Note: This article, previously published in The Beat’s April 2019 print edition, has been slightly modified to reflect new updates.
If you’ve ever walked into the Great Mall’s food court entrance, you’ve probably noticed an exhibit space, approximately 900 square feet in size, to your left. Filled with countless items pertaining to Milpitas history, the exhibit has been maintained and organized by the Milpitas Historical Society for over a decade.
However, in March, Historical Society President Bill Hare received a letter from the Great Mall, basically stating that the group had several weeks to pack up all their items from the exhibit and find a new home for them.
“The timing of this really took us by surprise,” said Hare, who has been part of the Society for 20 years. “We never even thought that we would ever be vacated from there. We thought that this place was mandated to stay there forever…”
Back in ‘92, during the Great Mall’s initial planning phase, a historical mitigation was signed to designate part of the mall space for historical items. As Ford Motor Company had initially occupied the spot from 1955 to 1983, it was decided that some Ford history would be preserved there, along with a sprinkling of elements involving Milpitas history.
Members of the Historical Society were brought into the loop to offer consultation during this period. They even donated some items to be displayed in the space.
However, about 15 years later, the Society noticed items in the display getting dusty and starting to fall apart. Nobody in the mall had been maintaining them. So the Society volunteered to help the mall to organize and take care of the display. The Great Mall agreed, and even gave them the green light to expand upon the space’s content. So the Historical Society began maintaining the space, and while doing so, they spruced it up, adding more interesting items to it as they went.
However, in a letter dated March 7, 2019, Director of Operations Rosemarie Minasi wrote:
“This letter is to inform you that the Great Mall Ford Manufacturing Plant Museum display will be moved from its current location, effective May 1, 2019, as the mall will be taking back the space for another use.”
She went on to write: “During the course of this museum display the Great Mall has shared use of the space with the Historical Society to display various items attributed to the history of the City of Milpitas. As we will be relocating the display to an alternate location and will be utilizing a different type of display unit, we will not be able to accommodate any items from the Historical Society or that are representative of the history of the City of Milpitas.”
The letter went on to state that all Historical Society items must be removed by April 19, 2019.
Upon receiving this letter, Society members called for a meeting with the Great Mall in an effort to understand what had happened, and whether anything could be done.
However, at the meeting, Hare was made aware that the City had signed off and authorized the Great Mall to move forward: “At first we didn’t think the City was onboard with it, but we had a meeting with the mall to find out what was going on,” said Hare. “And they said the City had signed off on it. So we were a little surprised.”
Joseph Ehardt, who has served on the Historical Society Board as treasurer for the last 6 years, wished that the Society had been invited to be a part of the conversation before the paperwork had been signed.
“We’re disappointed. Over the last year and a half, we had been planning a full redesign of the exhibit space, and were about to take things up to the level of museum-quality presentation by adding video monitors,” said Ehardt, just a few days after receiving the news about having to move. However, he also noted that the mall was complying with the historical mitigation language, by still holding onto and displaying the Ford items.
Realizing there was nothing that could be done to change things, members of the Historical Society have been trying to be positive in the face of such a big transition.
“We’re grateful for the 10 years we’ve had there, and hold no ill will against the mall,” Hare said. “It’s their space. They have to do their business.” He also went on to say that the City of Milpitas has taken pity on their current situation…
“The people we’re dealing with at the City have been very kind and apologetic about this…and I think everything has been done legally. The mall had no obligation to us,” mentioned Hare. “We were basically in there doing show and tell. But we never had a contract with them, or anything that said we had any right to be in there. That’s kind of how things go. It’s a corporate decision. The mechanics of money take over.”
Hare is also the secretary on the Board of the Milpitas Museum, which owns the land next to the library. They’re currently in fundraising mode, and hope to eventually build a Milpitas Museum that will serve as the prime spot for all their historical items. But that’s still many years away.
Right now, the Historical Society is thinking of ways to showcase Milpitas history in spaces that the city’s residents can enjoy. They’re thinking of finding different venues around the city that will allow them to display their items, and also rotate them from time to time.
“This opens up a whole new world of possibilities. If we want to stay positive about it,” said Hare. “We’ll find new places to display our items.”
Currently, the Historical Society has items on display at the Milpitas Public Library, like the Leapin’ Lana fire truck in the parking garage, which was the City’s first ever fire truck.
Meanwhile, they’ve got a glass bottle display in City Hall (more of a curiosity than city history).
Also, historic photos are on the walls of places like Erik’s Deli Cafe, the Starbucks on Park Victoria, and Mil’s Diner.
Last month, Ehardt was instrumental in organizing and working to relocate all of the exhibit’s contents. The City of Milpitas is currently providing the Historical Society with storage space; Ehardt is keeping the exact location of that space under wraps.
“The Great Mall has been a very generous partner in providing display space for Milpitas artifacts to the Historical Society for many years. Those items specifically related to the history of the Great Mall site as the former Ford Assembly Plant will remain on-site and relocated to new display cases within the mall for greater visibility,” said City Manager Julie Edmonds-Mares. “Other items related to the general history of Milpitas will be displayed at City Hall, the Milpitas Community Center, and the Sal Cracolice Recreation Facility in Bob McGuire Park on Garden Street, as well as other locations to be determined. The City looks forward to continuing to collaborate with the Great Mall and the Historical Society, as well as leveraging City assets, to ensure that residents and visitors have access to learning more about the history of this great city.”
Danny Cosper, a Society member for the last two decades and an “indispensable helper”, as Ehardt put it, provided a great deal of support with moving items.
The Historical Society was able to completely clear out all items by April 19.
Update: The space will be used to accommodate offices for the new Legoland Discovery Center opening up in 2020.
Photos by: Joseph Ehardt