Historian Seeks to Preserve Bygone Era in Rustic Bardsdale

Times Staff Writer

Just 15 miles from the condominiums and suburban shopping malls of East Ventura lies Bardsdale, a sleepy enclave of 500 souls where white clapboard houses and fragrant orange groves dominate the landscape.

It's so untrammeled that two-story water towers and redwood barns still stand on 10-acre plots subdivided a century ago. And it is so evocative of a bygone era that Ventura County is looking at declaring most of the picturesque Santa Clara Valley community as its first historic district.

"It's one of the most significant in the county. There's very few other areas that can compare," says architectural historian Judy Triem, who recently completed a study of historic structures in the Santa Clara Valley for Ventura County's General Services Agency.

Broader Law Sought

The county already has a law under which individual buildings can be declared cultural landmarks--which makes it difficult, but not impossible, to tear them down. But preservationists like Triem would prefer to see a broader ordinance that would save entire districts of historic importance.

The concept isn't unique: A number of cities and counties nationwide have already enacted such ordinances. Los Angeles city officials approved one in the late 1970s, although only a handful of historic districts have been declared so far. And Triem has requested a copy of a law passed by rural Yolo County in northern California that might prove useful as a model.

Town as Test Case

She is assembling a committee of county planners, members of the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board and interested area residents to draw up a Ventura County version that uses Bardsdale as a test case. Any such ordinance would have to go through public hearings and be approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, Triem said.

The community is bounded by Petit Road on the west, Chambersburg Road on the east, the Santa Clara River on the north and the hills beyond South Mountain Road on the south.

About 75 houses are included in the proposed district, as well as the Bardsdale Cemetery, the Gothic-style Bardsdale Methodist Episcopal Church, the stone drainage ditches built by WPA workers in the 1930s and the Bardsdale Bridge that spans the Santa Clara River.

'Capture the Style'

Historic preservationists say it's important to include such fixtures of community life, and even to incorporate the century-old deodars, Norfolk Island pines and cedars that line the two-lane roads.

"We're trying to capture the style and evoke the flavor of life in those days," Triem says.

Those days began in 1865, when Thomas R. Bard, a Pennsylvania native, arrived in Ventura County to safeguard the oil and land interests of his employer, a vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Bard eventually amassed vast landholdings in west Ventura County--including parts of Rancho Sespe in the Santa Clara Valley--before turning his attention to politics and becoming a U.S. senator.

In the 1880s, Bard sold part of his Santa Clara Valley holdings to Roys G. Surdam, a real estate developer. Surdam, who had already laid out the town of Ojai (then called Norfolk), promptly laid out a new town and named it after his friend Bard.

Several families had already settled in the area by this time to farm grain on ranches nestled near the foothills and the Santa Clara River. As the population grew, California bungalows with their exposed rafters and deep porches sprouted alongside Victorian-embellished residences featuring whimsical fish-scale shingle faces and classical columns.

Many of the homes were built with a purple-tinged rock called "Sespe stone" that was quarried from nearby Sespe Creek and hauled into Bardsdale via mule. Others favored beveled, leaded-glass windows and tapering columns made of sandstone gathered from the Santa Clara riverbed and dug from local fields.

Most of the homes were built between 1910 and 1930, although the earliest house, a white-framed California Bungalow with Victorian touches that lies at the end of a dusty road, dates from 1887.

In time, the grain slowly gave way to walnuts, apricots, lemons and, finally, oranges as farmers experimented and tastes changed, Triem said. But many of the original families remain today, farming land that was settled by their great-great-grandparents.

Although the community isn't as close-knit as it once was, locals say they still feel a strong sense of pride in their community and look upon Bardsdale as preserving a unique, old-fashioned flavor.

"Even though we have Fillmore schools and a Fillmore mailing address, most people say they live in Bardsdale. They still hold to that identity," says resident Dorothy Haase, who helped evaluate sites for the study.

Haase, whose 1928 English Tudor-style home is included in the proposed historic district, says she thinks the idea will be popular with local residents.

"The property owners I've contacted are very conservative and want to preserve the area," says Haase, a member of the Bardsdale Homeowners Assn.

But Triem anticipates that some residents will object to the proposal. Although the law has yet to be written, such ordinances typically prohibit the razing of buildings within the historic district and require approval of a community board for major renovations and additions.

For instance, a homeowner in the affected area wouldn't be allowed to stucco his house or tear down his porch. But depending on how the ordinance is drafted, that homeowner might be allowed to paint it a different color or remodel the kitchen without prior approval.

Triem also has her eye on several other clusters of historic homes that might be eligible for the historic-district designation. She said they include parts of Piru and the Kenney Grove Park area near Rancho Sespe.

But her immediate task is to get the ordinance written--which she anticipates won't be ready for review and public hearings until early next year.

"We want to have a lot of input from the community and include everybody from the beginning. And that's going to take some time," Triem says.

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