Saturday, June 2, 2012

Diann Marsh, Anaheim's History Hero

Diann Marsh with some of her drawings published in book form by the AHS.

The Anaheim Historical Society was founded in 1976 by two neighbors, Diann Marsh and Andrew Deneau, who faced incredible odds in their efforts to save Anaheim's Downtown from being torn down.   Diann is not only a passionate advocate for preservation, but also an author and accomplished illustrator.  She made countless architectural sketches and ink drawings of old homes, city storefronts, and artifacts such as staircases, fireplaces, and even the unique doorknobs that she observed in and around Anaheim's historic neighborhoods.  Her sketches document many details of our original downtown, drawn even as the bulldozers were destroying it.

Phyllis Mueller, AHS Historian, interviewed Diann recently about her memories of Anaheim, and history preserved and lost.

The beautiful Back's House built in 1904, as drawn by Diann Marsh - and seen in the photograph above.

During what years did you live in Anaheim?

We bought our house at 321 N. Philadelphia in 1975 and sold it to Keith and Judy Olesen in 1986. It is on the National Register, along with five other houses as a neighborhood (Melrose-Backs).

Why did you move to Anaheim? 

We had wanted an old house for many years, but when we were married (1953) an old house required 25% down. The system of "red-lining," which means the banks would not lend in certain areas with old houses, was in effect. We bought a house in North Santa Ana. It was large and contemporary, and the nicest house we ever lived in, but we were not happy there. We sold it in one day and set out to look for an old house. The one we found was on North Philadelphia Street in Anaheim. We had no idea what to do with an old house, but we learned fast!

A page from one of Diann's books.

Why did you want to have a historical society in Anaheim?

When we moved to Orange County, I joined the Orange County Historical Society. I had loved history and architecture for many years and most of my paintings were of old houses. It was a time in my life when I was ready for something new. Our five children still at home had developed interests of their own.

What did you notice about downtown Anaheim?

When we moved to Anaheim only one downtown building was empty. Most of the others had viable occupants. You could go downtown and buy quality clothing (SQR Store), nice jeans, sporting goods, furniture, plumbing supplies and other items. There were a few antique stores. A member of our first AHS Board lived in a cute apartment above the Hub Furniture Store. I noticed that there were angels on the capitals on the first floor and fell in love with Gladding-McBean tile work. That was the inspiration for the coloring book (the first AHS publication, printed in 1977.)

The very first AHS publication - a coloring book - written and illustrated by Diann  Marsh in 1977.

Who wanted to demolish downtown?

The people who owned buildings there planned on getting rich off of redevelopment. Sadly, they didn't get rich off of redevelopment, and about 45% sued the redevelopment agency. A lot of people cared. Especially anxious were the elderly people who lived in their paid-for 1920's area houses. We thought we could save them, but were unable to. We got to know them when we would walk around the neighborhood, and unintentionally gave them false hope.

What did you do to save historic buildings? 

Andy Deneau and I went to the second State Historic Preservation Conference in Pasadena in1977, where the National Register system was explained to us. When Andy and I met with Norman Priest of the Anaheim Redevelopment Agency, he said that if the buildings were on the National Register they would be considered historic and saved. We looked at each other and thought "we can do that."

"Anaheim's Architectural Treasury" by Diann Marsh, 1980.
What happened to your National Register nomination of 23 historic buildings in the downtown area? The State Historic Preservation Office and people from other cities were on our side. The State Commission passed the application and sent it on to the Federal government. Officials from Anaheim went to Washington and saw to it that the application was denied. They said we had not included archeological information. As far as I know, in all the cities with historic districts approved since then, archeological documentation was never required. (Those 23 buildings, as a result, were not listed on the National Register.)
What buildings were saved, and how many were demolished in downtown? I later wrote the nominations that got the Carnegie Library and the Kraemer Building placed on the Register. (The vast majority of other historic structures were subsequently demolished, leaving acres of vacant land.)

"While the bulldozer worked," Diann sketched the ceiling of the doomed Valencia Hotel.

What do you think of downtown now? 

Other cities have used tax credits and facade easement incentives to rehabilitate their historic buildings. It's too late to go back. Most of Anaheim's old neighborhoods are still there, though, and that is significant. Just think how great it would have been to have those historic buildings restored and busy and along with the surrounding historic neighborhoods, creating a sense of Anaheim history.  


We are delighted to welcome Diann Marsh as our guest speaker at the AHS Annual Banquet on June 14, 2012.  Diann is also this year's recipient of the Margaret Atkins Award for preservation, which will be presented to her at the banquet.

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