Saving a Part of the Past : Volunteers Take Lead in Restoring 125-Year-Old Sepulveda Adobe

Motorists who drive by the tumbledown old house on the corner of Mulholland Highway and Las Virgenes Road probably give the building no more than a passing glance.

The house, empty since 1980, has been a target that vandals could not resist.

But to Juliana Gensley, the ragged structure is a treasure. Gensley, a professor emeritus of education at California State University, Long Beach and a local historian, has had to campaign long and hard, however, to bring state officials around to her way of thinking--that the house has historic significance and should be preserved.

The old adobe house, near Las Virgenes Creek, was built in 1863 by Pedro Sepulveda, a Mexican settler. Sepulveda, a member of the large Sepulveda clan and an ordinary working man, was helped by members of the Chumash Indian tribe, according to the family history.

In the 1850 census, the Chumash outnumbered white settlers in the Las Virgenes area by 10 to 1. The census counted 12 settlers, four of them adults, and 119 Indians. Gensley said archeological evidence shows that Indians and settlers depended on each other. The adobe house is an example of that relationship.

"It symbolizes the harmony between the Chumash tribe and the early settlers," Gensley said. "And it symbolizes the life of the common working man in this area."

Sepulveda and his family did not want for much. They grew their own fruit and vegetables, owned horses for transport and a few head of cattle for milk, leather and beef. Sepulveda cured his own leather and made the harnesses, shoes and saddles the family needed.

He was 26 and his wife, Soledad, was just 13 when they married in 1859. The couple had 12 children--nine of them born in the two-room adobe, which he built to replace a dwelling damaged by the 1860 flood.

Soledad died at 38 while giving birth to her 12th child. Pedro lived in the house until he sold it in 1893.

Gensley learned about the families who called the Sepulveda Adobe home from Pedro Sepulveda's grandson, George Smith, who as a youngster lived in the Las Virgenes area from 1933 until 1942. Smith, who now lives in Northern California, still owns some of the furniture that Sepulveda made by hand, and has promised to donate it to the building once it is restored.

Gensley's campaign to restore the Sepulveda Adobe began in 1980 when the state Department of Parks and Recreation bought the land that the adobe stands on as part of an extension to the 5,400-acre Malibu Creek State Park.

The house, which fell far short of modern standards for hygiene and safety, was occupied, and its tenants were evicted.

Park officials described the adobe as "just an old tumbledown" dwelling and thought it should be razed, Gensley said. That's when she and two dozen other people formed the Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Sepulveda Adobe. The first job was to clean up debris and repair damage.

"We'd go in and clean up after the vandals and sweep up all the broken glass," she said.

They trimmed the bushes to deny vandals a hiding place and painted the outside to make the house look more lived-in. And then, anxiously, they watched over it. There was little more they could do because of strict rules about work done to state-owned property.

Park workers did what they could to help maintain the building on an emergency basis, covering the badly leaking roof and boarding up the doors and windows as securely as possible.

But park supervisors and rangers are moved frequently from one region to another. As a result, Gensley said, she and her colleagues regularly found themselves teaching new park rangers about the adobe.

Although park rangers were interested and helpful, it was not until Maurice Getty was appointed district superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains in 1985 that the priority given the adobe changed. It quickly became something of a pet project for Getty, a longtime department employee with an interest in history.

"Bud Getty, more than any other person, steered me into the right places," Gensley said.

In 1986, another important supporter appeared on the scene. Michael Sampson was appointed archeologist for the department's Southern Region, which stretches from northern Los Angeles County to San Diego.

Sampson said the adobe could be restored and noted that it still had a rural setting similar to that of a century ago, "even though development is going nuts all around it."

An expert on adobe restoration hired by Sampson reported in November that the small dwelling was structurally sound and still contained a large amount of the original building material.

The Sepulveda Adobe was spared the restorations that swept similar adobes during the 1930s. Those restorations often removed or destroyed original material.

Sampson is preparing a proposal to spend up to $400,000 to restore the adobe and open it to the public.

The appropriations process will take at least three years, Sampson said. In the meantime, park workers will fence off the Sepulveda Adobe to protect it from vandals.

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