pasadena free-lance writer

When Ophelia Valdez-Yeager decided to attend UC Riverside in 1965, her counselor warned that she would be surrounded by farmers. "I'd grown up in the city so I thought it would be fun to go to college in the country," Valdez-Yeager said.

After graduation and marriage, Valdez-Yeager, and her husband, Ley Yeager, now an elementary school principal, thought Riverside, with its small-town feeling, would be a good place to buy a house and raise a family. In 1972 they bought a Mission Revival style home for $30,950.

"We settled in the 'wood' streets part of town," Valdez-Yeager said. "Oakwood, Elmwood, Rosewood. Our block was lined with well-maintained, older homes. The moms bonded and we all helped raise each other's children."

Riverside no longer has the rural and open feel she remembers from college days, but Valdez-Yeager, a part-time assistant to the mayor, believes the historic core of the city, with its rich past and architectural heritage, still gives a sense of how "life used to be."

While Riverside, located 56 miles east of Los Angeles, extends over an 82-square-mile area, the much smaller historic section remains the heart of the city and the preferred location for homeowners who enjoy its small-town ambience.

The historic area is bounded by the Santa Ana River on the west, by the 60 and 215 freeways on the north, by Chicago Avenue on the east and by Jurupa Avenue on the south.

Founded by John North in 1870, Riverside was settled by 25 adventurous families who came west with little agricultural experience.

In 1873 colonist Eliza Tibbets planted two Washington navel orange trees that had been sent from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The resulting seedless oranges were superior to other cultivated varieties. After Matthew Gage developed Riverside's extraordinary irrigation canals in the 1880s, large-scale planting of the Washington navel became economically feasible.

In the next decades, oranges became the main crop of a 100,000-acre agricultural empire in the Riverside area. One of the original trees planted by Tibbets is still bearing fruit in a protected spot near downtown.

The importance of citrus in the development of Riverside can be seen in exhibits in the new California Citrus State Historic Park, an outdoor museum re-creating the orange grove setting of pre-World War II Riverside.

Vince Moses, 46, worked to establish the museum and to preserve remaining portions of the "orange belt" around the downtown area.

Moses enrolled at UC Riverside in the late 1970s, and he remained in the area when he became curator of history at the Riverside Municipal Museum. He and his wife, Cate Whitmore, 49, and stepsons, Robert Ostlund and Ingmar Ostlund, live in a historic bungalow near Mt. Rubidoux. "We love our home, which is close to a river bottom and has almost a rural feel, but city services are nearby," he said.

When Moses received an appealing job offer in Northern California three years ago, "My family was broken-hearted," he said. "The children had grown up exploring the wonderful architecture in town. Living here had given them a real appreciation of California's heritage. I decided to turn down the new job."

"In Riverside there is a sense of a small town mixed with suburban sprawl," Moses added. "It's still possible for individuals to have an impact on the direction and character of the community."

Modern-day Riverside was born after World War II, when many of the orange groves surrounding the town came down for housing development, and industry replaced agriculture in economic importance. New suburbs spread south of the original downtown area. Retail stores followed, and soon, downtown Riverside became a mix of historic structures, professional offices and government buildings, but few residents.

It was the small-town size and feel of historic Riverside that attracted Zelma Beard, who first became acquainted with the community while living at nearby March Air Force Base. Divorced, and with modest business experience, Beard and a friend, Sue Mitchell, took a gamble and began Riverside Personnel Services in 1978.

"People in town recognized our efforts to make a life and business here. We worked hard, became active in the community and, before we knew it, Riverside was accepting of us," Beard said.

In 1989 Beard, 47, purchased a 1908 two-story Craftsman bungalow for $290,000 in the Mt. Rubidoux Historic District near Fairmount Park. "I wanted an older home," Beard said. "But every house I looked at needed a lot of work. When I walked into this house, it reminded me of my grandmother's home in Texas, and I knew right away I wanted to buy it.

"My house is like a person," she said. "It has character, soul and warmth. It puts its arms around people who come in."

Beard likes the central location of Riverside for her numerous athletic pursuits. "I can go skiing or be at the beach in an hour, and there are plenty of places in town for bicycling and golf," she said.

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