A nervous Dennis Matthews squirmed while watching his five-member crew carefully inch a turn-of-the-century, 32-ton house onto thick wooden stilts about 10 feet off the ground.
"One little slip and it's firewood, and it's pretty hard to put splinters back together," said Matthews, Oxnard's redevelopment administrator in charge of erecting Heritage Square in downtown Oxnard.
The 1896 Petit Ranch House was the last of a dozen Oxnard vintage houses carted to the site on the 700 block of South A Street.
The move last week was part of a project begun five years ago by the Oxnard Redevelopment Agency, aimed at bringing pride and money to the city, Matthews said.
The houses, an 82-year-old-church, an 1888 water tower and a winery once operated by the Catholic Church will be clustered into a commercial park after being restored, Matthews said.
A restaurant, an antique store and doctors' offices are some of the businesses proposed for the site, where zoning prohibits industry or manufacturing, Matthews said.
"This is probably the only time in my career that I haven't had an antagonist. . . . Sometimes it's necessary to spend money on the soul as well as the stomach. We need to remember who we are so we can know where we're going . . . and be proud to say this is our town," Matthews said.
Plaques with histories of each of the houses, many owned by old farming families such as the Gordons, Petits and Pfeilers, will be posted outside each structure.
Some of the histories are interconnected because the few families who lived in Oxnard during the early days intermarried. "One of the jokes you hear from the old folks around here is that if you didn't want to marry your cousin, you had to leave the county," said Gary Blum, the great-great-grandson of Justin Petit and owner of the Petit Ranch House.
Barbara Scholle's grandparents built the 1877 Pfeiler House where she grew up, and she can remember the big Christmas tree that reached the 11-foot ceiling. "My dad was born and died in the same room in that house," she said.
But Louise Ann Noeth, a photographer hired by the city to create a photo essay on the project, values the beauty of the buildings the most. "These homes are pieces of art, that's what makes this project so unique. You don't see that kind of craftsmanship anymore," she said. "Nowadays they just slap, flash, put it together and throw a bit of cheap paint on it."
Noeth sees restoring the houses on the same parcel as a way of retaining an element of American society that is slowly fading.
"A big part of American life is disappearing," she added. "You don't have the neighborhoods anymore because folks don't stay around. . . ."
The estimated $9-million project is expected to be completed by early 1991, a year behind schedule, Matthews said.
Some of the houses were donated to the city, which plans to lease the buildings to investors, but several owners chose to keep their houses for rental income or use the space to run their businesses.
Part of the project is an attempt to amend early redevelopment mistakes of the '50s and '60s when banks, livery stables and other old commercial buildings were razed to make room for modern buildings and parking lots, Matthews said.