‘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.


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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