For the past 30 years, Fullerton Heritage, a non-profit benefit corporation of over 150 members, has dedicated itself to preserving Fullerton’s past for future generations. The all-volunteer organization has been very active in the restoration, preservation, and promotion of Fullerton’s collection of cultural and architectural resources.
“Our name is Fullerton Heritage because we’re not a historical society,” President Ernie Kelsey said. “We’re more of a preservation group, so that’s why we wanted our name to signify not only the City, but what we’re doing, which is preserving our heritage. We had our first organizational meeting in May of 1991, then we were officially incorporated as a non-profit on February 22 of 1992. So, this February, we are celebrating our 30th anniversary.”
On an overcast, rainy morning in early January, I met with Kelsey and Vice President Ann Gread near the Fullerton Museum Center to talk about how Fullerton Heritage began, and what their organization has accomplished in its 30-year history. The group started when the medical office of Dr. G. Wendell Olson was about to be torn down. “We know that building today as Rutabegorz, but back in the day, the phone company Pacific Bell, was going to take over that whole block,” Kelsey said. “So, a group of citizens got together in 1991 and started to form what is now Fullerton Heritage. That group included David Zenger, Scott Belair, Lee Fuller, Tony Bushala, Melinda Guinaldo, Roxanne Merlino, and Susanne Warren. It got its roots in something that was about to be torn down, and they fought to save it.”
The group started out small but grew over time. Vice President Ann Gread, who has been on the Board since 1992, thinks that at Fullerton Heritage’s highest membership they were at around 200 people. She said membership really peaked when they were involved with the Save the Fox effort. “That happened when we got out and started collecting signatures. Fullerton Heritage actually started that request to make the City aware that the community did not want to lose that precious building,” she said. “One of our challenges as an organization is that much of our membership is older, and so we’re really making an effort to bring in the next generation.”
Fullerton Heritage has a great working relationship with the City and with community leaders, who understand that the organization’s goal is not to mandate preservation, but instead to foster preservation. For example, the group has worked with the City to restore the Amerige Brothers building, located across from City Hall. Kelsey also remembers when they worked with the City to preserve the Loading Dock at the Train Depot.
“As a preservation group, we realize that the City needs to grow, and that’s part of it, he said. “But we want it to grow and not lose the charm that is Fullerton. We have something that no other City really has. Our history and our culture that has been achieved in the City is so important to preserve, and that’s what gets me excited about it.”
Ernie Kelsey became involved with Fullerton Heritage when he led the effort to get his Brookdale neighborhood designated as a preservation zone. He didn’t know what to do, so he reached out to Fullerton Heritage. They worked with him and helped him through the process, which took two years.
The non-profit organization keeps an eye out for what’s going on with the historic buildings around town. For example, when the Fullerton Auditorium at the high school was starting to look at improvements, Fullerton Heritage became heavily involved in that process because of the disconnect between the school district’s understanding of how to keep a building up to code while maintaining the historic nature of a building that is on the National Register.
“What they were really thinking of doing could’ve caused it to lose its National Register status,” Gread said. “We go out and work with people, try to educate people, and if necessary, we will move forward and submit the National Register application in order to save properties.”
For the National Register nominations, often a property owner comes forward and asks Fullerton Heritage to start the nomination process. On occasion, the organization will contact a property owner and ask if they want their property listed. Anyone can nominate a property to the National Register. There is both a state and federal tax break for businesses on the Registry. The Board of Directors of Fullerton Heritage must agree that all local, state, and federal landmarks are worthy of listing before starting the nomination process.
Kelsey explained that National Register applications take about a year to be determined, so it’s like writing a grant. Fullerton Heritage has a team on their board to do the research and take photographs. An extensive form must be filled out, accompanied by photos and maps. Research can often take months to complete. The nomination is then submitted to the Registration Unit of the California Office of Historic Preservation, and staff there may ask for additional pictures or information. The proposal then goes before the California State Historical Resources Commission, which meets only four times a year, and there is a required 30-day period of public review. If the nomination is approved by the Commission, it is then forwarded to the National Park Service, which has 45 days to either approve or reject it. Successful nominations are listed in a Weekly List that is updated online. Fullerton Heritage funds the placing of the National Register plaques.
According to Kelsey, it takes the effort of community members to accomplish the process because this really isn’t something city staff has time for. “We’re an extension of city staff; that’s how we like to view it,” he said. “We have three retired City employees on our Board, so they know how the City works, and that gives us a lot of advantage when we try to get things done. So, we really enjoy getting places on the National Register.”
Currently, Fullerton Heritage has nominated the Pastoral California mural at the high school for inclusion on the Register. It went before the State Commission on January 21. “That’s exciting because the building itself is on the National Register, and then a component, which is just the mural, can be on the National Register as a separate item, Kelsey said. “It tells you how important it is, and now it will never get painted over again. That’s why it wasn’t part of the original application because it was painted over when the National Register was initially submitted. No one knew it was there, and now we’ve gone back and put in the proper protections to make sure it is preserved.” The City of Fullerton has 20 National Registry buildings due to the efforts of Fullerton Heritage.
Although people generally believe that only buildings are nominated, Fullerton Local Landmarks have included a park, signage, and a clock. Buildings or structures that have been moved around are often not considered, which eliminated the Amerige Bros. Real Estate Office on Commonwealth. For that building, Fullerton Heritage had the property designated a California Point of Historical Interest, the only one in the City. When a property is placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is also listed on the California State Historical Register.
Fullerton Heritage has accomplished a lot over its thirty-year history. When the group first started, historic importance was not considered in the City’s General Plan, so they worked with the City to get it to the point where there was not only a historic component, but also an inventory of City resources. Kelsey said, “In 2001, our group went through and defined significant properties, potential significant properties, preservation zones, and potential preservation zones. So, the City, as an organization, can now see all these resources. It’s still in place today, although things have changed on how the plan works with the historic component, and redevelopment gone.”
One of Fullerton Heritage’s recent achievements is that the City adopted the Mills Act in April, 2021, providing an opportunity for homeowners to divert some of their property taxes to be able to maintain, rehabilitate, and preserve their homes. “We’re really thrilled with that partnership with the City, as well,” Gread said. “We worked jointly with them to develop the guidelines, and to get it implemented. We’ve also worked with them to find homeowners to go through the entire process.”
The non-profit had its first walking tour on June 11, 1995, and described it as a “walking tour of Fullerton” at the time. Today, there are two walking tours: one of the downtown, which takes about two hours, and another through Hillcrest Park. On their website, there are also three main tours available for driving or walking. Kelsey said, “Fullerton Heritage has three pillars it supports—Advocate, Communicate, and Educate. We do all this with the intention of engaging our members more and increasing our membership. Tours help us educate and communicate.”
Fullerton Heritage has put plaques on over 100 local landmark buildings. In recent years, they have worked to preserve the Fox Theatre, the Amerige Brothers’ building, the Loading Dock at the train depot, the Hunt Complex, and the Beckman Coulter Instruments building, among countless others. The non-profit’s mission has always been to foster an appreciation of the City’s architectural and cultural resources, so that everyone can enjoy them in the future.
On its website, Fullerton Heritage has a list (plus historical information) of each National Register property and Local Landmark. The completed nominations can be accessed online through the Fullerton Public Library website. All the newspaper articles, photographs, maps, and other materials gathered during the research process are passed along to the Local History Room at the Fullerton Public Library for safekeeping.
To find out more information about Fullerton Heritage and their efforts around town, you can visit their website at www.fullertonheritage.org.
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