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LANDMARKS / COUNTY HISTORICAL SITES : Old Courthouse Does Justice to Design

HISTORY: The Ventura County Court House was built in 1912 at a cost of $287,000 to serve the county population of 20,000. In 1969, the courthouse was declared unsafe in the event of an earthquake and was closed. The city purchased the building in 1971 for $145,000 and spent $2.7 million rehabilitating it. It was rededicated as Ventura City Hall in 1974. The building is a city, county and state landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

LOCATION: The building sits on a hillside at the head of California Street in downtown Ventura and commands a view of the city to the ocean, four blocks south. It is at 501 Poli St.

HOURS: For a guided tour, call City Hall information at 654-7800. Brochures are available for a self-guided tour. The building is open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Architect of the courthouse, Albert C. Martin, whose office was in Los Angeles, was enticed to rural Ventura County when he married into a local farm family, the Borchards.

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Although he was reluctant to move to the county at first, he became involved in his work on the courthouse, said Carol Green, assistant to the city manager. “He donated the three stained-glass domes in the council chambers.”

The domes, which show the scales of justice, decorate the wood-paneled Superior Court room, now the City Council chambers. That room sits at the top of a double staircase leading from the first-floor foyer.

The foyer walls and floor are made of Carrara marble shipped from Italy, and the entry is ornamented with an intricate plaster ceiling of friezes, scallop shells and garlands of fruit and Art Deco lighting fixtures.

Completing the entryway are bronze gates engraved SBCH for San Buenaventura Court House. They cost $5,830.

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A deep granite staircase rises from the street to the building-length veranda.

The exterior design, described by various sources as neoclassic revival, Roman Doric and French Renaissance, features four massive, fluted Doric columns and glazed terra cotta tiles. On three sides of the ground floor, Roman arched windows are topped by whimsical friar’s head keystones.

“The friar’s heads are a detail that remind people that this was a mission town. The heads add a lot of humor,” said Richard Newsham, city public information specialist.

In front of the building is a 9-foot, 4-inch statue of Father Junipero Serra, founder of Mission San Buenaventura. The statue by local artists John Palo Kangas was commissioned by the federal Works Project Administration and was completed in 1936. The original concrete statue was eaten away by marine air after 50 years and has been replaced by a bronze duplicate.

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The old courthouse became the focus of national attention in 1958 during the trial of Ma Duncan, a jealous mother who hired killers to kidnap and murder her daughter-in-law. Duncan was convicted and died in the gas chamber. In the early ‘60s, Charles Manson, later infamous as a mass murderer, was held overnight in the men’s jail adjoining the courthouse on drunk-driving charges.

The courthouse has been spotlighted in several movies, most recently “The Two Jakes” starring Jack Nicholson. Filmed in July, 1989, the movie includes shots of the Superior Court room and the stained-glass domes.


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