Historic Spots in California.
By Mildred Brook Hoover, Hero Eugene Rensch, Ethyl Grace Rensch, William N. Abeloe. Revised by Douglas E. Kyle. 4th edition. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 617 pages.
Reviewed by Leonard Pitt, Professor of History, California State University, Northridge. Author of We Americans: A Topical History of the United States.
Many people who care about historic sites have had the experience of making a mental note to visit a specific historic building, only to discover months or years later that it has fallen to the bulldozer and no longer exists. The hemorrhaging of historic sites continues despite the efforts of a vigorous historic preservation movement.
Since 1932, anyone trying to locate a historic site, whether to join an activist preservation campaign, or simply to enjoy a Sunday outing, has been able to refer to the very useful reference book: Historic Spots in California. Happily this book by Hero Rensch and Ethyl Rensch has been recently reissued by Stanford University Press, in the fourth edition. Revised, updated, and printed in a larger, more accessible format than before, it remains the standard work in its field.
The essential features of Historic Spots remain the same as sixty years ago — although some improvements have been made. It starts with a brief overview chapter on California history. Then it presents narrative information for each county, moving alphabetically from Alameda to Yuba. The old text has been cut, and references to places no longer extant have been eliminated. This has been done selectively without any loss of substance. In the old version there were thirty-six subheads on San Diego. With welcome pruning and compression they were reduced to twenty- six — without loss of meaning or essential detail. Thus, the references to Torrey Pines and Painted Rock in San Diego County have been reduced, but the ones relating to Old Town and Asistencia de San Antonio de Pala have been revised and rewritten. Rancho Santa Margarita y Los Flores (Camp Pendleton) is shorter and more up-to-date. The photos are also upgraded, so that, for example, the new Star of India is now more clearly depicted.
An excellent new feature is the bibliography on historic preservation. It reinforces the reader’s confidence that the work is founded on solid research. Another improvement is that the highway numbering system has been modernized to reflect recent changes. And the index with its thousands of entries has been corrected and made even more complete than before.
A few quibbles are in order. Most chapters begin with a cursory reference to a county archives where research might be conducted into historic spots. But since county archives are at best a weak and disorganized source, and they have undergone many changes in recent years, the allusions to them are no longer particularly useful. They could be covered in a short bibliographic essay or list at the back of the book. A bigger gaff is the elimination of all map from the book. Obviously this is an economy measure, but since the book is intended for tourists and travellers who may not be familiar with geographic detail, one map per county would be essential. One other improvement might be considered for next time. There should be an essay citing the sites that have disappeared over time, explaining what the historic preservation movement has achieved, and advising which historic spots in California will need to be preserved in the next sixty years.