Photograph - Photograph
landmarks--the McNally Ranch in Neff Park--and after grappling for a year with how to display its historical value, the city has decided that small is better than big.
City officials have rejected proposals that would have paved the way for the site to become a major historical attraction and have opted instead to take a cautious approach.
The city, private groups and individuals who have been involved in the debate over how to develop the site, all agree that the area's historical interest should be increased, and want to carry on with plans to restore the park's Neff Mansion. But there is disagreement about what specifically should be done--and at what pace.
Time Period a Question
There is even uncertainty over what period Neff Mansion should be restored to, since three different families lived in the house over a period of nearly 70 years.
"What type of furniture would go in and from what time period is uncertain," C. W. (Bob) Camp, the city's unofficial historian, said. "It's possible that different rooms could reflect different periods in the house's history. We are in the process of working out some of these issues."
All of present day La Mirada is in the boundary of what was once the sprawling, 2,200-acre Windermere Ranch owned by Andrew McNally, of Rand McNally atlas fame. The McNally Ranch site in Neff Park, which dates from 1890, is the only original portion of the ranch that has survived intact.
In National Register
Three acres of the site, including the McNally or Neff Mansion, and the George House were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The park was previously administered by the defunct Southeast Parks and Recreation Commission but came under city control in 1980.
Carol Cooley, the city's public information officer and a member of the city's Historical Committee, said that La Mirada has admittedly taken a conservative approach in developing the site as a historic monument.
"If we start small on a project of this kind then we have the option of seeing what the community interest is," Cooley said. "Not everyone is a history buff or sees value in maintaining a historical site."
Two years ago, the city commissioned a $10,000 study by Martin Weil, the former chief restoration architect for the Canadian government.
But Cooley said the plan was "unrealistic and far too grandiose," and the city did not bother to calculate how much it would have cost to implement all of the proposals. Weil himself would not put a price tag on the project.
Among the options included in Weil's original master plan were proposals to turn a carriage barn dating from the original ranch or the George House into a restaurant or tearoom, with waiters dressed in period costume; permanent exhibitions inside all of the buildings reflecting various historical themes such as domestic life on the ranch and citrus and olive production; various tour programs of the buildings, including slide shows, movies and recorded sounds, and a food and drink service and visitor reception area. Weil proposed staff positions that included a curator, an archivist, an education specialist, public relations representatives and a fund-raising coordinator.
After receiving the Weil plan last year, the City Council appointed an ad hoc committee, which was charged with preparing a scaled-down version.
Now the City Council is considering recommendations from that committee to hire a part-time site director and to appoint a new city committee. This new committee--to be made up of members of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, the Historical Committee and a private group, Friends of McNally Ranch--would be empowered to make long-range plans for the park. Also being considered is a recommendation that the city support an effort to have the entire 10-acre park named a historic site.
Weil, who said he has not kept up with the La Mirada debate, said it "did not hurt" to start with a part-time site director.
"My recommendations were designed to make them understand how they could utilize the site and what structure they needed to set up to do some of these things," Weil said. "The final decisions must arrive out of the community."
Tish Ward, president of Friends of McNally Ranch and a member of the ad hoc committee, said Weil had made "some excellent suggestions."
"We, on the committee, did not really address ourselves to his proposals in minute detail," Ward said. "We felt that the site director and the new committee would be best able to do that."
The proposed committee would act as an advisory board to the site director and would have primary responsibility for fund raising, Ward said.
But Cooley said La Mirada is not necessarily ready for another city commission.
"I'm not sure that adding another commission is needed," Cooley said. "You could complicate the situation by adding a new committee. The (city) staff is still in the process of finding out the best way to manage the site."
Whatever form management of the site will take, the primary uses of Neff Park itself will have to be balanced.
Neff Park is the most popular park in the city. Rich Pepin, the director of community services, estimated that about 400 people might visit the park on a weekend day during the summer. But Ward said she would not like to see the park turned into a historical tourist attraction.
"We have to take into consideration the neighbors who live around the site and the fact that there is not enough parking," Ward said.
And Pepin said the Parks and Recreation Commission would not like to see the park change drastically.
"We are pleased with what is happening right now with the park and would like to see it stay that way," Pepin said. "It is a very pretty park and people like to picnic there. We run a day camp in the summer. It is also very popular for wedding receptions and anniversaries. Besides restoring the house, we'd like to improve some of the recreation features, like the horseshoe pits, and plant new flowers."
In fact, a memorandum issued by the City Council in 1984, before Weil's master plan was submitted, stated that recreation should be the primary focus of Neff Park.
Cooley said, however, that the historical importance of the park would not be downplayed. "Community use, passive recreation and historical significance should be of equal importance," Cooley said.
The site's historical significance lies in the contributions Andrew McNally made to Southern California agriculture, according to William Bushong, a historian in the National Register's office in Washington.
McNally developed 700 acres into a prosperous olive and citrus ranch, making La Mirada an important source of olive oil during the early part of this century. Ward said that at one time more olive oil was shipped to the rest of the country from La Mirada than from all of Italy.
Rare Trees Introduced
McNally also imported exotic trees and plants to the ranch, such as the Canary Island date palm and the Australian flame tree, which were among the first of their species introduced to California.
The 11-room Neff Mansion, with a red-tile, Spanish-style roof and shingle exterior, was built by architect Frederick Roehrig in 1894. The house was named after McNally's son-in-law, Edwin Neff, the first manager of the ranch, and was the birthplace of another well-known California architect, Wallace Neff, who designed grand homes in the Mediterranean style for the social elite of Southern California. Dan Hoye of the California Historical Society said Neff was chosen to remodel the interior of the famous Pickfair mansion owned by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Stars such as Jack Lemmon and Carroll O'Connor live in homes that were designed by Neff, Hoye said.
The coming together of so many areas of historical significance make the ranch "an enormously exciting site," said Weil.
"Everything associated with the park is essential to Southern California history," he said. "It goes beyond La Mirada--it has meaning to everyone in Southern California."
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