Early Oxnard : Town Better Known for Development Decides to Transplant a Little History Into Its Midst

Times Staff Writer

In its typical boom town fashion, Oxnard is building a past.

The city, better known for its penchant for development than its preservationist passion, suddenly has become nostalgic.

So, over the next 13 months, Oxnard's Redevelopment Agency will cover one downtown block with 11 transplanted turn-of-the-century homes, one 80-year-old church, a vintage water tower and a winery once operated by the Catholic Church. The resulting crazy quilt of early Oxnard that is to be called Heritage Square will be a working landmark, with the historic structures earning their keep by serving as offices, stores and restaurants.

"It's almost like a kit of parts--you have to piece them together like a puzzle," said Nick Deitch, an architect on the project that this month took its first tangible step toward completion. "It will be an almost instant effect."

First Piece

The first piece was put in place during the wee hours of July 12, when the 73-year-old Gordon House was carted in two pieces to the vacant block bounded by 7th and 8th, and A and B streets.

Two other houses slated for Heritage Square--a 1905 Craftsman and an 1896 Victorian--had been moved earlier to nearby city property when they were threatened with destruction, but the Gordon House was the first to occupy the project site.

After a hearing later this month to condemn the only portion of the block that is not controlled by the city, the project is expected to begin in earnest.

At an estimated cost of $4.9 million, Heritage Square will be Oxnard's second largest downtown redevelopment project, after the $7-million Transportation Center completed in November, 1986.

The city owns five of the houses that make up the project, as well as the old winery and First Church of Christ, Scientist. The remaining six houses and the water tower are privately owned. The Redevelopment Agency hopes to recoup its investment by selling the city-owned structures as well as the land beneath the project.

Participants hope the project will help turn the tide on the blight that swept through Oxnard after redevelopment efforts two decades ago razed the city's turn-of-the-century core.

"This is a way for the city to make amends for demolishing most of the downtown area in the 1950s and 1960s," said Deitch, a partner with Main Street Architects in Ventura.

Dennis Matthews, the redevelopment administrator overseeing Heritage Square, also sees an opportunity for Oxnard to get into the market for quaintness now cornered by neighboring Ventura and by Santa Barbara just down the road.

Sense of History

"This looks to Oxnard's history or roots," he said. "There's never been much emphasis on that. It's all been, 'Tear down an old building or go out to the ag lands and tear them up.' "

City officials say that the project is unique in the state because it marries commerce and preservation from the outset.

Economic considerations didn't originally occur to planners behind such projects as San Diego's Heritage Park, which was started in the mid-1970s to preserve one Victorian house. Only after several houses were added did county officials make a stab at luring boutiques and other shops, some of which failed, said Bob Downer, a San Diego County parks official.

"In hindsight, there are a lot of things that could have been done differently," he said. "We set the houses in a park-like setting, and that's not the way you want to set up a shopping center. We didn't have the floor space or parking."

Oxnard's Vow

Oxnard has vowed not to make the same mistakes.

Already the Perkins house, an 1887 Victorian home on Pleasant Valley Road, is being considered for a restaurant, and the city has been approached by a couple who have expressed interest in turning the Gordon House, a five-bedroom Craftsman, into a bed-and-breakfast.

Most of the other houses are expected to be converted into offices, which are more lucrative for landlords and easier on the buildings than retail or restaurant uses. Planners expect to attract architects, attorneys and real estate agents.

"There are some businesses that say, 'I want to present more class and grace than a modern building can offer," Matthews explained.

But that comes with a price. For instance, older floors must be bolstered to support modern office equipment such as computers and copiers, said Ralph Fernandez, another Main Street architect working on the project.

Few Liberties

That's where liberties with history will end, designers pledge. They plan to restore the fading architectural flowers to their former glory. Hardwood floors will be stripped of dingy linoleum and carpeting, delicate gingerbread trim of flaking paint and majestic porches of jury-rigged enclosures.

And the garden will bloom in homage to the Garden Beautiful Movement of the turn of the century, when the American aristocracy imitated its English cousins with elaborate paths, elegantly trimmed hedges and vast flower beds, said Chris Roberts, whose Ventura landscaping firm has been hired for the task.

"The idea is when you step on this site, you will step back 80 or 90 years," Matthews said.

City officials even have hired Ventura County historian Judith P. Triem, the author of a local history and the organizer of the County Cultural Heritage Board's surveys of older homes in several communities, to help them research the history of each structure.

Little Known

So far, little is known about the buildings, but, Deitch promises, "Each house will have its own little story."

The designers' greatest challenge will be the small winery that was built in 1876 to supply sacramental wine to Oxnard's Santa Clara Catholic Church. The city hopes to move it brick by crumbling brick from its Rose Avenue site on the east end of town.

"That's the tricky one," Fernandez said. "Moving bricks is bad enough . . . but the wood floor is rotting, and bees have nested in there."

The square may become downtown's centerpiece when it opens in September, 1989, but beforehand, it might be just another eyesore, Deitch acknowledges.

"It's going to scare people," he predicted with a touch of glee. "All of a sudden you'll have these big ghostly houses in the middle of this empty land. They'll be gutted, parts will be missing, and they'll be on jacks. It's kind of eerie."

No Mystery

But there is nothing mystical about the transformation that the Petit House, an 1896 Victorian farmhouse with eight porches, has undergone in the two years since it was first moved.

Owner Gary Blum spent 8 months scraping paint from the house, which is the furthest along of the 14 structures slated for restoration.

"A lot of people laughed at me," he said. "They said, 'Just go up there and torch it off or use chemicals.' But I just didn't think we could preserve the detail of the molding without doing it by hand."

Blum said that restoring the house, which has been in his family for four generations, is a labor of love.

But Bart Hackley, a Westlake Village accountant, isn't so sentimental about the 1887 Victorian that he plans to move to Heritage Square.

An Investment

"I'm obviously very curious about the historical aspects and how it's going to come together, but it's an investment to me," he said.

Investors can expect tax credits of 10% to 20% for restoring older buildings, Hackley said.

Meanwhile, Pat McCarthy, an Oxnard contractor who hopes to move to Heritage Square a house that has been in his family for three generations, warns that the project will have to buck the considerable stigma associated with downtown Oxnard.

"The idea is great," he said. "It's just a matter of how the people and the city accept it. You can get all the people in the world involved, but if the city doesn't embrace it you've got nothing."

Jan Randolph, an Oxnard businesswoman who is negotiating for the purchase of a 1914 farmhouse, is convinced that the effort will prove worthwhile.

Good for Tourism

"It's going to be a neat thing for tourism," said Randolph, who runs an advertising agency and serves on the board of Oxnard's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's going to bring a little bit of class and culture into downtown."

Other participants in the project, meanwhile, note that they already have received more than they bargained for. Blum, for instance, learned that he is a distant cousin of Chris Scholle, a real estate agent who is restoring an 1872 farmhouse built by his great-great grandfather. Scholle's great-great grandfather married the sister of Blum's grandfather--the original owner of Blum's house, they said.

Still, Blum can't help wistfully recalling the power his house had on him as a child.

"I was most in awe of it when it was out at the ranch and deteriorated," he said. "Now that it's pristine and white, it seems like a modern piece of architecture."

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