Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pacific City: Our first City Hall

ABOVE: Pacific City Hall remains standing today at 122 Main Street, in its new life as Mangiamo's Gelato Caffe.  It was a cash grocery and feed store on the lower level, with the town governance meetings held upstairs.  This photograph is from a booster flyer entitled, "Homes with Pleasure and Business," circa 1904, which included the new Pacific Electric Railway station near the Huntington Beach pier and Ocean Avenue (now Pacific Coast Highway). Sanborn fire insurance maps document the building at this site in 1909, while the Historic Resources Assessment report by PCR Services Corporation dates the building to this location in 1902. Research by the City Historic Resources Board, with assistance from the Orange County Archives, documents the building was at 122 Main Street in 1901, placed there by Pacific City founder Philip Stanton.  (Photograph courtesy of the Helme Worthy Collection) © All rights reserved.

Updated January 29, 2015 - On January 20, 2015, the Huntington Beach  City Council voted 4-3 to approve the environmental report and demolition of the majority of the Pacific City Hall building.  The action requires the property owner to move their structure back six feet, with an attempt to save the facade on the building as an architectural treatment for a new four-story building.

   The picture worth a thousand words is above.  And, the question about whether or not 122 Main Street was our first City Hall has been answered.  It's right there, painted on top of the wooden pioneer building, right above the grocery and feed store.

A "filler" advertisement for Pacific City in the 1903 Orange County Directory. (Image, Fullerton Public Library)

   This is where pioneer business was conducted, perhaps the first discussions about how to  get Henry Huntington to bring the Pacific Electric Railway to town.  Pioneer leaders might have sat on the hanging balcony to survey the comings and goings on Main Street, smoking their cigars and making big plans. Or, more likely, anxiously wondering if this dusty little seaside village was going to succeed and how on earth could they attract investment. 

   This first seat of city government is now living large more than a century later serving up Italian ice in Mangiamo's Gelato Caffe, something pioneers probably would have loved in ice box days.

LEFT: Peek in the back of 122 and 124 Main Street to find 122's original hardwood batten board in remarkably pristine condition (to the left). An early 1900s storm drain solution runs the gap between the buildings.  The original corrugated tin siding from 1910 can be seen on 124 Main Street, now a souvenir shop.(Photo, December 2014) © All rights reserved.

   In ironic timing, the question of the building's history and fate comes at a time when the "new" Pacific City* is taking shape along Pacific Coast Highway, more than a century after the original Pacific City was dreamed up in 1901.  This sturdy little building has a story to tell.

ABOVE: A bit neglected on the alley side, a doorway to the second floor once had an outside stairway, direct to Pacific City Hall meeting rooms. This is an easy preservation fix, considering the hardwood construction.  (Photo, December 2014) © All rights reserved.

Pacific City
   The City of Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board (HRB) explained at a recent planning commission meeting the significance of 122 and its neighbor, 124 Main Street, which "critically document the commercial development of Huntington Beach.  These lots were originally surveyed as Lots 22 and 24 of Block 5 of Pacific City dating back to our city's infancy.  This, combined with the paucity of commercial buildings in the first decade of the 20th Century, reinforce the probability that 122 Main Street housed the early City Hall.  Certainly, it is among the earliest structures on Main Street."

ABOVE: Main Street prior to the 1909 incorporation of Huntington Beach, in 1907.  The distinctive balcony of 122 Main Street can be seen on the south side of the dusty, unpaved road. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   HRB member and historian Kathie Schey further detailed in a supplemental letter to the planning commission, "the evidence for this conclusion has stemmed from the recollections of Mr. Bud Higgins.  Higgins, an early resident of Huntington Beach was certainly in a position to know.  Not only had he lived in the city for many years but he had known others who had been alive at the time of the city's creation who had first-hand knowledge of those earliest years."

   "Further, there was no reason to embellish this information since there was no threat to this structure at that time and no reason to inflate its importance," Schey explains.  "Far from simple 'hearsay' this evidence is important to oral history, a type of resource widely recognized by historians today."

   Delbert "Bud" Higgins was one of Huntington Beach's first surfboard shapers (he had met Duke Kahanamoku in the 1920s), first lifeguards, and also its first fire chief.  His oral and personal historical accounts of Huntington Beach history are retained at California State University Fullerton, Center for Oral and Public History.

A snip from the Los Angeles Times article, 'Shrine' a Target for Condemnation, from December 1989, indicates the Pacific City Hall survived an earlier demolition threat.  The article references the building had been the first city hall with a quote from Charles Sarrabere, whose pioneer family owned the building for over six decades. (Image, Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1989)

   Schey further documented that, "In his memoirs, My Sixty Years in California, Huntington Beach pioneer Tom Talbert notes the first city post office was located on Main Street "where Sarrabere's have their cleaning shop (122 Main St.)" 

   Talbert , one of Huntington Beach's early mayors, published his book in 1952.  The Sarrabere family's 65-year ownership of the building began in 1916, with Charles Sarrabere running the family's cleaning business there until 1981.

   In the late 1980s, the City of Huntington Beach pursued acquisition of 122 and 124 Main Street under California redevelopment law, "authorizing the acquisition of such property by eminent domain" for development purposes of what was known as the "Main-Pier Redevelopment Project Area."  Many of the structures noted as contributors to the historic district were on the list for acquisition.

A July 1990 letter from the Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board to the Planning Commission included this list, noting 122 Main Street was "Pacific City City Hall." The letter was signed by Jerry Person, the present-day historian for Huntington Beach.  Note, the Historic Wintersburg property on Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach also is on this list, listed as "Japanese Church Buildings." (Image, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   More than one Sarrabere family property was proposed for acquisition, including the property that was the family residence on Pacific Coast Highway, south of Main Street.  Charles Sarrabere sent a letter to the City registering his opposition, stating his family's long land ownership in Huntington Beach.  When interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in 1989, Sarrabere, then 78, commented about 122 Main Street that, "I was practically raised there."  

   Local businessman and then member of the City of Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board, Douglas Langevin, told the Los Angeles Times in 1989 the building was "one of the very few of the original wood structures left in the city...In my view, that is the most important (of the old wooden buildings) given its history with the city."  Langevin faced opposition from the city council when he went about restoring another wooden pioneer structure: the 1904 Talbert-Leatherman building at 217 Main Street, now the Longboard Restaurant and Pub.

ABOVE: A closer look at Pacific City Hall, a center of community activity with the market below and the barber next door.  Both 122 and 124 Main Street were included in a map sent by the California State Office of Historic Preservation to the City of Huntington Beach in 1988, outlining the downtown structures they believed contributed to a historic district that would qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. (Photograph snip courtesy of the Helme Worthy Collection) © All rights reserved.

   Then, the photograph appeared, courtesy of the Helme Worthy Collection,** with "Pacific City Hall" painted in large letters on the building's Western False Front facade, further confirming its history.  This is where the founding fathers of Huntington Beach dreamed up a resort town with a pleasure pier and "Red Car" train.  How much we owe that little building, which has survived the 1933 earthquake, the ups and downs of the last century's economy, and the 1980s redevelopment era that removed many of its brothers.

   Nevertheless, the building's important civic history was misplaced over the years, while half of the community's historic structures were lost to development.***

   This is how we lose things.  Time fades community memory, as documents and historical photographs are lost.  Ultimately, pioneer roots are removed and the sense of place is altered.  Then, people pay to have the history they miss "re-created."  

   But, it's not the same.  New buildings weren't touched by earlier generations.  They don't tell the authentic story of horse-drawn wagons, land baron schemes, the oil boom wildcats, the lean Depression years, two world wars, and the earthquakes and floods that made Californians more resilient.  For more than a hundred years, 122 an 124 Main Street shared our journey, from the settlement of Huntington Beach into the 21st Century as Surf City.

ABOVE: The corrugated siding on 124 Main Street likely dates back to 1910 when the building was constructed, just after the incorporation of Huntington Beach in 1909.  The building originally was the Tripp Market, then the location of O'Barrs Drugstore in 1914.  After that, it became the U.S. Restaurant (1919), the Huntington Beach Stock Exchange, Fowler's Paint, the Buckhorn Cafe (1939), and the 20/30 Cafe (1943). (Photo, December 2014) © All rights reserved.  

   The fate of 122 and 124 Main Street, will go before the Huntington Beach city council soon.  The original Western False Front facade with hand-painted sign on 122 Main Street is believed to be under the facade added in the 1920s; covering over building materials was the practice of the day when materials were scarce.  

   As the historical consultant, PCR Services Corporation, notes: "The false front commercial building type is an icon of the urban pioneer West.  When movie directors or theme park designers erect a typical western town, the false front commercial building usually plays a prominent role. Unlike many myths of the West, the false front commercial building truly was a common sight in Colorado as well as California."

   "For a developing town in the early 20th Century, like Huntington Beach, the false front commercial building was an economical solution," further explains the historical consultant. "Sound business economics led commercial building owners to budget their spending for substantial facades while relegating the secondary sides of buildings to a cheaper utilitarian treatment."

   PCR Services later explains "fire often swept through early commercial districts, eliminating most of the wood western false front buildings."  How lucky we are that 122 Main Street survived.  Even the later embellishment of the fancy Western False Front facade---telling the story of pioneer business practices in a developing town---is now nearing the century mark.

   The history is undeniable.  But, history repeats and some of our history is the removal of historic places from our landscape.  On December 1, people gathered to watch the unveiling of a plaque for the Golden Bear, another important icon of Huntington Beach history lost to 1980s redevelopment.  The looming question now is what can be done to save the very beginnings of Pacific City and Huntington Beach.

ABOVE: Main Street in 1906, looking from the second block west toward the Pacific Ocean and the pier.  The balcony of Pacific City Hall can be seen on the south side of the street. (Photo snip, City of Huntington Beach archives)

   "It is extremely clear that these two buildings, born with our city, have stood mute witness to our city’s growth and historic legacy," explained the HRB in their November 26 letter to the planning commission. "Closely surrounding structures that may also have remained to celebrate even some portion of this past are long gone.  Even the adjacent Standard Market, which replaced an earlier structure when it began operations as early as 1926, is gone today.  This loss of most of the historic fabric of the downtown area  has been tragic."

   These are not just buildings any more, remarked a planning commissioner after seeing the photograph, "It's now a place."  

MORE THAN A CENTURY OLD: 124 (circa 1910) and 122 (circa 1902) Main Street, two of the handful of pioneer structures left in downtown Huntington Beach. (Photo, December 2014) © All rights reserved.

*Learn about Huntington Beach's "new" Pacific City at

**The Helme Worthy Collection is held by Susie Worthy--the great grandaughter of pioneer and early mayor Matthew Helme--and her husband, Guy Guzzardo.  They currently are restoring the M.E. Helme House Furnishing Co. and Worthy House in the historic downtown on Walnut Avenue, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Read more about the Helme-Worthy buildings at

***Over half the properties noted in a 1986 survey of the city's historic resources have been lost to demolition and development.  An update initiated in 2009 is pending review by the city council in 2015.

READ the Huntington Beach Independent article about the discussion at the December 9, 2014, planning commission meeting:,0,2345434.story

Frequently Asked Question: What makes a property historic?
AGE - A property must be at least 50 years old as a general rule of thumb, but, not always if there has been a significant event or person associated with the place.  It must be old enough to have been studied by historians, architectural historians, or archaeologists regarding its place in history.  Both 122 and 124 Main Street have been studied, as part of the 1986 historic resources survey almost 30 years ago, and by the State Office of Historic Preservation as part of their recommendation for a downtown historic district in 1988.
INTEGRITY - In addition to age, a property should retain its historic physical integrity.  For a building, structure, landscape feature, historic site, or historic district, this means the property is relatively unchanged. Some alterations made 50+ years ago can be considered part of the history, reflecting certain time periods.
SIGNIFICANCE - A property can be defined as significant in three ways: 1) direct association with individuals, events, activities, or developments that shaped history or reflect important aspects of history; 2) by embodying the distinctive physical and spatial characteristics of an architectural style or type, method of construction, or craftsmanship; 3) having the potential to yield information important to our understanding of the past.

© All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Huntington Beach blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.


  1. Duane Wentworth Chair Historic Resources BoardDecember 12, 2014 at 6:02 PM

    Thanks to the Worthy Family for sharing this wonderful photo with us.

  2. "This is how we lose things." Our collective history, our collective wisdom, our collective soul. New and shiny doesn't have the soul of history; it can't replace that sense of place that resides in our historic buildings. We've lost most of the downtown area. I truly hope they can save 122 and 124.


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