Rancho Los Alamitos – Iconic Gardens and Tales of Our Past

Rancho Los Alamitos Entrance atop Bixby Hill, Long Beach, CA. Photograph by Cristina Salvador-Klenz.

This summer history buff will get a new destination with the opening of Rancho Los Alamitos located in the heart of Long Beach. This sacred and historic destination has been overhauled and will be open to the public to tell the stories of the land.

The land was made sacred by the Tongva village of Povuu’ngna. This Native American group lived in the water-rich Los Angeles Basin the tribes flourished. Until the Spanish explorers came upon the native tribes and José Manuel Perez Nieto was bequeathed the land from the King of Spain. Even after several rounds of land disputes, the 167,000-acre land award was the largest ever given by Spain or Mexico.

Aerial Photograph of Rancho Los Alamito1936

In 1833 José Manuel’s son, Juan José, sold his parcel to Governor José Figueroa for $500. His 28,500-acre lot is what is now Rancho Los Alamitos. In 1842 the land changes hands again and was sold to Los Angeles civil leader, Abel Stearns. He fell on hard times during the droughts and floods of the early 1860s. As a result of his hardships the Rancho Los Alamitos was foreclosed.

John William Bixby, ca. 1868.

The year 1878 saw the start of the Bixby era — which brought fame and wealth to the region — with the arrival of John William Bixby, wife Susan Hathaway Bixby, and their young son, Fred from Maine. The Bixby’s moved into the area and in 1881 John Bixby and his partners bought Rancho Los Alamitos for $125,000. They developed the region and upon his death in 1887, John’s heirs inherited the bulk of the land including the central portion, house and barns, and the rancho name. When Susan passed away in 1906, Fred Bixby, his wife Florence, and their children, move into the Ranch house at Alamitos. After splitting the jointly inherited property between Fred and his sister, Rancho Los Alamitos was 3,600 acres. In 1921 they found oil on land that was leased from the Alamitos Land Company. This makes the Bixby family quite wealthy and spurs Florence Bixby on a mission to create one of the great gardens of the era.

Fred Bixby, 1938

Along the lines of the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, Florence hired renowned landscape designers Florence Yoch of Pasadena and the Olmsted Brothers Firm to design the gardens. Elegantly designed and matured by the grace of time, the 1920s and 1930s gardens invite visitors to meander among displays of exotic and native flora and be lulled away to a place where time slows down and inspiration happens.

Native Garden

At the heart of the ambitious transformation about to be completed is Rancho Los Alamitos’ commitment to public education and historic preservation, both of which will be greatly aided by the creation of the new Rancho Center and a complete restoration of the historic Barns Area. The restoration of the Barns Area included relocating and restoring five agricultural structures to recapture the layout and character of the historic working Ranch. Exhibiting a stunning blend of historic and contemporary architecture and using the 1948 horse barn as the historic core for the new larger structure, the Rancho Center was designed by the renowned historic preservation architect Stephen J. Farneth, FAIA, co-founder of the Architectural Resources Group in San Francisco.

Rancho Center public entrance. Building designed by Stephen J. Farneth, FAIA, Architectural Resources Group. Photograph by Cristina Salvador-Klenz.

The Rancho Center will house the innovative permanent exhibition Rancho Los Alamitos — Ever Changing, Always the Same, designed by William S. Wells and Claudia Jurmain. The interwoven themes of “Renewing Possibilities,” “Natives and Newcomers,” and “Borders and Boundaries” extend through the exhibition, which stretches across multiple spaces within the Center and directed the design of the building.

The floor map of the multi-purpose Rancho Room displays the changing borders of the Rancho within the regional context, past and present, while magnificent large-scale watercolor murals by the late renowned illustrator and graphic designer, Dugald Stermer, cover the Rancho Room’s walls and convey the relation between people and place, climate, and the vital role of water. A separate gift store and classroom building will provide additional spaces for special educational programs developed in relation to the site and the Rancho Center exhibition.

Rancho House Dining Room

In its service to over 25,000 yearly visitors, the Rancho Los Alamitos site itself, along with educational tours, and special programs set the stage for new understandings of cultural ecology — of the intertwined paths of people, resources, flora and fauna over time. The use of geo-thermal technology supports the heating and air conditioning systems of the Rancho Center and the Bookshop/ Classroom, minimizing the ecological footprint of the new structures and preserving the tranquility of the site.

Oleander Walk

A History of Rancho Los Alamitos - Southern California Microcosm The story of Rancho Los Alamitos begins long before the Bixby family donated the family ranch to the City of Long Beach in 1968, transforming what had been a working ranch to a public oasis and setting the stage for what Rancho Los Alamitos is today. As a publicly owned ranch with an emphasis on education, the historic open green space of Rancho Los Alamitos has become a quintessential place for people to experience the living and breathing story of Southern California. Rancho Los Alamitos — its inhabitants and landscape — is a microcosm that illustrates the cultural and ecological evolution of the entire region, past to present.

Grand Opening Year Programming - To celebrate the completion of its campus-wide transformation, Rancho Los Alamitos will offer a special Grand Opening Year program, which includes an already fully booked Conversations in Place lecture series featuring distinguished historians Marc Pachter, Kevin Starr and renowned anthropologist Peter Nabokov, among others, and continuing a tradition of award-winning public educational programming. As part of a long tradition of innovative programming, the Conversations in Place 2012 series links the past to the present and features some of the best minds in the country to reflect on topics of conversation occurring “back then” at the Rancho, which still relate to the news today as well as tomorrow’s issues.

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