Big News: Owen Brown Gravesite Land Acquisition

Watch the video and learn the back story.

Back in the late 1980s, Altadena Heritage made the leap from committee of the Town Council to independent 501(c)(3). The mission: to protect and preserve Altadena’s architectural, historical, cultural, and natural heritage.

Among our first projects was an attempt to gain California Landmark status for Owen Brown’s hillside gravesite (he died here in 1889). Owen was among the last survivors of the failed 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, led by his father John Brown.

Video Cover Photo: Altadena residents celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Owen Brown Gravesite in 2006.

The armed band of abolitionists had hoped to start a rebellion to end slavery in the United States; their raid has been characterized as the first battle of the Civil War, or at least the point after which war became inevitable. Owen followed his brother Jason and sister Ruth here after 20 years as a fugitive — the family was attracted by our area’s abolitionist, Temperance-minded culture of Union supporters. Such significant history in our own backyard has cried out for preservation for more than 100 years.

Our efforts back then did not bear fruit, and in interim years other groups also tried and failed to gain protection for the site above Altadena Meadows. The main reason none were successful is that though contiguous to the National Forest, the site is on a private inholding zoned for development. It is all but impossible to gain an historic preservation easement on private property unless the owner, typically a land conservancy, will agree to it.

Altadena Heritage is happy to announce that 30 years after our first attempt, the gravesite and six adjoining foothill acres (that overlook La Vina’s 271-home gated development) are close to being permanently protected. We have played a role in this. Altadena Town Council’s Land Use Committee formed a special working group to devise a final condition to be attached to any approval to build 18 one-story homes on an 8-acre site within La Vina now zoned for a school. Because this housing development, built in the 1990s, was controversial and many Altadenans fought it for years, two community members with special knowledge were invited to join this group — one a representative of Altadena Heritage (Michele Zack, local historian) and the other Marietta Kruells, a trail expert directly familiar with La Vina’s legal battles.

After a year exploring various options, the working group presented its best idea to Land Use and the Town Council in three presentations over the spring of 2018: the developer would purchase the gravesite’s 6-acre parcel, deed it to a land conservancy that will guarantee public access and protection from development (which one, still to be decided), and in additon provide $300,000 for trail improvements and youth programs — in exchange for the Town Council’s approval of the 8-acre project. The condition was designed to create parity for the loss of open space and a school that plans in the 1990s included. The working group met with Meadows residents, and public comment was heard on all three occasions. The Town Council recommended approved of this deal at its May meeting.

The six acres were purchased at auction in June, will be transferred to a land conservancy, and $300,000 deposited in a community benefit fund to support Owen Brown’s gravesite, when (and if) Cantwell-Anderson receives approval from the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors for its project. This is expected to occur by the end of 2018. Without developer Tim Cantwell’s cooperation and hard work, such an outcome could not have been achieved. We hope preserving Owen Brown’s gravesite will help realize the larger goal of healing the divisions wrought by La Vina in Altadena, and integrating its residents into our community.

A short informational video was prepared by filmmaker Pablo Miralles, whose parents Maria and Adolfo led the fight against the original development, and Michele Zack, our representative on the working group.