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STRUCTURES : Houses of History : Heritage Square is one of the more surreal estates in Ventura County. It harks back to Oxnard’s more glorious past.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Architectural history is an unruly, travel-intensive field. To get a fix on what was built when and for what reasons, you have to seek out the examples in question. You have to be there. Even in Oxnard.

The past century has seen monumental change and growth in the town those sugar beet barons, the Oxnard brothers, built. Venerable architectural examples have been scattered far and wide, while the encroachment of suburbia and the restless wrecking ball of progress have been persistent threats.

But now there is Heritage Square, one of the more surreal estates in Ventura County. On one city block, at 7th and B streets, sit 13 meticulously refurbished--and sometimes replicated--structures dating from 1876 to 1912.

The Square harks back to Oxnard’s more glorious past. Of course, selective memory comes into play: This is not a democratic survey of Oxnard’s bygone architecture but a collection of the more ornate, bejeweled and/or historically significant structures.

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Although interior finishing is still under way on many of the houses, Heritage Square had its official grand opening two weeks ago. The brick-built Gottfried Maulhardt “winery” building now serves up souvenirs and gifts.

Would-be tenants are welcome to survey the grounds. Walking through the area offers a concise walking dictionary of Victorian era styles, from the fanciful to the functional.

The premise of Heritage Square is, in theory, clean and simple. By relocating these old structures, they are saved from future threats of demolition. At the same time, the Square becomes both a tourist destination and another commercial building block in the Oxnard downtown redevelopment program.

In reality, it is both fascinating and bizarre, a concentrated dose of local history and also a case of Disneyland-brand kitsch. Call it Old Oxnardland.

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It all began in 1985 as a result of preservationist’s panic. Oxnard Redevelopment Agency administrator Dennis Matthews learned of plans to demolish two fine old houses and the last remaining wooden church in town to make way for a parking structure. Matthews conceived the idea of this rest home for old homes.

Six years and $8 million later ($5 million of city money, $3 million of private funding), the fruits of the effort--at least the exteriors--are there for all to see.

The centerpiece is the Justin Petit Ranch House (circa 1896), a bold two-story house designed with typical Queen Anne excess and taste-no-object ornamentation by Herman Anlauf. Funny how yesterday’s gaucherie looks better and better as time goes by.

Across the square is the Perkins/Claberg house (circa 1887), a less ostentatious Queen Anne variation that fans out horizontally from the squat tower to the right of the entrance.

The tower, a rounded two-story model, is the most prominent feature of the Albert C. Fry house (circa 1903), another more subtle example of Queen Anne design. It was the impending destruction of the Fry house, along with the Scarlet House (also circa 1903) and the Community Church (circa 1906)--now defrocked and soon available for social occasions--that inspired Matthews’ brainchild in the first place.

Compared to its more rococo Victorian neighbors, the Archie Connelly house (circa 1912) is downright understated. Designed by architect Albert C. Martin--also responsible for the Ventura County Courthouse--the house is a Craftsman-meets-Prairie design. The foursquare geometric volumes are offset by a large bay window to the rear and a porch and balcony tucked, like secretive niches, within the rectangular frame.

The Louis Pfeiler house (circa 1877) is notable as one of the earliest pioneer farmhouses in the area. While built from a simple, plain floor plan, the house is festooned with Italianate ornamentation--corbels and filigree everywhere you turn. By the way, the looming water tower next to the Petit house is actually from the Pfeiler’s property. More imposing than the farmhouse itself, the water tower was granted a spot in the Square’s center, while the house was relegated to the fringes.

One impression is left by this revisionist block party: Architects sure had fun with roofs in the days before modernism and pragmatism. You find gabled roofs galore, hipped roofs, polygonal roofs, and combinations thereof.

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The zigzagging roof line of the Alonzo and Sara Wood Gordon House (circa 1910) includes a suggestion of a saltbox roof pointing toward the front door. By contrast, the Archie and Anna Petre house (circa 1912) is a long, low bungalow with the broadest, most uninterrupted roof on the block.

The pleasure of comparing and contrasting these houses and their various reference points is somewhat dampened by the eerie nature of the whole affair.

During a guided tour last week, one visitor--a descendant of the Claberg clan--walked into the part of the house that now serves as a Christian Science Reading Room and pointed out details of the house as he experienced it in his childhood. Animated with nostalgia, he gestured to where two of the house’s five fireplaces--now paneled over--used to be. Of course, wish as we might, what used to be is no longer--a fact that makes Heritage Square all the more virtuous and odd.

These structures have become museum pieces, physically taken out of context. Given that context is a critical aspect that gives architecture its resonance, Heritage Square is an artificial setting that combines elements of the zoo and the theme park. Be the first on your block to check it out.


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