To an outsider, the Colonial House on California 1 in Oxnard may be an eyesore that the city could do well to lose. Its windows are boarded, grass pokes through cracks in the parking lot and the trademark indigo roof has faded.
But an immigrant family's plans to raze the deteriorating motel and restaurant have touched an oddly tender part in the heart of this town that is usually overlooked by fame.
The plans, which call for a spanking new Best Western hotel in place of the quirky edifice, have reminded longtime residents of the champagne parties and Hollywood stars that once filled the red, white and blue monument to the Old South.
The proposal, which came before the planning commission last week, touched old-timers in different ways. Some recall the special occasions--the weddings and parties and club meetings held at the hottest spot in town; others remember, with a touch of shame, the "living sign" that lured patrons well into the 1960s--a black man in chef's garb, stationed on a platform to grin and beckon passing motorists.
"It's a crime they're going to tear it down," said Colonial House founder Martin V. (Bud) Smith, who became a millionaire developer during his 26-year stint as a professional host. "There's a lot of love in there."
But the 2.2 acres of Oxnard Boulevard property that will be the subject of a City Council meeting at the end of August conjures another image for Paul Lu, who bought the hotel eight years ago with his wife, Shiu, and her brother Chia Wei Liu after emigrating from Taiwan.
"We really need something new on this property," Lu said one afternoon this week, surveying a U-shaped configuration of 54 motel rooms, sour and dreary from years of wear.
A torn Naugahyde chair sat beside a swimming pool where the children of an unemployed woman splashed. Discarded old clothing lay scattered in front of the restaurant that was closed 18 months earlier. It had been a long time since Lu has lit the motel's "No Vacancy" sign, he acknowledged.
But it wasn't always that way. Over the years, the Colonial House served as a retreat for the likes of Bing Crosby, whose children attended Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai, Smith said: "Sometimes he even sang."
Another frequent visitor was Clark Gable, a member of a small duck club that the developer founded nearby. Then there was the starlet who occasionally escaped from Los Angeles with her baseball-player husband.
"Joe DiMaggio used to bring up Marilyn Monroe," Smith said. "They would sit in the corner, look into each other's eyes and order martinis."
The roadhouse also served as the backdrop for more ordinary memories. As one of the few restaurants in town for many years, the Colonial House was the setting for practically every special occasion. It was where locals celebrated their wedding receptions, birthdays and anniversaries. "I had many a nice evening at the Colonial House," recalls City Council member Dorothy Maron. "In fact, I had my 25th wedding anniversary party there."
It's not that the motel can be found on any historic registry. To the Ventura County Historical Society, the Colonial House is a motel like any other, said Alberta Word, a librarian there. At 47 years-plus, it simply is not old or important enough for note.
"Most buildings have to be at least 50 years old and of extreme historic significance to be declared landmarks," Word said.
Still, the self-consciously Early American compound stands as testament to the vision of Smith, who is viewed by many Oxnard residents as a "demigod," said City Planner Matthew Winegar. Though raised by a banker and his wife in Beverly Hills, the developer has nonetheless come to symbolize the local boy made good.
It was from the one-time drive-in that Smith built an empire that includes ten hotels from Santa Maria to Palm Springs, including three in Oxnard, and a business park--as well as the only two high-rises in town.
Smith was eking out a living as a coin machine vendor when he traded a couple of juke boxes for the debt-ridden Art's Drive-in 1941. Soon afterward, the Japanese submarine attack on the Pacific coast near Goleta all but stopped traffic on the highway in front of the drive-in.
"It was so rare that when a car rode down the highway, the carhops would run out to see it," Smith said.
Then Smith enlisted in the Air Corps, leaving his mother, wife and sister to run the restaurant that he had started to build. When he returned, tides had changed. Business, buoyed by the nearby Mira Loma Air Corps Training Grounds, was booming. So Smith resumed building.
Over the years, he added one dining room after another in a twisting labyrinth around the octagonal structure that had been the drive-in. One was called the Tally-Ho Room; another, the Saratoga. In another, the tables and bars were covered in copper. In a fourth, the Lanai Room, a live olive tree spread its branches over linen-covered tables, chartreuse carpets and tufted red leather chairs.
"No haphazard nor commercial job, this," observed a travel writer in 1961, "but rather the loving accumulation of moods and feelings a man puts into his home."
What had been a 22-stool hamburger stand slowly evolved into a restaurant with seven private dining rooms and two bars that served more than 350,000 people annually, Smith said. So lucrative did the restaurant become, in fact, that on its 20th anniversary that management handed out free bottles of champagne to guests.
In 1967, Smith sold the restaurant to Sheldon McHenry, who had founded the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, and opened a second restaurant, the Lobster Trap at the Channel Islands Harbor.
"I made a lot of money out of that place," Smith said, chomping on a big, unlit cigar in his penthouse office overlooking the Oxnard Plain.
But the financial success did not come without a measure of infamy. When Maron moved to Oxnard in 1958, she remembers being shocked by the "living sign." The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People had the same reaction in the mid-1960s and pressed for an end to the practice. Smith responded by removing the barker, but the developer still maintains he was "a good trademark. Everyone remembered it."
In this and other ways, the Colonial House has become a yardstick for the march of time.
When Smith bought the place, it was on the outskirts of town on the western edge of a 160-acre farm. Back then, the city's population was less than 10,000 and a half lobster cost $1.50 at the restaurant that was billed as "one of the West's finest."
Slowly, however, the Colonial House found itself in the center of Oxnard. Then the urban decay that claimed downtown Oxnard washed on its shores. Now, on the boulevard where carhops delighted in spotting a single car, motorists have trouble making a left turn.
And the Colonial House's guests are a far cry from the elite who once frequented it. The restaurant--long fenced-off and boarded-up--is headquarters to Democrats United, a grass-roots organization that supports Democratic candidates. The motel's coffee shop is a Mexican restaurant frequented by field hands. And the motel, with its weekly room rate of $130, has become home to families in transition.
Take Raul Morales, who moved into the hotel two weeks ago with his wife, Gerry, and their three children. They had just moved from Highland Park and Morales had found work on a golf driving range in Ventura.
"We're just staying here until I find work and we find a place to live," explained Gerry Morales. "The rents are reasonable and the rooms are big."