By Olivia Frenkel
On Wednesday, January 22, 2020, the State of California awarded El Cerrito’s very own Hana Gardens senior residence the 1919 Honor for their efforts in preserving the Contra Costa Florist building. This award is given to just five sites state-wide and is “the only official preservation award presented by the state” said Julianne Polanco, State Historic Preservation Officer.
The ceremony took place from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. the historic Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building in Sacramento. Paul Fadelli, El Cerrito’s mayor pro tem was in attendance as well as historical society members and volunteers who aided with the restoration and development of this historical site.
Dianne Brenner, who prepared the award’s nomination, explained the rich history that the building had endured. The Contra Costa Florist first emerged as “an even earlier era of El Cerrito history – the quarrying industry.” Originally built in the 1920s, it became the sales office of the Valley of the Moon quarry in Sonoma due to its close proximity to Bay Area markets’ as well as two near-by quarries.
As the quarry industry weakened, the building was bought by Hikojiro and Tomi Mabuchi in the mid-1930s and was turned into the Contra Costa Florist shop. A 2011 article, written by community member, Dave Weinstein, commented on the nursery’s importance within El Cerrito. He explained that the “quaint, stone-faced building was a Mecca for people planning celebrations or seeking to please their paramours.” The shop, known for their high-quality, provided their services to all of the high schools, parties, and clubs throughout the community. Weinstein briefly outlined the Mabuchi family’s humble beginnings. He wrote that Mr. Hikojiro Mabuchi was “known for his carpentry skills” and helped build nurseries for fellow Japanese floriculturists while Mrs. Tomi Mabuchi raised their three American-born daughters. The Mabuchi’s made sure to purchase their flowers from these new family-owned, Japanese-American greenhouses which strengthened the ever-growing Japanese-American floral businesses and community.
Despite their successes, the bombing of Pearl Harbor damaged the reputation of their entire industry. One of the Mabuchi daughters, Akiko, recalled the new hostility they felt from former customers, saying that the people “started slowly not coming. ... We’d go out and wait on them and they’d call us Japs and leave.” In 1942, the Mabuchi family as well as twenty families in the Richmond and El Cerrito floral business were forced from their homes and business to join the 120,000 other Japanese-Americans in the ten internment camps across California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. The preservation of these businesses was uncommon, as race-relations in World War II era America were tenuous and often hostile. Japantowns and Japanese-American communities were swallowed and taken by neighboring communities in the years of their absence, and for most families, 1945 marked a painful new start.
However, Dianne Brenner explained that during the Mabuchi’s internment in the Topaz camp, “their property was preserved for them by the Fred Conwill family, owners of Tradeway Furniture, a neighboring business. Thanks to the Conwill’s efforts, the Mabuchis were able to resume their business at the original location upon their release from the internment camp in 1945.”
In 2008, the city bought both the Conwill’s shop and the Mabuchi’s nursery with plans to demolish the buildings to make room for a senior apartment complex. However, Tom Panas, a member of the Historic Society, catalyzed the preservation of this building, saying that the building is “something in which the citizens of El Cerrito should take pride.” He worked closely with the Japanese American Citizens League and other members of the Japanese-American Community along with Eden Housing, developer of Hana Gardens senior residence to maintain the shop and its history. The name “Hana” translates to the word “flower” and was used as a tribute to the Contra Costa Florist’s history. The shop’s “storybook-like” architecture not only adds character to El Cerrito’s commercial strip, but it also reminds the community of El Cerrito’s cultural roots of resilience and humility.