Tag Archives: Historic Preservation




Big Sur coastline - Monterey County
Big Sur coastline – Monterey County (Credit: Robert Schwemmer, NOAA)

In 1975 I was working in Washington DC on the staff of a President’s Advisory Council created to protect historic sites. The Council met several times each year, usually in Washington, DC, but also made site visits around the US.

I suggested we take the Council to California to review Federal management of sites in Monterey County, where I had been part of the preservation movement before relocating to Washington. (See my earlier post, SAVING THE COUNTY.) Our Director and the Council members liked the idea, and I was told to set it all up. For me this was a stroke of good fortune. In my two years of working at the local level, I had helped to save many sites, but a great deal remained to be done, and federal power could make a big difference.

We decided we would visit Monterey County in detail, followed by a stay at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, a tour of the US Mint in San Francisco and a ceremonial meeting of the Council at The Presidio to supplement our main meeting in Monterey County.

Restored 19th century officers’ houses, Presidio San Francisco

Now I began to learn a lot about governmental potential. We knew that the National Park Service would help. I knew the people in local government who worked with the private sector historical societies in Monterey County and I was confident I would have their cooperation. The Army was more problematic. Under Federal law, we could require any agency of government to assist us with our tour. But, because the Council was a small agency, we knew that the Pentagon might provide only minimal help unless we prepared carefully. Our General Counsel drafted a latter for the signature of Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash), Chairman of one of the powerful committees that dealt with preservation, requesting the Department of Defense to provide all necessary assistance to us, on the grounds that we would be doing fact finding for him. One of the Senator’s staff members, a longtime ally of the Council, secured the necessary signature. Then our Director and the General Counsel sought a similar letter from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, directing all military commands in California to be helpful to us. Soon, as I went forward with arrangements for the trip, my phone calls to the Army were being returned more promptly.

We needed a background report, to give to everyone who would be involved in the tour, on the significance of the historical sites we would be visiting and the policy issues related to preserving them. I already knew a great deal of the information from personal experience. To supplement it, I went out to the Council’s Western Regional Office in Denver, where the files were kept for every case west of the Mississippi River, and put the report together.

Old San Francisco Mint
Old San Francisco Mint (Credit: Library of Congress)

The research in Denver taught me an important lesson about stereotypes. From my experiences while living in Monterey County, I had concluded that the biggest Federal obstacle to protection of the historic sites was the Army. After reading all the correspondence, however, I could see that the major problems had resulted from delays by the National Park Service. To make sure this finding was not overlooked, we circulated my report to more people at the Department of the Interior than originally planned.

Finally the big week arrived. From points all over the U.S., the Council members arrived in Monterey County. My first indication that I was now dealing with a national examination of California’s historic sites was the surprising variety of reactions to the landscape. I took it as an axiom that Monterey County was beautiful. So did some of the people in our tour group; but not everyone. A lot of the visitors grumbled about the morning fog that is common along the Pacific Coast. They found it depressing, even eerie. Several of the visitors who had never been west of the Rockies were upset by the brown vegetation. Summer is the green season in the United States east of the Rockies. But in the far west, the green season is the winter. There were also stereotypes about beauty. A friend of mine on the Council staff, from Maryland, seemed unimpressed by the dramatic coastline around Pacific Grove and Carmel. He complained about the “debris” in the water, by which he meant the kelp, and seemed to want a Miami style coast. I suggested that he compare the coast to Japanese paintings, but the advice didn’t appeal to him. Then there were the restaurants. There were a number of very fine ones in and around Monterey, offering not only excellent food but also the opportunity, by way of the cuisine, to learn more about the place — an experience that is familiar to anyone who has read the works of the California writer, M.F.K. Fisher, on France. But the main consideration of our Council members, when choosing restaurants, was status, not whether they could learn about local culture.

Jolon Stage Coach Stop, Hunter Liggett Military Reservation
Jolon Stage Coach Stop, Hunter Liggett Military Reservation


We arranged for some bus tours to put the Council members in direct contact with the sites that were the subject of the meeting. The parts of the landscape that the members felt most comfortable seeing were the ones along the coast: the cute shops and breakfast houses at Carmel — the ones Steinbeck had once said were created by the “Pixie People” who ruined the area — the golf courses and mansions around Pebble Beach, the military compound at the Monterey Presidio, the restaurants and restored factories at Cannery Row, the Spanish colonial buildings in the city of Monterey. These were all, to our Council members, part of a tourist environment they could respond to in well-rehearsed manner, even if they had never been in the area before.

What was more interesting was to watch the way the Council members had their perceptions challenged on the day we devoted to going inland. The bus picked us up early in the morning and headed east along highway 68. The Council members at first stared blankly out the windows of the bus as we passed through beautiful but not especially distinctive hills covered with brown grass and occasional clusters of oak tress. Over the microphone, for the rest of the bus ride. I explained that we had just crossed the Salinas River and that we had been staring at the Spreckels sugar beet factory. Soon, as the bus moved on and we turned onto highway 101 and headed south, I was into a long description of the Salinas River, the rich soil of the Valley, and the towns and people who made their living from it.

Most of the passengers on the bus had never seen a world quite like the one we were riding through — a place stamped by Spanish and Mexican culture, conquered by industrial Americans, engulfed by American business monopolists, made legendary by Steinbeck, made fertile by the largest irrigation projects in the world, and given over to the regimental dictates of international agribusiness. The bus ride smashed all the categories of the Council members. And I loved being the source of the destruction and their first hints as to how they might rebuild.

After we had been on Highway 101 for about an hour, our bus turned west near King City and headed into the mountains that lie between the Valley and the Pacific Coast. Here we snaked along a two-lane road for a while, past creeks and groves of trees and clusters of cattle, until we reached the Hunter-Liggett Military Reservation. Our first stop was the San Antonio Mission. Here it was my turn to be challenged. I think the Mission is one of the most beautiful historic sites in the world. But, until that moment, I had never faced the fact that it is, in a way, a falsehood. One of my colleagues from the staff of the Council asked me if the Mission was on the National Register of Historic Places. I said, come to think of it, no. He said that the site would, in fact, never be eligible, because reconstructions were not eligible. I was enraged. The comment felt like an intentional insult. Then I realized that my colleague was simply being objective. In fact, the Mission was p

ractically gone when, in the 1930s, as part of the romanticism of the Spanish revival in California, Harry Downey and other Catholics rebuilt all the missions.

San Antonio Mission
San Antonio Mission

After touring the Mission, we were met by about twenty Army jeeps. They drove us in a convoy for about ten miles along narrow dirt roads to an isolated area where we would be able to see the most interesting of the Stone Age caves that had been the homes of the Native Americans who once lived in the region. This was the riskiest part of the trip. The temperature was about 95 degrees – like a safari. In view of the age of some of our Council members, we had been warned in advance to carry first aid supplies. Fortunately, the heat was bearable.

I found this part of the trip unpleasant. The convoy seemed imperialistic. I knew that the Native Americans who had lived in the Hunter-Liggett area were not saints, probably not even fastidious stewards of the land. But, as I looked again at their cave paintings, I thought I saw a delicacy, an artistic interaction, a reverence for the fragile landscape. Now, however, jeeps had taken a group of wrinkled white people noisily into the hills, and the boots of the soldiers and of the rest of us were trampling the area. Even worse, our conversation was all about federal rules and regulations and jurisdictions and grants: as if we ever could, really, govern such a mysterious, ineffable place.

By the time the tour was completed, and the bus had returned us to our motel, I realized that the visit to the Hunter-Liggett area, all by itself, had done a great deal to protect the historic resources there. Seeing a bunch of White House appointees crawl all over the property made the Army more attentive. We were confident that, as a result of the visit, the Army would allot some of its men and resources to protect, improve, and maintain the site and structures. And the National Park Service would behave itself. In a way, therefore, the actual meeting of the Council back in Monterey, when we heard the official statements from the Army and others, was almost redundant. It did, however, reveal some interesting aspects of organizational culture, and it served the very important function of allowing local groups to be heard.

The Council meeting began in the morning with the usual welcome by the Chairman, and his statement of the issues before the Council. As always, the Chairman simply read his remarks from the big briefing book the staff had given him, changing not a word. Then the Army and local groups said their pieces. A Colonel who had obviously been to briefing school read his prepared remarks accompanied by maps and photographs on an easel and what seemed to me like thousands of images projected onto the screen behind him. There were graphs, flow charts, outlines and sub-outlines. If ever the terms “bullet points” and “blowups” seemed appropriate to describe a style of presentation, this was the time. In sum, the Army’s message was that they had numerous missions to carry out, numerous laws to obey, and not enough dollars and personnel to do everything. That was what every agency told us, of course, and the briefing officer knew it. But, by the mere fact of putting the Army on the agenda, the Council had accomplished its purpose. The Army would try harder.

The speeches by local governmental representatives were similarly ritualized. A member of the County Board of Supervisors officially welcomed us. City and county planning officers described the ways they were including preservation in their work. The director of the county parks department lectured angrily about the need for greater federal sensitivity to grass roots concerns. ‘We asked the National Park Service and the Army for more help, and they didn’t give it,” he intoned sweepingly. “We may not have your national prestige, but we’re busy people, too,” he added.

In reply to all of this, the Council members offered very few reactions. There were some questions about specific points of fact. The Chairman made some statesmanlike comments about the need to focus on our shared respect for heritage. And there was one egregious comment by a Council member who had grown up in the East. “We need to have compassion for these local groups in the West,” she observed. “They really don’t have very much history. They’re trying hard to cling to the little they possess. This isn’t like Charleston or Savannah or Philadelphia.” The woman seemed to be framing the problem as a debate about who owned the most antiques. And she was, of course, factually in error as to who had the most history. By certain definitions, the West did. The people in the audience, wiser than she realized, simply let her patronizing comments pass.

For me, the most inspiring part of the meeting came during one of the breaks when I had the opportunity to see two old friends from King City, Olive and Rachel Gillette, who owned ranches in the county, and who had helped in the struggle to preserve local history when I had worked there. “You said you wouldn’t forget us, and you kept your promise,” they noted as we greeted each other. “Yes,” I answered, “I guess I did keep my promise. But I didn’t know that luck would be quite so much on our side.”





If today you drive around Monterey County, stopping, for example, in the urban areas of Salinas, Monterey, or King City, or in the vast agricultural areas that provide the United States with a significant portion of its lettuce, artichokes, radishes, wine, herbs, and other products, you will be impressed by the great care that has been taken to protect and publicize the area’s many historic sites and structures.

San Antonio Mission, Monterey County

The resources that have been saved and made part of the ongoing life of the county are numerous and mesmerizing: for example, several Spanish missions, hundreds of ranch buildings and farmhouses, small town collections of Victorian business buildings, Stone Age remnants of hunter-gatherers, the building where California’s constitution was drafted, Gatsby-like mansions near the Pebble Beach golf course, the house where John Steinbeck was raised, and the nineteenth-century building where Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a time when he visited California.

Robert Louis Stevenson house, city of Monterey

As in all parts of the United States, there is a constant danger that such resources may be lost because of neglect or, more likely, demolition to make way for land development and new construction driven by short-term concepts of economic gain. But in Monterey County, at least, something like a balance has been achieved. Local residents and visitors appreciate the value of historic sites and structures, yet still make room for intelligent growth.

I take pleasure in knowing that I played a role, several generations ago, in achieving the present balance. My memories go back to the 1970s, when one could not at all say with certainty that Monterey County would be protecting its patrimony, and when historic preservation there was in the midst of a “quiet crisis,” to borrow a phrase the novelist Wallace Stegner coined at the time to describe America’s nationwide challenges in natural resources conservation.

Dutton Hotel, a nineteenth century stagecoach stop in the south of Monterey County, a preservation failure
Dutton Hotel, a nineteenth century stagecoach stop in the south of Monterey County, a preservation failure

In 1972 I was working as an assistant to the president of the community college that served the Salinas Valley. The college was under great budgetary pressures. In the early summer of 1972, the president decided he would partially meet the crisis by eliminating my job.

Through a string of fortunate coincidences, I was eventually able to find a new source of income. One day, a retired member of the college’s History faculty, Bob Johnston, asked me if I would like a job helping several groups, made up mostly of retired people like him, who were working to preserve the old homes and historic landscapes in Monterey County where they had grown up. The groups thought that I, as a historian who, more than most academics, enjoyed working with local organizations, and was as an experienced writer of grant proposals, might be able to help. I said I’d love to, but I didn’t know where the money would come from. Bob explained how it would be handled. “We will talk to the members of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. We will simply tell them to create a consultant’s position for you.” They did.


Deteriorating buildings at Cannery Row, Monterey Bay
Deteriorating buildings at Cannery Row, Monterey Bay

That was my accidental introduction to the historic preservation movement, one of the streams of environmental consciousness that was beginning, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to take on its own features within the larger river of awareness about ecology then developing in the United States.

A contract with the County soon materialized. I was supposed to inventory the good work that had already been done in some parts of the Country, for example in the excellent preservation efforts in the city of Monterey; fill out forms to nominate eligible sites and structures to the National Register of Historic Places, a federal listing that had been established in 1965 and that was gradually expanding throughout the United States; and visit a sampling of concerned groups and organizations to learn their views and mobilize public support. This would lead to a written plan of action for preserving resources, following precedents established by historic preservation efforts elsewhere in the United States, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

Bob Johnston and his fellow senior citizens pointed out to me that all of these activities should have been set in motion many years before. They hoped that, now, they could catch up and rescue the county’s patrimony before it was obliterated.

Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove
Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove

In my car I wandered around the county to learn more about sites I had not yet visited. I talked with old timers – in their homes, in bars, at truck stops, at their farms. At local newspaper offices, I spent fascinating evenings going through old clippings and files. At home, tapping away on my portable Olympia typewriter (I knew nothing about computers in those days), I happily produced nominations to get sites listed on the National Register. Drawing on past experience as an intern in Washington DC, I compiled lists of funding sources and relevant regulations, and I gathered information about successful preservation efforts already in progress in places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

The parts of the job involving public contact showed me the reasons why historic preservation had made some progress in years past, but still was not moving quickly. In one series of meetings, I worked with a group of wives of local growers who were determined to save from the wrecking ball the old house in Salinas where John Steinbeck had grown up. The women explained that their greatest obstacles were their own husbands, who maintained that the house ought to be demolished because they believed that Steinbeck, if still alive, would have sided with the migrant workers’ unions who were striking to obtain improved conditions at the time.

At the meetings of the Parks Commission, my challenge was the odd assortment of members, none with formal training in history or even a college education. Most of the commissioners were longtime community volunteers who knew a lot, in a concrete way, about outdoor recreation. One of the members, wealthy and garrulous, revealed his conception of history by using up all the time at one meeting to reminisce about the food he and he his wife had eaten while touring picturesque inns on a recent vacation in France. With people of this kind, I had to learn the trick of presenting the past in small chunks. I had to be respectful. But I had to present the intellectual aspects of history gradually, and disguise that I was doing so.

To move things along, I relied often on the Chair of the Commission, a charismatic, elderly woman named Elmarie Dyke. In the course of more than a half century of community organizing, she had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and developed a sense of the difference between big issues and little issues, and she was an attentive listener who loved to learn and knew how to ask penetrating questions. She had also lived a significant part of the history we were trying to preserve. I realized this once when I asked her to mail me something. She asked my address. I told her, and then asked, “Do you know where that street is?” She laughed and answered, “I not only know where it is; I named it.”

Bixby Creek Bridge on California's Big Sur.
Bixby Creek Bridge, on Highway 1, Big Sur, south of Carmel, a successfully preserved work of historic American engineering

The speaking engagement that I enjoyed least took place at the historical society that drew its members from Carmel, the city of Monterey, and Pebble Beach. The society was not representative of the enlightened attitude toward preservation I found in the local population as a whole. At the time almost all the members of the society were newly rich and regarded historic structures merely as prestigious antiques, not as assets for the community.

At the opposite extreme, in terms of integrity, was the historical society that served the southern portion of Monterey County. This area was almost completely rural. The economy was based partly on viticulture, but mostly on ranching. The largest urban area, King City, was essentially a town of about 5,000. There were a few rich landowners in the area, but most of the holdings were small and medium-sized and were owned by families who traced themselves and their workers back to the nineteenth century. These people liked their way of life and wanted it to continue. They had their share of foibles and weaknesses, but they also had tremendous dignity. Meeting them, I understood what it meant to say that someone revered the land. They regularly received offers to sell their properties to agricultural conglomerates or to re-zone the area for industry. But they refused and were willing, if necessary, to be cash poor and land rich.

They also pushed hard politically to protect the large areas of conserved land that were between their area of the county and the Big Sur coast to the west. Here there were several national forests and state parks and a large military reservation. The landscape in these areas was unsettled, unknown to most tourists at the time, and hauntingly beautiful. Here and there, midst the forests and creeks and valleys, one found important archeological and historic sites, including caves used by Stone Age Native Americans, as well as stagecoach roads, the remnants of old inns, and pioneer graveyards. The San Antonio Mission was also in the area. Many people regard it as the most beautiful of all those in the network built by the Spaniards in California.

Art Deco facade of the community theater in King City
Art Deco facade of the community theater in King City

With two of the local ranch owners, I developed a close friendship. Their names were Olive and Rachelle Gillette. They lived on separate ranches and were sisters. They told me fascinating stories about themselves and their neighbors, led me to important historical documents, gave valuable advice about county politics, asked probing questions about preservation initiatives elsewhere in the U.S., and took me on numerous drives in their old cars to see historic sites I would never have been able to discover on my own. Several times I got phone calls from the sisters before dawn in my apartment seventy miles to the north. “Dr. Messinger,” I would hear one of them say, “I’ve been tending the chickens and it looks like it’s going to be a nice day. Would you like to come down here for a tour?”

Even with the cooperation of gracious people like Olive and Rachelle, I might not have succeeded in my work, had it not been for the help I received from Bill Curry, the Deputy Director of the county planning department. Bill was my immediate contact at the department, the person assigned to help me navigate local politics and bureaucracy. Bill had grown up in the county, but had then gone on to Yale where he received a degree in Architecture before returning home. He understood local mentalities, but was also well equipped to integrate the contributions of an outsider like me.

Remains of the Pacific Biological Laboratory maintained by Doc Ricketts and immortalized in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row; protected against abutting new construction
Remains of the Pacific Biological Laboratory maintained by Doc Ricketts and immortalized in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row; protected against abutting new construction

I dropped by to chat with Bill every few weeks in the big county office building in Salinas. We didn’t become close friends but we did greatly enjoy each other’s company, and we had both experienced the bittersweet process of understanding home by means of temporarily leaving it.

About five months into the project, I got a late afternoon phone call from Bill, saying he wanted to come over and see me right away to discuss the introduction to the draft plan I had given him earlier in the week. When Bill arrived at my apartment, he was carrying the plan in one hand and a six-pack of beer in the other. We sat down in my living room and Bill opened two cans of beer and told me we needed to talk friend-to-friend. Bill showed me passages he had circled. All were in the opening section of the draft where I had provided an analysis of the interest groups in the county that helped or hindered preservation.

My analysis was accurate, Bill said, but politically naïve. I seemed to be trying to impress an out-of-county audience — perhaps others in the planning profession, perhaps academic historians, perhaps my friends in Berkeley, perhaps readers of the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. I did not yet seem to have learned the difference between a document that is designed simply to speak the truth – especially that portion of the truth that attacks everyday assumptions – and a document that is going to be used to get a diverse group of people to unite for action. I did not need to go on at length about the snobbery I had seen among some of the preservationists, or about the anti-Hispanic prejudice of some of the growers in the Salinas Valley, or the reluctance of many county organizations to accept federal grants. I should focus upon the elements of pride that all county residents shared when they encountered their heritage. I should talk about the admiration that would be won by impressing outsiders with the history and achievements of the county. I should more fully explain the economic and social benefits obtainable from well-managed preservation.

In 1974, my work culminated with an address to the County Board of Supervisors after two years of working as their consultant. I described the historic treasures the people of the County had been given by earlier generations, and I talked about the fragility of the historic landscape in Central California, most of which was still in private ownership. I emphasized that, in the hands of the wrong people, much of this environment could be gone within a year, taking away vital benchmarks of identity, as well as economic assets that were vitally important for strategic expansion of the tourist industry. In response, the Supervisors voted my plan into law, directed the planning department to publish an illustrated version, and prepared to hire a staff to coordinate preservation energetically. The groundwork had been laid for more extensive activity.

By this time, however, the County was running into budgetary problems just as the state education system had two years before. I did not see much of an economic future for myself locally. I decided that I would try to find work in Los Angeles, and, if that failed, go to Washington DC. I gave notice to my landlord, packed my car, and began a long journey to find a place that would, I hoped, have room for a historian with a practical bent.

John Steinbeck's childhood home in Salinas, preserved by adaptive economic reuse as a restaurant
John Steinbeck’s childhood home in Salinas, preserved by adaptive economic reuse as a restaurant