‘Pomona A to Z’: W is for Westmont

[For W, I focused on a whole neighborhood, one that has a certain fascination for midcentury architecture buffs because of its tracts designed by Cliff May, creator of the ranch home. Oh, and the two people who run Westmont Hardware turned out to be a couple of authentic characters and well worth meeting. This column was published April 10, 2005.]

‘Pomona A to Z’ watches over Westmont

Welcome! “Pomona A to Z” today wades into the letter W, as we seek to become well-informed about Pomona, and not in a willy-nilly way.

To which W shall we bear witness? Try not to become weepy as I wistfully whisper of these wonders:

* Willie White, a former councilman, youth advocate and current neighborhood activist whose name is on a park.

* Winternationals, the largest drag-racing event in the world.

* Wilton Heights, a neighborhood of Craftsman bungalows and stately homes designated as a city historic district.

* Western University of Health Sciences, a school of osteopathic medicine that now occupies much of East Second Street, including the old Buffum’s department store.

Wild!

As is my wont, though, our W is different: Westmont.

That’s the western Pomona neighborhood that exemplified post-World War II optimism. Some 1,200 homes sprung up from 1946 to 1954, along with a shopping center, park, community center, elementary school and church.

With a little imagination, you could picture the superfamily from “The Incredibles” here. Homes along Wright and Denison streets have a similar, if smaller-scale, look to the movie: open floor plans, floor-to-ceiling windows, clean lines and side patios.

And take a gander at Westmont Community Center, Westmont Elementary or Westmont United Methodist Church, all on West Ninth Street. Is that Elastigirl and the kids driving (or flying) by?

Westmont got its start when home builder Edwin A. Tomlin began work on newly annexed land south of today’s Mission Boulevard and bisected by today’s Corona Expressway.

Most of his homes were standard stuff for returning GIs, but then Tomlin got experimental, hiring architect Arthur Lawrence Millier to design 50 affordable modern homes. Another 100 were prefab modern homes by Cliff May and Chris Choate.

May and Choate’s work was described by House and Home magazine as “almost the first low-cost house to offer the kind of California living everybody back East imagines all Californians enjoy.”

Maybe W should be for “whoa.”

Bruce Emerton has become a neighborhood archivist and booster since buying his home in 1995 for $130,000. He painstakingly restored his 1954 May home to its original look.

An art and architecture librarian at Cal Poly Pomona, Emerton drove me around on Wednesday, pointing out nice homes and shaking his head over ill-advised remodeling.

“A lot of them have been stuccoed and bastardized,” Emerton admitted. “A few are in good shape. Even a lot of ones that are messed up could be brought back.”

Speaking of messed up homes, people still talk about the 1982 city-sanctioned dynamite blast to close a dangerous cave in the Westmont Hills behind the neighborhood.

Fifteen homes were blown off their foundation and more than 500 were damaged. Oopsie!

A commemorative T-shirt quoting “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” put it this way: “Think Ya Used Enough Dynamite There, Butch?”

Westmont, though, is best remembered as home to General Dynamics, a missile factory that employed 13,000 at its peak. The plant opened in 1953 as Convair and closed in the early 1990s, the victim of Southern California aerospace cutbacks.

In its heyday, the plant produced missiles with such fun-lovin’ names as Red Eye, Mauler, Terrier and Advanced Terrier. Does Jack Russell know about this?

Unlike General Dynamics, one neighborhood icon remains. Westmont Hardware is a cozy store dating to 1949 that’s hanging on in this era of Home Depot and Lowe’s.

It has just two employees: owners Russell Riedel and Patsy Koenig.

Riedel was hired at the store out of high school in 1967 and has been there ever since, buying it in 1989 from its second owner. He remembers General Dynamics employees crossing Mission Boulevard “like herds of cattle” on lunch breaks, then the bad times later.

Things are more stable now. When the expressway becomes a freeway with a Mission interchange, big changes will come.

“I’ve been hearing about it 30 years,” said Riedel, who’s not exactly holding his breath.

Well, that’s the story of Westmont.

Was I too wordy?

(David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, three washouts.)

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  • Bob House

    Really excellent post David. I consider myself both an Inland Empire and architecture buff, but was unaware of the wonders of Westmont — even though family friends lived there when I was a kid. I’ll be touring next time I visit the Southland. Followed by lunch at one of the many restaurants you’re reviewed — I favor those on the “dive” side.

    [It's always nice to hear that someone who knows the area well learned something new from my work. -- DA]

  • michael mitts

    i grew up in westmont in the ’50s. it was a great nieghborhood. lots of kids on every block. i attended westmont school from 1950 to 1956, went to westmont church, i was in cub scouts, boy scouts in the westmont area. my mother mary mitts lived on jess st for 55 years before selling and breaking her heart.

    i remember the library down the street from the hardware store. westmont hardware was the go-to place in the ’50s. i bought nuts and bolts for my bicycle, kite string for my kite, yo-yo string for my yo-yo. i was amazed at all the merchandise that could be stuffed into one small store. there was even a live monkey in a cage in the back we all enjoyed watching.

    all the kids from westmont always got their hair cut from the local barber shop and of course carl was always there to cut it. westmont was a great place to grow up, i’m still in contact with people who grew up there.

    i could go on for days about the ’50s. i worked for westmont richfield when i was 17, gas was 12 cents a gallon at one point, and you even got green stamps to boot. westmont holds a very special place in my heart, the best memories ever. the caves were a special place, i used to hike up there every weekend, take a peanut butter & jelly sandwich and an apple and just sit there and look over all of westmont. this of course was a rest stop to one of two hidden lakes that were back in the hills of westmont. on the way home we would stop at bullet range and hunt for poly wogs.

    BOY, THOSE WERE THE DAYS. thanks.

    michael mitts, westmont class of `1956′, mittsfit@btes.tv

    [Mike, thanks for sharing your memories and I'm glad to have sparked them with my piece. -- DA]

  • Zoe

    We bought our Westmont home on 9th street back in 1992. It’s a great neighborhood and most everybody knows each other. Thank you for highlighting our neat little community.

    [You're welcome, Zoe. -- DA]

  • ren

    i was working at the time at General General Dynamics when i saw a big cloud of dust. i was working on top of one of the main buildings. and then after the dust came the big BOOM. knocked me right off of my feet. what a rush. even i knew that they put too much dynamite for such a small job. they could have used one of our stinger missiles to do the job.

  • Scott Holmes

    Wow, I stumbled onto this post by accident, and reading it brought back some long forgotten memories. I was 4 and living on 9th street when they closed the cave. I remember playing outside when the blast went off, and my mother’s panic as she tried to get me inside the house. Later my parents took me for a walk to see the landslide boulders that covered the road. Thanks for the wonder post Dave, I am going to take the time to read the rest of your blog.

  • Mike Stange

    David,

    Thank you for your article about Westmont and a free ticket in time back to my childhood.

    I was raised on Vejar Street and left for the Navy in 1971 while living on Ninth. My mom worked at Convair and my dad was a linotype setter and retired from the good old Progress Bulletin.

    I’ve bought cigarettes at Annie’s liquor store, with permission notes from my mom, when I was 11, and sat at the bar (The Hut) with my dad as he drank beer. I remember Fletch, the owner of Lucky Star Market, and those baker dozen donuts from the pastry counter inside the store.

    Yes, Carl cut my hair while on the booster chair and I did purchase very small items from the 5-10-and-25 cent store that afterwards became Westmont library. Westmont Hardware is a gem and I used to eat candy sitting against the wooden storage building in front of the store for the shade it provided during the hot summer months.

    And I watched the construction of the Ninth Street bridge and was neighbors with the 5 year old, Tony, who was struck by a car and killed while crossing the street from the newly opened bridge. When the bridge opened, there were no stop signs. Two days after his death, signs were installed.

    Let me stop before I write a book about my life and times in Westmont as a young Westmonter.

    Warm Regards.

    [Mike, I know you were just using a figure of speech, but if you were to write that "book," I might read it. I certainly enjoyed your "short story" above. I'm happy to have inspired you to share those personal memories. -- DA]

    • Kevin Oviatt

      I remember most of what Mike talked about we lived across the street on Vejar with my Grandfather a Lino operator at the Prog too ,and my Grandmother , Dept of Agriculure Office in the upper floor of the Post Office.Very Sad when Tony died it was on his Birthday too, his Dad had a bike waiting for him it traumatized the whole neighborhood.
      What about the horrible smog lung ache big time.Cool reading Mikes story I left for the Navy in 73 and I remember visiting your ship Mike the Jason, I believe.

  • David Houston

    Wow, just happened upon this site, and it brought back memories. I was born at Pomona hospital, and grew up 0-21 in Westmont…. on the other side of the expressway, Palmer street. I too got my hair cut by Carl in a booster seat. During the ’70s, when long hair was in, my dad had to bring us in kicking and screaming.

    I happen to have super 8mm film of the ’82 cave blast. I will try to post it if I can figure out how. I spent a lot of time in the cave as a youngster, and was disappointed that it had to go, but understand the grief that it caused.

    Aahh many memories…

    [I'd love to see that film. If you could figure out how to get it onto your computer, you could post it on YouTube... DA]

    • Jose Montes

      hello i live in the westmont area and i’ve been hearing a lot about the “cave”. i was wondering if you still knew where it is? i would love to check it out for myself. i live on ninth st not too far from the hills and since its summer. why not take this opportunity to go outside and explore.

  • Greg Beamer

    I was over talking to one of Westmont’s residents quite a while back, Florence Pillsbury, who told me she was here when the blast took place.

    I have lived over on the mountain side of Phillips Drive since 1984, back before they had to tell you if anything interesting had happened to a home before you purchased it. After talking to some who had been here, quite a number of stories. My neighbor was one of the few compensated — turns out she had a foundation crack about 2 inches wide in her slab. Most of the facia boards on the homes are still tilted in from the blast on that side of the home, and the window folks have over the years made a small fortune as all the double-paned glass that wasn’t blown out had the seals popped.

    I would really like to see if anyone has any pictures from the cave, or information about how it collapsed. One of the older residents, who said he grew up here as a kid, said there was a large cave, and then a back cave held up by a pillar of some sort, and that the kids would chip away at the pillar until it ceased to support the roof. Supposedly a young lad was chipping at the rock on the ceiling when it collapsed on him.

    If your earlier poster has that 8MM loaded up to Youtube, would really like to see that!

  • Mike Allen

    Well, I am hopeful one of my houses were the ones pointed out. Would like to know exactly where the blast was. Is it where the shooting range currently is?

    might explain some of the cracks I have that are tough to get rid of.

    great read!!!!

  • John

    I grew up in the Westmont area during the ’70s and ’80s, and was there when they blew it up…..Like Ren said, there was a big puff of dirt, then the shockwave that knocked ya back. I was in the Westmont park, sitting on the ground cross-legged, and I still got blown back! In regards to Mike Allen’s question, no, the shooting range has been there since I started living there (1973). It was 2/3′s up the hill almost directly above bluegrass. You can still see the remnants of it if you know where to look….Although it’s getting harder and harder to see as the years pass.

  • Robert Sauber

    You are correct, it was a kid pulling at the roof of the cave. He was a visitor of one of the residents of Westmont. He wanted a souvenir. After the cave-in that killed the boy, the city decided to blow up the cave. I remember protesting it but it did no good. They loaded that cave up way too much with explosives. They did so much damage and the funny thing is, if you look at the top of the cave it is opened a little.

  • Mike Bement

    I moved to Westmont in 1956 and went to the elementary school across the street. What a wonderful time in my life. Lots of kids in the neighborhood playing at the school and park particularly in the summer. Basketball, football, and baseball were so much fun there. Some of my friends were Joe Smilor, Danny Sexton, Butch Grossman, Ronny Keith, Tom Regner, Ray Black, Mariann Eagan, Marty Pupka, Dennis Weber, Ricky Hulbert, Ricky Nash, and Peter Lipp. After reading the posts on the Cave etc. I really want to visit again. I now live in Las Vegas and actually moved from Westmont in 1965.

    Thank you all for posting the experiences at Westmont. I too had Carl as a barber. I am trying to remember his last name. I think he had a son who I went to school with named Brad. I also remember a soda fountain at the drug store.

  • Sharon (Shurilla) Riley

    What was the name of that little store area right on Mission? It had a few little things. I think it was Westmont shopping center. It had a store & hardware store etc.

    [I believe it's Westmont Shopping Center. -- DA]

  • Sharon (Shurilla) Riley

    Was there a trailer park in the Westmont area??? I thought a Doug Wilson lived there with his Mom.

  • Terri Oldridge-Bartholomew

    I also grew up in Westmont, on Denison St. Hi Mike, I remember us taking you to S.D. a couple of times… lol… had lots of good times, great friends still today from Westmont. I remember when we would walk to the liq store, lunch for GD and it seems like they all headed for the HUT..lol. Westmont school, great memories.
    Sharon, yes there is, Doug may have lived there at one time, he is now in nv…

  • Juanita Warthen

    I too grew up in Westmont. I’ve been here since 1956 and love everything about this neighborhood… The store’s name Sharon was called Lucky Star..Growing up here was the best, everyone knew everyone. All the parents knew all the kids’ names and watched out for every one of them.. My mother was one of them.. They called her mama Moose.. lol She’s the one that would correct any kid if they were doing anything wrong or if you had too much to drink she would scold you and get you sober to send you home… Great days indeed…

  • Linda (Rusler) Seufert

    I grew up in Westmont too. Good times! Having the school and park right in the middle of the neighborhood was great. Mom or Dad could call us home with the horn on our van. It was an aooga horn.

    I played in the cave and was disappointed when I heard they blasted it shut. Dad worked at GD and walked home from work for lunch most days. I lived on Grier St right near the street light and in the summer we would play whiffle ball under that light for hours.

  • Bonnie Malmstrom Patterson

    I grew up in Westmont!..Not sure if anyone would remember me…the shy little girl who didn’t talk much! I went to Westmont Elementary from 1962 til 1969, then went to Fremont Junior High…We lived on the corner of Jess and Butterfield…we were the ones who if anyone remembers, rode our motorcycles on our front lawn…it was a large corner lot so plenty of room to ride!..It’s amazing how it has changed!…I still often look for people that I knew growing up…But not having much luck…

  • Jose Montes

    Can anyone tell me where the cave is, or was? i am a teen that has been hearing a lot about the “cave” and the death of the little boy. i am really curious about exploring with my friends since it is summer. i currently live on ninth st. any tips on how to get there would be appreciated.

  • Kimberly Sloss

    Some one please restore what can be restored!