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Coalition pushes to save building that housed Chinese laborers

It is hoped that recognition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation will spur donations to restore the 94-year-old Chinatown House in Rancho Cucamonga.

June 20, 2013|By Rick Rojas

The brick building sits on a scrubby lot in Rancho Cucamonga behind a barbed-wire and chain-link fence, its facade worn and its interior dilapidated to the point where city officials have been worried it is unsafe.

The squat, two-story structure — known as the Chinatown House — looks like any other building that has fallen victim to time and neglect, but those fighting to save the house see it as a slice of a vanishing history: one of the last pieces in the Inland Empire of the Chinatowns that once proliferated in California.

"It's a unique structure," even with its "very utilitarian" architecture, said Eugene Moy, co-chairman of the Chinatown House Preservation Coalition, a group of organizations that have worked to protect the site, which was home to Chinese American laborers.

"It's more about the people," he said, "and the work they did."

On Wednesday, the Chinatown House's historical significance as well as the threat of being demolished were acknowledged as the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the site to its 2013 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Stephanie Meeks, president of the trust, said in a statement that the house holds the potential to "serve the community as a tangible reminder of the contributions of Chinese immigrant labor in our nation's history."

The list also includes the Astrodome, the Houston stadium once dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world;" rural schoolhouses throughout the state of Montana; and the Worldport Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The selections were based on the locales being historically significant and at risk of destruction or damage beyond repair.

City officials had recently issued a notice to the property's owner, the Cucamonga Valley Water District, to correct structural issues in the vacant and neglected house. The water district had been moving forward with plans to demolish the house when local advocates began a push to save it.

"It has been in ill disrepair for many years," Jo Lynne Russo-Pereyra, the water district's assistant general manager, said of the structure, noting that its second floor was condemned more than 50 years ago.

But Russo-Pereyra said that plans to demolish have been tabled as the water district worked with the city to secure the site, keeping out intruders who might get hurt. The water district has no plans for the site, she said.

She said the water district wasn't involved in efforts to get the building added to the endangered list and the announcement came as a surprise.

"We had no idea," she said. "We feel that we're in good company with all the others on the list."

The Chinatown House, which included a general store and was home to dozens of laborers, was built in 1919 and designated as a city landmark in 1985. Among its residents were workers on the transcontinental railroad who had made their way to Southern California to work the region's farmland. The last of the workers living there died in 1939, according to historical documents.

The coalition — which includes local historical groups and Chinese American organizations in the region — applied for the designation in a competitive process. Advocates hope to repair the worn structure and turn it into an educational space, highlighting not only Chinese American history but agriculture and the expansion of the American West.

"We want people to be aware that this history was very integral to the wealth and prosperity of Southern California," Moy said.

The designation does not come with any explicit protection, but the hope of advocates is that being added to the list will raise the site's profile as they attempt to collect money — more than $1 million — to restore and retrofit the site.

"It really opens the eyes of the community that we're not just an itty-bitty group trying to save one small building," said Luana Hernandez, Moy's co-chair, who is involved in several historical groups, including as president of Rancho Cucamonga Historical Preservation Society. "It's a lot of us trying to save as many buildings as we can before they're gone. When they're gone, there's nothing else we can do."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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