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Buried Treasure

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The carved wooden statue of the city’s patron saint, Father Junipero Serra, presides nobly over City Hall’s atrium. The bronze replica stands proudly in front of City Hall, looking down California Street out to the Pacific.

But where is the original 9-foot, 4-inch concrete version, from which the wood and the bronze were copied and which kept watch over Ventura for 52 years before the ravages of time and the elements began to eat away at it?

It lies in a wooden box, forgotten, in an obscure corner of a scrap yard off Ventura Avenue.

Nothing betrays the box’s contents but a small green sign that reads: Property of Ventura Co. Historical Museum.

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“I took [the original statue] off and put the new one on [the pedestal],” said Don Zermeno, who runs OST, the Ventura trucking and crane company that moved the statues, and in whose yard the forgotten Junipero now rests. “That’s how we ended up with it. They may have forgotten it’s even there. So you might want to give them a call.”

Built in the 1930s by local sculptor John Palo-Kangas as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the original Father Junipero Serra began to show signs of wear almost a decade ago.

In a rush to preserve the statue for posterity, then Councilman Russ Burns spearheaded a campaign in the mid-1980s to save the Ventura landmark.

The city commissioned three studies of the crumbling father, which revealed that impurities in the concrete reacted over time with Ventura’s moist salt air, causing the statue to expand and crack. They concluded the deterioration was irreversible.

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The city then commissioned a crew of woodcarvers to make a wooden copy of the cement original. From the wood they made a cast, and finally the bronze copy that towers over the city today.

Officials said the original, removed in October 1989, would go to a museum, either the history and art museum in downtown Ventura or an agricultural exhibit planned for Camarillo.

But due to bureaucratic confusion, staff and council turnover, and the passage of time, the fate of the crumbling concrete father fell through the cracks.

In fact today, many local preservationists do not know where the original is.

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“I thought it was somewhere in Camarillo, out by the airport,” said Don Shorts, vice chairman of the San Buenaventura Historic Preservation Committee.

“I have to say, I’m not sure where the original is,” said Jo Rogers, who heads the preservation committee. “I know it was taken somewhere for storage. It was deteriorating, and it needed to be stored inside.”

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Richard Senate, a local historian, said he thought the original statue was in a city-owned maintenance yard. “It’s in a pile,” Senate said. “They broke it up and hauled it away. It’s in pieces there. That’s just what I’ve heard.”

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Jenice Wager, public affairs coordinator for the city, was able to confirm where the statue is, but could not say if there were any plans to resurrect it.

“The one staff person that worked on it isn’t with us anymore. . . . She thought it was at a vacant plant somewhere,” Wager said, suggesting correctly that it was at the OST yard.

Ed Robings of the Ventura Museum of History and Art, whose tag is on the abandoned box, said the statue was “wrapped, stored and taken care of.”

“We plan for it to go into the agricultural museum, along with a collection of implements we have been building for the last 25 years,” Robing said. He said neither the opening date nor the location of the museum has been set.

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The 70-year-old daughter of Finnish American sculptor Palo-Kangas still lives in Ventura, and worries about what will become of the original.

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“I am concerned,” Shirley Weeks said. “The last I heard it was in an OST yard. If it is outdoors it is going to deteriorate.”

Ironically, even as Ventura’s cement Junipero Serra descended into ignominious obscurity, the real Father Junipero Serra fared better. After decades of lobbying by a loyal priest in Santa Barbara, and proof of a required miracle, Serra was beatified in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, leaving him just one step short of sainthood.

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An OST employee, who never knew what was in the box, suggested that OST should put the statue up. Bike riders on a new Ventura-to-Ojai trail, expected to cut through the property or around its border, could enjoy it.

“We should build a pedestal and put it up here,” said Rita Santillano, who arrived at OST three years ago. “We’ve had it so long. I thought that box was empty.”

But after seven years, no one knows the condition of the statue in the box--or even if there is anything left of it.

“I think they put foam in it, so it’s all foamed up,” said OST President Zermeno. “But you might open the crate and there might not be anything there but dust.”

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