A view into the Nelles facility in Whittier, where several historic buildings beyond the parking lot are in excellent condition.
I didn’t realize what treasures were buried in our first home in Monrovia until my wife and I tore the knotty pine paneling off the lath and plaster walls, ripped up the worn carpet exposing oak hardwood floors, and stripped three layers of mustard yellow paint from the living room fireplace’s Batchelder tiles.
Blue flamingos. That was the design the legendary artisan chose to create on that hearth in that house in that year, 1924.
When we sold the house in 1998, those arts and crafts amenities were what attracted the buyer, what sealed the deal.
During a tour of some Whittier living history last week, that story popped into my head as an object lesson with a moral: Historical resources have value.
Unfortunately, sometimes communities don’t realize this truth until the bulldozers have come and gone.
“The cities just need to open their eyes — a lot of these treasures lay buried in their own communities,” said Joe Garcia, a Monrovia city councilman and expert on historical preservation.
In Whittier, I was taken with the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility which operated for more than 100 years but was closed in 2004. Now, the state is selling the property and the city hopes to develop it. A quick tour of two buildings that were in impeccable shape show numerous historic features — stone fireplaces, stained glass bay windows and doors with wrought iron accoutrements and leaded glass windows. The facility is listed as a state historic landmark.
An old Whittier Register newspaper from 1897 shows pictures of the facility as “Whittier Industrial School” where the boys learned industrial arts at the “Carpenter Shop,” the “Tailoring Dept.,” and the “Printing Office.” A picture at the “Blacksmith Shop” shows two boys pounding out horseshoes.
While much of the 75 acres will undoubtedly be developed with retail uses, I sure hope these buildings could be adaptively reused, perhaps as a senior housing village.
Also on the property are other buildings that could have historical significance, such as the chapel where the wayward boys went to services and an auditorium, as well as other residences.
Adaptive re-use is not easy to do. It takes out-of-the-box thinking and a developer/architect experienced with historic structures.
But many cities in our area have kept old commercial buildings or at least the facades and incorporated them into a redeveloped downtown. Old Pasadena and Myrtle Avenue in Monrovia are two excellent examples.
Monrovia’s Garcia, whom I remember wearing a top hat and knickers at Monrovia Old House Preservation Group’s home tour in the 1980s, helped write the city’s preservation ordinance, which to his surprise, was adopted. Preservation of Monrovia’s old homes and old commercial buildings have been an integral part of that city’s renaissance during the last 15 years.
“It is part of the Monrovia culture. People see this as part of a quality of life — along with having a nice library or preserving our hills,” Garcia told me.
San Dimas also has done a fantastic job in the preservation and restoration of the nationally registered San Dimas Mansion, known now as The Walker House.
Garcia said cities that have worked on keeping and adaptively reusing old buildings and homes are doing better during tough economic times. It is just another resource they can point to when marketing their city.