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Placentia Looking Up in Quest for Landmarks


PLACENTIA — This city is not exactly overflowing with architectural treasures, distinguishing monuments or industrial edifices.

It is mostly pastel and beige ranch houses and apartment buildings, quiet streets undulating around parks, and 46,000 residents drawn to a simple community where most things seem to change too fast to create lasting memories.

So it is perhaps not surprising that when the search began for the most striking visual landmark in the city, what Placentia officials came up with was a humble, 62-year-old water tower.

"It's not the Eiffel Tower, but Placentia is not Paris," Adrienne Gladson, a Placentia city planner, said of the 117-foot tower that will be dedicated Oct. 4 as a historic site.

Although strangers to the city may snicker, to Placentia the water tower is no joke. The top-heavy storage tank on stilts is already depicted as the unofficial city symbol on stationery, coffee mugs and a decorative afghan in City Hall.

"Anything that hasn't changed around here for a few decades is bound to have that special feeling, because everything's so transitory around here," Gladson said.

Unlike Brea next door, Placentia long ago passed up the chance to house a big mall, big movie theater, big business. It doesn't have a stadium or a theme park like Anaheim, or a college tradition like Fullerton. City planners say they instead decided to follow the bedroom community path of subdivision and condos.

"We've been almost like the laughingstock compared to Brea and Fullerton and Anaheim. We were the hole in the wall. We were the underdogs," said John Walzek, a Placentia photographer and president of the Placentia Historical Committee.

But the water tower, for all its ungainliness and lack of function (Southern California Water Co., which owns it, stopped storing water in the tower's 50,000-gallon tank in 1993), is the sort of landmark not easily forgotten.

It sits on the edge of the city's small downtown. It is adorned with a red, white and blue shield and the words, "Placentia All America City," a nod to a 1971 designation by the Denver-based National Civic League. Perhaps most important in a culture in which most people whiz by cities like Placentia without ever getting off the road, the water tower is visible from the freeway.

The Orange Freeway. If you crane your neck.

"I grew up looking at that thing. It's one of my earliest memories," said Erich Estes, 28, as he gazed at the tank one recent evening.

"I remember sitting in my car seat, coming home from my grandparents' house in sort of a dream state and seeing it. It looked like a spaceship or something. And I knew I was coming home."

As it turns out, the water tower has some connection, if indirect, to Placentia's earliest history. It was built to replace two smaller tanks, built entirely of redwood, that had been erected by a pioneering Placentia farmer named Albert Sumner Bradford.

Bradford helped lay out the city's streets, brought the railroad to Placentia and, shrewdly enough, owned a water company whose holdings were bought out by Southern California Water Co. in 1929.

"Water was of course one of the fundamentals of getting anything done in this region, and so the history of the water tower is also the history of Placentia's development," said Marie Schmidt, vice chairwoman of the Historical Committee.

"People would have a fit if they tore it down. The old people, they identify their town with that water tower."

The City Council voted to make the tower a historical landmark in 1991, saving it from anyone who might come forward with a sacrilegious proposal.

But in ensuing years, people started to wonder. The tower didn't look terrific. Oxidation from smog and weather had faded the paint. Pigeon droppings and grime covered its slanted roof. Local teenagers took to scaling the thing on bets.

The city was too busy trying to revitalize the businesses of its downtown to pay much attention to the tower. To a city that, along with the rest of Orange County, had rapidly outgrown its agricultural past in the 1960s and '70s, the water tower, if quaint, appeared more anachronism than priority.

Then last year, water company officials decided to turn things around. At a cost of $3,500, they cleaned and repainted the tower. They installed lights to illuminate it at night and a gate to keep climbers off.

And now there is the dedication ceremony, when the lowly water tower, dressed in its finest, will get a historical landmark plaque. Fourteen other sites in the city--mostly older homes and public buildings--already have such markers. But the water tower ceremony is designed to be a big deal. It will coincide with the city's annual Heritage Festival and Parade. City officials are expected to contribute paeans to the water tower's importance.

"I wanted to have a big celebration, with fireworks and spotlights, neon lights, a flashing sign, maybe a bungee jumper to jump off of it," Walzek said.

"I mean, why not? But people thought that was too Las Vegas. Right now it's a sleeping giant, so to say. But we're kind of a bedroom community, we're kind of a humble place. So how radical can you get?"

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