The Japanese-American Harada family fought hard to keep their home.
First, white neighbors pressured them to move from the downtown Riverside house. Then, a 1915 lawsuit challenged their ownership of the property.
Now it may be Riverside’s turn to fight for the historic Harada House.
The national historic landmark has plywood covering the walls to keep plaster from falling off. Parts of the house appear to be sinking. And officials worry it might not withstand an earthquake. The need to restore it is so dire that failure to do so is holding up re-accreditation of the city museum, which manages the house.
The boxy, tan two-story home on Lemon Street became the subject of a civil rights test case that helped establish Asian immigrants’ right to own land. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
The city’s long-term goal is to open the more than 130-year-old house as a historic and educational site. But today it’s “at risk of collapse,” with foundation problems, and water and termite damage, city records state.
A few people have even suggested demolishing the house if the cost of restoring it is too high, said Riverside Metropolitan Museum board chairman Elio Palacios, Jr., who rejects that idea.
“It’s too easy for us to say it’s going to cost too much, it’s going to be too difficult, there’s too many problems, we should just let this go away,” Palacios said.
“I think that would be a disgrace for the city’s history, because 100 years ago the city stood behind the Haradas.”
Though the family’s old home is in poor repair, the Haradas occupy an important place in the history of Riverside and civil rights.
Husband and wife Jukichi and Ken Harada and their young son, Masa Atsu, left Japan in the early 1900s to fulfill their dreams in the United States. They settled in Riverside, where they ran a restaurant and boarding house.
As the family grew, and they lost a child to diphtheria in the close quarters of the boardinghouse, the parents began looking for another place to live. Because California’s 1913 Alien Land Law barred non-citizen immigrants from owning property, Jukichi bought the Lemon Street house in the names of his American-born children.
After some neighbors complained and urged the Haradas to move, the state attorney general filed a lawsuit alleging the family had violated the state law. In 1918, the Haradas won the case. Decades later, the law was declared unconstitutional.
The home stayed in Harada hands even after the family was sent to wartime internment camps — where Jukichi and Ken died. A friend looked after the property until Sumi Harada, one of their adult daughters, returned after the war.
Harold, Jukichi and Ken’s youngest son, inherited the house when Sumi died in 2000. He began the process of donating it and its contents to the city so it could be preserved as a historic site. Sumi had saved furniture, family heirlooms and more.
Who’s to blame?
At this point, some accounts disagree about how the home has been handled.
Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen, the interim museum director, said the house was “mismanaged – it’s a series of fits and starts with no completions.”
Nguyen noted that the city is poised to return $8,000 in grant funds because it failed to finish a neighborhood vision plan for the Harada House.
In a recent email chain of arguments and rebuttals between him and retired museum director Vince Moses, Nguyen wrote that the City Council accepted donation of the Harada House without knowing the extent of its structural problems, how much restoration and maintenance would cost or how they would be paid for.
Moses, who headed the museum when the house was donated, called the charge of mismanagement “utterly bogus.” Soon after accepting the donation, the city received grants to plan its restoration and to stabilize it following El Niño storms, Moses said.
But, when a final report on the house’s condition came in 2007, Moses had recently retired, he said, and city management at the time didn’t consider the house a priority. That was before the recession hit and the museum’s budget and staff were slashed, he said.
Palacios, the museum board chairman, also partly blames failure to restore the house on a shrinking museum budget.
“Once you get into a cycle where you’re trying to catch up, it’s hard,” he said.
To Riverside City Councilman Mike Gardner, whose ward includes the house, it’s unproductive to argue over who deserves blame for the home’s deterioration.
“The real question is, where do we go from here,” he said.
Around 2013, ballpark estimates concluded it could cost $10 million or more to restore the Harada House and turn it into a museum-quality site for the public to enjoy. Nguyen said there’s no recent, comprehensive evaluation to back that up, but a consultant is working on a full study.
Officials also need to decide how the site would be used. In 2014, the city bought the Robinson house next door to create an interpretive center, but concerns remain about public parking and the impact of a museum-type facility on the residential neighborhood that surrounds it.
Finally, there’s a question of money.
Palacios hopes to see a nonprofit foundation created to support the Harada House, but dollars would be needed for running the historic site as well as for one-time restoration costs.
As city and museum officials hash out those issues, many are pulling for the Harada House. Moses is among them.
With fear and suspicion toward immigrants flaring up again, “This is so apropos of what it means to be an American under the 14th Amendment of the United States,” he said.
The Riverside African-American Historical Society has offered its help, Palacios said. The local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens league and two Harada descendants have spoken or written letters supporting restoration of the house.
“We would like to see it preserved” to remind people of an early chapter in the long-running fight for civil rights in America, said Naomi Harada, whose father, Harold, donated the home as a public resource.
The collection of family heirlooms now in the museum’s care includes kimonos decorated with family crests, embroidered sashes, personal letters, pots and pans, furniture, and Jukichi’s old bowler hat, Naomi Harada said.
Riverside hasn’t always been diligent about saving old buildings.
Residents still mourn the 1903 Carnegie Library, which was replaced by a boxy 1960s structure some hate. And, the near-demolition of the 1925 Press Bindery building by the Fox theater in 2011 – all but one wall of the building was knocked down – was attributed to miscommunication by city officials.
However, Councilman Gardner said, “I think in the overall picture Riverside does a pretty good job of managing and preserving historic resources.”
Like the city, the U.S. has mostly ended up on the right side of history, Palacios said. He likened the Harada House to the Statue of Liberty as a monument to the country’s success at welcoming immigrants.
“We’re not perfect, but overall America has done the right thing, and I think this house represents that,” he said.