Perched atop Bixby Hill in East Long Beach, Rancho Los Alamitos has touched thousands of local students, and visitors from around the country, and the world. The site is home to an original adobe that has seen multiple expansions, gardens of breath taking beauty, artworks of immeasurable value, and traces of native people who lived on the site before it was developed.
Pamela Seager, Executive Director of the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation, has overseen the transformation of the Rancho from a quaint and neglected artifact to a world class historic site. While the grand reopening, which took place on June 10th, was certainly a team effort, it was Pamela’s persistence and far seeing vision that took the project from its infancy in 1986 to its culmination last weekend.
I had an opportunity to speak with Pamela just prior to the grand reopening, and asked her how this massive project got started.
“It should begin with the family,” said Pamela, “the Bixby family, giving the site to the city, which was in 1968. That, and opening to the public in February of 1970. The deed of gift came with a lot of photographs of the condition of the site when it was given. The deed of gift stated that, if the city could not maintain the upkeep of the site, then it would go back to the family.
“Along about the early 1980’s, the family no longer lived in the area. The volunteers who knew about this condition requirement went back to the family and said, ‘You would not be happy if you could see the condition of the site. The city clearly doesn’t have enough money to run it and its falling into disrepair.’ So the family looked at the site, and agreed that something needed to be done.
“A blue ribbon committee was appointed to look at options for the future,” she explained. “Because it had a working blacksmith shop, one option was for it to become a craft center. Another was a tennis center for the neighborhood. But some very prominent experts on that committee understood how important the history of the site was and how much of it, although dilapidated, was intact. That study was managed by the California Historical Society, where I worked at the time, and so the accepted recommendation was that every effort should be made to create a first class site and institution.
“The outcome of that was the formation of a public/private partnership with the city, so that the city would pay for operations, and the Foundation’s job was to restore it and to develop the educational potential. That was the original agreement with the city.
“At that time,” explained Pamela, “I was trying to take a year off. [laughs] I wanted to leave the Historical Society. I had tried several times to leave but I was asked if I would come and start this organization here, and help negotiate that public/private partnership agreement through City Council. So I came in and we negotiated the public/private partnership and we assumed responsibility for the site in February, 1986. The site, at that point, was very dilapidated. For instance, in this garden, the stair had all fallen down and collapsed or broke off. It was overgrown with little pansies.”
I asked Pamela if the city was in agreement that they were ill equipped to manage the site.
“They needed some help, and they understood that we could provide it. We were the very first partnership [of this kind] that the city had entered into. Their only nervousness seemed to be that we would actually survive, so we had to give them assurances like giving them access to our bank account for a certain amount of money so, if we should fail, they would have some little bridge point to decide what to do.
“So they were very nervous because it was the first public/private partnership they had done,” she recalled. “Subsequently, they entered into many more, with the Art Museum and all kinds of other things, but we were the guinea pig for that. [laughs] It was a very good solid working relationship and I commend, particularly, Cordelia Howard, who was head of the Library Department at the time, when we came on site. We’ve remained good friends and she’s remained a supporter. Even though she’s retired, she’s still very connected to the site. We had to consider ourselves part of the ‘city family’ in some ways.
“So we came, and the first thing we did was to take a look around the site and identify those items which we thought were potentially dangerous and needed immediate repair. We identified those and fixed those. [For example,] I took those stairs in the garden completely away and stored them in a barn so that no one could climb up or fall through them. Then we sat back and did nothing for about 6 or 7 months. We just simply observed how the site ran with the tours.
“The volunteers were their own 501c3,” Pamela said, “so it had city staff but a separate 501c3 organization actually manning the site. That non-profit did all of the public programming and all of the tours and things like that. Many of those people had been there since the outset, when the family had given the land to the city, so they were very knowledgeable.
“So we simply sat back and watched how it ran. Then the city asked us for a 5 year capital improvement budget, and we said ‘No, we’re not going to tell you what you should be repairing for the next five years until we know where we’re going and what the needs are. So, instead of giving you a five-year capital improvement budget, we will give you a master plan. We think we need to do a master plan that incorporates all aspects of the site, but primarily looks at what the site can say, who should it be talking to, what the demographics of the audience are, and what is it likely to be in fifteen years time.’
“We sent them the lead document of the whole master plan. It was a five volume master plan, and the lead document was the Interpretive or Educational Plan. Everything else was subservient to that. So that document would tell you: are you going to give information just via word of mouth, or though tours? Do you need kiosks? Do you need exhibits? What do you need to tell the story, and what is that story? What are the major messages?
“The document identified the major messages based on the history and strength of the site, identified what was needed to tell those messages, and what the mediums were. The other documents were the architecture and historic structures report, the landscape restoration reports, the interpretive plan, the implementation plan and budget, and the overarching master plan document that took over all that material and synthesized it into one document.
“We had a very detailed list of recommendations. There were 167, and this project out here, the barns area, is the 165th to be implemented. It is very rare for an institution to have implemented every recommendation. I’ve got two more to go. One is phase three of the seismic strengthening of the Ranch House, for which I’ll have to raise $460,000. The last one is the restoration of the Old Garden, which we won’t attempt for three years, because I’ve got a perfectly gorgeous tent out there, which is permitted for three years. But the plans for the structural calculations for the seismic strengthening are done and have been approved by the city. The schematic plan for the restoration of the Old Garden is done, so I’m ready to go out and bid.”
I asked Pamela to explain the process of developing the master plan.
“I knew that we needed a master plan,” she said. “At the outset, we were going to issue a request for proposals to various firms we had identified, but I wanted to do a little research on master plans, so I contacted an agency in Washington, and asked them for the names of the ten best master plans that had won awards for cultural institutions. They sent me the names, and I contacted those ten organizations across the country and asked them if they would be willing to give me a copy of their master plan. Every one of them did, and so I went away for two weeks and read every one of the master plans, from cover to cover, and came up with a list of questions.
“I called those agencies to find out what the progress had been. Only one of those ten organizations had implemented any substantial amount of their master plan, and that was Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. Everybody else had forgotten about it, or shelved it. So I started asking why the plans hadn’t been implemented, and there were some dominant reasons. One was lack of consistent leadership, because the next person coming along was not committed to the last person’s plan. Another one was they had left their planning so much to their consultants that, when the consultants left their firm, they didn’t have enough detail to move to the next step. Some hadn’t realized how long it would take them between doing the plan and actually executing the plan. So they had sort of just forgotten about it, shelved them, and had another master plan made. [laughs]
“The other interesting thing was that, in most of the master plans, architecture was the dominant discipline. The rest of the people seemed to be subservient to the architecture. Now, we’ve got a very significant landscape here, so that would be the last thing we would want to happen. We did our request for proposals in a way that said that they could only put in a bid or proposal they agree that we can take any portion of their proposal and marry it up with somebody else’s. In other words, everybody or most of the firms put in proposals for interpretation, landscape, architecture, and master planning. The whole project.
“Nobody had the best in every discipline on their team,” Pamela confessed, “so we ended up taking the best architects, landscape architects, and interpretive planners from the different teams and said, ‘We’re going to put you all in a room with this firm who is experienced in master planning, the overarching one that’s going to manage all of you, and we’ll see if you can give us a deal. And that did work, very well. The net result was that we had a very spirited and vigorous planning process, because they all fought for their own disciplines.
“It was clear from talking to the other institutions, and reading the plans, that having everybody fight for their piece of the turf was important. There was a time when one of the architects wanted to place a building, and the landscape people said ‘no way! That’s too near the root zone of an historic tree. No, you can’t do that.’ So it gave a very thoughtful master plan. It was never a shouting match or anything like that, but people were very clear about what was best for their component of the site, and that gave us the best mix we could possibly have.
“During the master planning process, we actually took the synopsis of the outcome to the hospitality industry, and to other historic sites. We had meetings that we convened and asked for input from different segments of the community, including the residents around here. We got a lot of feedback as we were moving forward.
“We completed the master plan in 1988, because it was an almost two year process, and then it had to be approved by the city. The city took two years for the approval because they wanted to wait until they had appointed a historic preservation officer. So we waited, and that was ok. It didn’t make a whole lot of difference to us, we just continued to kind of deal with the site and learn more about the site.
“The city approved of the master plan in its entirety,” Pamela said. “That meant I didn’t have to go back to the city for approval of every little thing we did because they had conceptually approved it. Of course I had to plan-check, for planning, or building, or permitting, which is the normal process, but I didn’t have to go back for every little thing because it was already in the master plan. If it was in the master plan then the city had approved it. That made the process really straightforward.
“Once we had the master plan, we also had a budget and implementation schedule. We commissioned a funding feasibility study to see if we could raise the money, and it came back ‘No You Can’t.’ [laughs] ‘You’re too new, nobody knows who you are, and everybody thinks they’d be giving money to the city, because they don’t really understand the public/private partnership, so you’re never going to be able to raise it.’ At that point the budget was about $7 million, which was quite in the stratosphere. We hadn’t really branded ourselves. We were just kind of a non-entity in Long Beach.
“We then hired a PR firm and did a strategic marketing plan. It took about 6 or 7 years, and we designed the whole range of literature. We branded the place, and we developed public programming. The very first one we did was a big Citrus Fair. We had 176 people and we thought that was really good. Today, we don’t think we’re doing well if a public program draws less than 1800. [laughs] So that’s changed entirely.
“We worked very hard to implement the suggestions of the Strategic Marketing Plan, which we did, and then we were poised, we thought, to start raising money, so we commissioned a development plan and we started to implement that. We went into the Historic Cultural Heritage Commission for approval of this portion of the project, all the while steadily implementing everything else. The Barnyard Area had no environmental impacts.
“Then,” Pamela said, “the neighbors decided they didn’t like the project, so we went through a massive EIR process, and I mean massive! It took about 2 years. We held meetings for the community, we spent a year and went thought the EIR, and we then spent a year in professionally facilitated meetings to figure out what the objections were. The City Council approved the EIR, the State approved it, and the neighbors walked out saying they were going to file a lawsuit. So they filed the lawsuit and, for four years, we did nothing.”
I asked Pamela if she felt that the residents’ concerns were justified.
“No,” she said, flatly. “They were based on misinformation distributed by a small group of people, and once that was out there, it was almost impossible to turn it around. They wanted to control the hours, who came up here, what type of programming, everything else. Still, we were four years in the lawsuit, and went to trial, but we won 100%. The judge declared it a frivolous lawsuit, and has been back to visit. He loves the place. It should never have happened. It was a small group, and the leader of that group no longer lives on the hill.
“That’s all water under the bridge. We have a very positive relationship with the neighborhood now, I’m pleased to say, and in fact we did a reception for them to show them the new Rancho Center two weeks ago. We had over 100 people and had a great time.”
I asked Pamela how, after successfully implementing the marketing plan, she began to attract donors.
“Largely through the quality of the board members. Because of the significant history of the site, and it really is significant, the gardens have national stature. Their papers are at the Library of Congress and the National Olmstead Archive. We knew we couldn’t raise money in Long Beach, so we positioned the site as a regional and national site, not a Long Beach site. That gave us the opportunity to move way beyond Long Beach. Most of the money has come from outside of Long Beach, from Los Angeles and the greater LA area. Some came from San Francisco, the Cultural and Historical Endowment in Sacramento, the state agency for this project gave us $1.5 million. That was highly competitive, and we were one of their favorite projects.”
I asked her about the consistency of leadership.
“We request, and have received, long service from the members of our board. That has been incredibly valuable. New board members do come on, of course, but the core,understands where we’re going and where we come from, and that was important in getting the job done. We’ve gotten so far along that we really could not and did not want people coming in and second-guessing because we had done all this research and we had done all this homework and we just wanted to move forward and steadily implement. That was our goal.”
One of the new additions to the site is the spectacular Rancho Room, a huge space that feels surprisingly intimate. Aside from the beautiful light from skylights, and the natural architectural expansiveness, one of the key features are huge illustrations of plants that cover the walls, enlarged from small water color illustrations by the late Dugald Stermer.
“He was an extraordinary artist and illustrator,” Pamela said. “One of the most memorable things I saw of his was a portrait, for Time Magazine, of Obama when he first came into office. He aged it 10 years on one side, and it was brilliant. He was right on, just amazing. He was very well-known as an illustrator.
“The people that have [made and installed] the enlarged images are just miracle workers. Trio Entertainment Group is headed by a gentleman who is a third generation head of Warner Brothers’ Scenic Studios. There are only two printing presses in the world right now that can print that size and thank goodness one of them is in Hollywood! [laughs]”
I asked Pamela about the significance of the plant illustrations.
“Just like people came from around the world, the plant material on the walls come from around the world, and that’s what the legend on the walls tells you. Most of the landscape that we live in everyday is more than 90% non-native. Why is that? Well, there are two fundamental reasons: Mediterranean climate, and water. There was always water here. We didn’t hook up here to a city water system until 1956. So, from 500 AD to 1956, the water was here from the springs. That’s why the Native Americans were here: Abundant water. A key resource that we use not always as well as we should these days.”
Another key element of the Rancho Room is the floor. Most obviously, it is painted as a map that shows the history of the area, spanning 1500 years. Less obvious, however, is that the wood floats atop a layer of acoustical foam insulation, something that local flooring contractor Luke Hiller implemented. This has a huge impact on the way the room sounds.
“I went to an opening of another museum,” Pamela recalled, “and, in a large room, I was so upset by the acoustics. It was fairly much the same size as our Rancho Room, but the bounce of the sound was incredible. I could barely hear the person who sat next to me. It was a totally unpleasant experience that I wanted to escape from. It was so bad. That scared me to death, so I came right back and I called the architect and I said, ‘Stephen, I want you to do some acoustical modeling on the room as it’s designed right now because I’m very worried about noise.’ So we did acoustical modeling and used Tectum Acoustical Panels in the ceiling, floated the floor, and uses an acoustical concrete. We paid enormous attention to the wall bounce and the acoustics in that room.
“And Luke, to his credit, was so nervous about the floor cupping or moving that he bought all of the maple flooring, and had it on site in the Rancho Room closet for 7 months so that it could acclimate. Then he laid the floor and then we said, ‘Well, we’ll have to leave the heating and air condition on for three months to let that floor move again and do whatever it’s going to do before we started actually painting it.’ So he paid huge attention to acclimating the floor, which has paid off.”
One of the highlights of any Rancho visit is a stroll through the gardens.
“They’re like a series of outdoor rooms, brilliantly designed. It was done by the Olmsted Firm, by and large, but always with the guiding hand of Florence Bixby. We’re so fortunate. We’ve got most of the original plans for the garden – the Olmsted plans certainly. We’ve got tons of photographs. We’ve got family films. I don’t have to guess at anything.”
The Rancho is now open, but visitors are encouraged to call first and make an appointment. The number is 562- 431-3541. You can also visit their website at RanchoLosAlamitos.com to find out about tours and special programs.
Support our journalism.
Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.