Is There A Future In The Past?

Nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif., are 4.7 acres of Spanish, Mexican and American history, where families helped transform southern California from its ranching beginnings to a modern, urban society.

Rancho Los Cerritos includes an 1844 adobe building, formal gardens and landscaped grounds. It is a national, state and local landmark, owned and operated by the city as a public museum and historic site since 1955.

As the country’s economic crisis works its way to the regional and local municipal forefront, the Rancho has found itself on the list for possible budget cuts. It begs the question, “Can one put a price on historic culture?”

While the answer seems obvious, the reality from a fiscal viewpoint is that this rare community treasure does not sustain itself financially.

From The Start

The original Rancho site was 27,000 acres of pastures for cattle and sheep that, starting in the late 19th century, gave way to development of the cities of Long Beach, Lakewood, Signal Hill, Bellflower and Paramount.

The site boasts a two-story adobe building with 22 ground-floor rooms and a serene central courtyard. It possesses outstanding potential for an interpretation of historical themes, beginning with the period of Native American occupation and continuing through the romanticized Spanish Colonial Revival Period of the 1920s and 1930s. The rich artisan materials of the area are present throughout the building. The 2- to 3-foot thick walls tell the story of the Native Americans who made adobe blocks using mud from the site. The beams were hand-hewn redwood from the Monterey area, and a majority of the rooms in the east wing contained redwood planked floors.

The construction of the ranch house began in 1844 by then-owner John Temple. The building was one of the largest and most impressive domestic adobes of its time for colonial Southern California, and its extensive gardens were unique for the time period. Temple built the ranch house as a country home and headquarters for his cattle-ranching operation. Its second owners, Flint, Bixby & Co., stocked the land with sheep. During the 19th century, horses, carriages and buggies were saddled and prepared in the courtyard. There were troughs and hitching posts, and blacksmithing and cooking facilities.

The ”milk room” opened onto a second courtyard north of the house, and contained rows of shining pans filled with cream both for churning and for the table–“clotted cream, thick enough to spread with a knife upon hot baking-powder biscuits, or a steaming baked potato.” Other original buildings on the site were a barn, corn crib, adobe brick oven, wool barn, a dip for the sheep after they had been sheared, a sheep barn and a granary. The large, 2-acre garden planted by Temple appeared to be a mixture of New England and subtropical influences.

Round Two

In 1930, the well-known landscape architect, Ralph Cornell, created a garden plan for the new owners of Rancho Los Cerritos. He incorporated native plants, preserved many of the trees and plants surviving from previous owners, and reintroduced some plant species from the 19th-century garden. Surviving landscape elements included an osage orange, three pomegranate, two citrus, two olive and three Italian cypress trees. Several black locust trees also survived, along with a large Moreton Bay fig.

Cornell’s overall plan called for a sweeping driveway for the southern entrance and western boundary, bordered by curving layers of trees and shrubs. Outside the south wing, he planted a grid of both familiar and exotic fruit trees. A central lawn surrounded the Moreton Bay fig, bordered by trees and shrubs along a walkway. Through his use of rich materials and plantings, Cornell created a pleasant garden atmosphere to surround the remodeled living quarters. Even today, over 80 years after he created the gardens, many of the historic plantings are still alive and well.

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