Driving through the gated community of Bixby Hill Estates in Long Beach, one passes a collection of unremarkable 1960s and 1970s tract homes sitting atop a mesa. But tucked inside this suburban sprawl is an oasis called Ranchos Los Alamitos. In seven and a half acres it captures the history of the region, from its indigenous peoples to the early Spanish and Mexican settlers and on to the ranching and farming eras. Added to over four acres of restored gardens from the early 20th century, the new exhibition center is surrounded by the original renovated barns.
The new incarnation of the historic site, which celebrated a rededication this month, began when Rancho Los Alamitos executive director Pamela Seager instituted a new master plan in 1986. Since then, traditional gardens created by renowned designers like the Olmsted Brothers, a geranium walk by Florence Yoch and Lucille Council, and a California native garden from Paul Howard all have been restored to their original splendor. Explaining that the idea was to keep the property as it was when the prominent Bixby family lived there in an original 1800 adobe, built long before they made their fortune in oil, Seager added, “These gardens were never meant to be a big showplace but a real place where people lived.”
Keeping the integrity of the site also informed San Francisco–based Stephen J. Farneth, the project architect of the new Rancho Center. His design is integrated with the original barn structures, using glass, metal, and wood as the palette. He stated, “We didn’t want an assertively modern structure, because often on historic sites the new becomes the foreground and the historic becomes the background.”
But the building is far from a reproduction. With sleek rooflines, plenty of natural light from skylights, and a geothermal heating and cooling system, the updated exhibition center brings Rancho Los Alamitos into the future in the most intimate way. “This place never feels like a public park to me,” Farneth said. “It has such a personal character. This is not a place you come to be entertained. You can have your own way of getting to know it, and that is rare.”