Mary F. Adams Urashima poses for a photo in front of the former Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, dedicated in 1934, in Huntington Beach. (KEVIN CHANG, HB Independent / March 10, 2014)

  • Related
  • Anthony Carpio Signature

  • Topics
  • History

If someone asked Mary Urashima a decade ago about the history of the Wintersburg site in Huntington Beach, she probably wouldn't have had much to say.

The public affairs consultant and former journalist has plenty to discuss now. She has spent seven years researching the effect the 4.4-acre site on Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane had on the city and Orange County.

Much of her work is chronicled on her blog, historicwintersburg.blogspot.com, but she has also fixed her research in a more-permanent form with her first book, "Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach."

She has dedicated much of her time tracking how the Furuta family came to the United States, how the first Japanese Presbyterian church in Orange County came to be and what the atmosphere was like for Japanese Americans living in the area during World War II.

"This book is more of an introduction to [its] history," she said. "I continue my research and fully anticipate that there will be more coming out in the future."

The spotlight on the Wintersburg site has grown significantly over the past two years. Japanese Americans from the community and throughout the state have attended Planning Commission hearings and City Council meetings on the issue. And preservationists nationwide have contacted Urashima.

Donna Graves, director of Preserving California's Japantowns, said only a few people in Southern California had any initial interest in Wintersburg and the Furutas' six buildings, which to outsiders are probably best known for the "Jesus Lives" sign facing Warner Avenue.

"It was difficult to get attention drawn to it until [Urashima] stepped onto the scene," Graves said. "She is a whirlwind of intelligence and energy that has brought such attention to this really important, historic resource — important not just for Japanese Americans in Southern California, but important to Orange County's history as a whole and to California's history as whole."

What makes the Wintersburg site unique, Urashima explained, is that it shows the story of Japanese immigrants chasing the American dream.

Charles Furuta and his family lived and worked in the area throughout the 1900s, endured the hardships of living in internment camps during World War II and remained in Wintersburg up until 2002.

Norman Furuta, Charles' grandson, said he was pleasantly surprised that someone had an interest in the property his family once owned.

"We're continually amazed with what she discovers, and she's actually informing us about some of the things in our past that we didn't really know about," he said. "We're learning like just like a lot of other people."

Urashima has more than 60,000 page views on her blog, but she never anticipated turning her findings into a book.

In April 2013, History Press asked Urashima if she wanted to write a book. Without hesitation, she took on the task and sent the editor her manuscript in October.

"It's very gratifying because it's another way to get history out there to people," Urashima said. "I do tend to use a lot of social media to share the history … but there are also a lot of people, including historians, that are more comfortable with books and I like books. I like the feel of the book, so this allows for that."

*

'If everyone gave $10 today, we can save it'

Urashima said she's been in talks with Rainbow Environmental Services, which bought the historic property in 2004, since the city voted in November to allow the company to demolish the buildings.

She and the Historic Wintersburg Task Force have less than 18 months to raise funds and find a way to preserve the six structures, either by keeping them at the site or moving them to a different location.

"We are preparing a proposal for them on some options for the property, and they have been open to meeting with us," she said.

Aside from negotiating with Rainbow, Urashima is doing her best to get the property listed on the state and national historic registers.

Historic status won't prevent Wintersburg from being demolished, she said, but it would open up access to national donors.

The first church the Furutas built in 1904 was funded not only by the Japanese American community, but also by church groups and pioneers of Huntington Beach, Urashima said.

"There are prominent Caucasian pioneer families here in Huntington Beach who donated to the mission," she said, mentioning that a member of the Newland family was among them. "We'd like to do that again. This community really built that mission. If everyone gave $10 today, we can save it."