A restored Victorian farmhouse that Ventura leaders hope will become a tourist magnet as a living history museum will open to the public tonight for the first time in its 103-year history.
Dudley House is decked in fresh pine boughs, Victorian-themed Christmas decorations, twinkling lights and lacy curtains, awaiting its debut at a preview party expected to draw about 200 people.
For those who have labored 17 years and spent $350,000 to restore the two-story home at Loma Vista Road and Ashwood Avenue in Ventura, the holiday gala is a long-awaited turning point.
"There were periods when we wondered if we would ever get it open," said Steve Cummings, president of San Buenaventura Heritage Inc., the private, nonprofit group overseeing the restoration.
"You can finally envision how everything will look."
But the hard work is done, the preservationists say. The house has been moved a block and turned 90 degrees from its original position facing Telegraph Road at the corner of Ashwood Avenue.
A new foundation has been built, and meeting rooms and a functional kitchen installed in the basement. Asphalt has been poured for a parking lot, electrical wiring snaked through the house and turn-of-the-century light posts erected outdoors.
Now that it is nearly finished, Ventura leaders hope the living history museum--which will depict the daily lives of a middle-class farming family from the 1890s to the 1930s--will help lure tourists to the area.
"When we get it on the list of tourist sites to see, I think it will probably draw a lot of people interested in old architecture and history," said City Councilman Jim Monahan. "It is an asset to the city."
Although the house will not be open for regular tours until late next year, the Heritage group will hold a Victorian-themed Christmas boutique there for three weekends, starting Saturday. Admission to the boutique, held the following two weekends on Friday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., is free.
A limited number of tickets to tonight's 6 p.m. preview party, kicking off the boutique fund-raiser, are available at the door for $7.50, organizers said. Cummings said the historical society needs to raise about $100,000 more to finish furnishing and decorating the farmhouse before it opens on a regular basis.
Although the tediously slow pace of the restoration has been frustrating at times, Heritage members and other preservationists say they are thrilled at having successfully saved one of Ventura County's dwindling stock of historic structures.
The Queen Anne style home was built in 1891 by Selwyn Shaw, a prominent Ventura architect. It belonged to Benjamin Wells Dudley, who arrived in Ventura after the Civil War to try farming the 40-acre lot.
Five generations of Dudleys lived in the home, including Johann Dudley Overby, Benjamin Dudley's granddaughter and the only surviving descendant. Overby, 75, said she has many happy memories from her days at the farm.
Her grandfather grew lima beans and later planted citrus, she said. He was a prominent community member, having served as clerk of the board of supervisors and as a justice of the peace.
Overby recalls evenings spent in the parlor by the fire, discussing politics. Often, the family held impromptu recitals at the upright piano in the family's living room.
But her favorite childhood activity was to climb high into the attic and forage through family possessions, Overby said. And she liked to look out the upstairs window for its breathtaking vista.
"On clear days, you could see all the way to the Channel Islands," she said.
But by 1977, she and her mother, Miriam Knox Dudley, were ready to sell, Overby said. The city's push eastward was gobbling up lush farmland and replacing it with cookie-cutter subdivisions, she said.
"It wasn't a happy little farm anymore," said Overby, who now lives in a bungalow near downtown Ventura.
The city of Ventura acquired the Dudley parcel and slated it for development as a historical park. But then Proposition 13 hit, and funding for the project died, Cummings said.
So preservation advocates formed San Buenaventura Heritage, which leased the house from the city for $1 a year and began restoring it, Cummings said.
Because the group was perpetually short of money and was committed to restoring the house to its original state, the refurbishment took 17 years, Cummings said.
"It is very expensive and tedious to restore a house," Cummings said. "It could have been built cheaply and more efficiently from scratch, but it wouldn't be the old house."
The work was dragging so slowly that it nearly came to a halt a few years ago, said Alberta Word, a member of the Heritage board for 10 years. But the arrival last year of several new board members, including architect Steve Harberts and antique dealers Dee Fisher and Don Shorts, brought fresh energy to the project, she said.
After the Christmas boutique, Dudley House will be open for an occasional fund-raiser until furnishing and interior decoration are completed, Word said. The board hopes to open the house for regular tours beginning late next year, she said.
The first floor will represent the house from 1891 to 1915, and the upstairs will include clothing, furnishings and decorations from 1915 to the 1930s, organizers said.
A similar living history museum in Goleta, called the Stow House, has been open for 27 years, said David Bisol, curator of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. It draws about 1,000 tourists a month, Bisol said.
People are fascinated with living history museums because America is a transient nation, Bisol said.
"In the old world, you grew up, lived and died in the same community," he said. "We're not that way in the United States. So houses such as Dudley House are a way for people to find ties to their roots."