Group Sees a Future in Protecting County's Past


So far, concerned citizens have worked to protect such things as the spotted owl and the indigenous coastal plant known as the salt marsh bird's beak from the steady sprawl of development.

So why not buildings?

Taking its cue from environmental successes, a small cadre of Ventura history buffs has come up with a novel idea to protect favorite local spots: Draw up a list of endangered historical sites.

"We have to realize that historic sites are precious and scarce. We have to be aware of the imminent danger to them and preserve them," said Don Shorts, one member of the Historic Preservation Alliance of San Buenaventura, which is putting together the list.

"We are trying to raise public awareness."

Richard Senate, who works for the city as its unofficial historian and is participating in the alliance as a private citizen, agreed.

"This is a way for the public to learn what we have in the community; what we may well lose if we are not careful," Senate said. "In the next century we will look back to our roots, many of which have been lost to us, often through overzealous development."

The list of the 10 most endangered sites includes everything from genuine historic artifacts to scraggly, overgrown plots with nothing visible to the untrained eye.

Some sites are not even very old.

In fact, in contrast with traditional historic preservation efforts, the No. 1 criterion for getting on the list is not age, or even historic significance--it is vulnerability.

"We looked at this in terms of those sites that are most at risk," said Clyde Reynolds, another member of the citizens' alliance crusading to save boarded-up buildings.

For that reason, the pink 1940s Jack Rose Building at the corner of Main and Chestnut streets and the 1922 Spanish-style building next door top the list. Both are slated for demolition by the end of the summer to make way for the planned 10-screen theater complex downtown.

As Senate tells it, it was the streamline moderne, Art Deco Jack Rose Building that brought this small group of dedicated amateur historians together in the first place.

They lost that battle but were determined not to be caught unaware again.

"If enough resistance had been put forward earlier, they would have been able to incorporate it into the theater design," said alliance member Brad Helton, explaining the logic that led this group to mobilize.

With that in mind, the small group of amateur historians drew up its endangered list and divided up the sites. Collectively, they have made trips to historical libraries, chatted with archeologists, rummaged through old news clippings and burrowed into disintegrating historic documents.

Each site investigator holds a special personal passion.

Jenny Salazar, the researcher for the No. 4-ranked Washington School, lives nearby in the midtown neighborhood. Lisa Lauterbach, who is digging up information on the No. 3-ranked Mayfair Theater, watched movies there as a child.

And Helton, who can point out every exposed stone of the No. 6-ranked seven-mile mission aqueduct system, went to grammar school less than a quarter of a mile from the best preserved chunk of the structure, in Canada Larga off California 33.

The alliance plans to publish its list, accompanied by short blurbs detailing the significance of the sites, in the next issue of its fledgling newsletter, which is due out in less than two weeks.

Armed with the list of endangered sites, alliance member Lauterbach says the group intends to be political.

"Some groups involved with the city can't be very political. They didn't feel they could stick their necks out," Lauterbach said. "We wanted to be more of a vocal group, actually lobbying to get buildings saved."

Reynolds said the group adopted its approach in an aggressive effort to set a preservation agenda, rather than react to developers' agendas.

"Many of us have been involved in what I call reactive efforts to save historic buildings," Reynolds said. "Sometimes the process has gotten so far along by the time we get involved that there is no way to save a building or landmark that had historic value."

For alliance members, the most tragic stories are of buildings that are demolished passively, through neglect.

It is these they are trying to save.

Take the San Buenaventura Mission aqueduct. Built sometime at the beginning of the 19th century, an almost perfect section still stands behind a fence in a weed-choked field by Canada Larga. Lily McClintock, who lives nearby, adopted the site from the county after she saw fire officials trying to spray poisonous weed-killers on the historic site.

The aqueduct is on county land, she says, but it sits unmarked and lacking care and maintenance. That makes Brad Helton mad.

"I believe the city and the county and the Catholic Church have failed in not doing more over the years to honor this lasting piece of architecture," Helton said. "It's in the county, and the city, it was built by the Indians, for the Catholics, and they've all just sort of let it go to rubble. They've put a fence around it. But there's nothing that says what it is, or what it was."

And what about the San Miguel Chapel on Thompson Boulevard across from the Greyhound station?

Moorpark College professor Robert Lopez and dozens of students spent five years excavating the more than 200-year-old chapel--the first European structure built in Ventura County. They uncovered the foundation, and about 18 inches of standing wall. Today, the city-owned site sits locked up, fenced off and overgrown.

"It used to have a marker," Lopez said. "I don't know what happened to it. I guess it fell down. The city never even published the report on the chapel."

Senate, in charge of researching the site, said he just hopes the vacant lot where it stands will not be paved over for parking, or a mini-mall.

Other spots on the list, like the No. 7-ranked Peirano grocery, which is on the city's redevelopment agenda, seem destined to survive. But years have passed while the city debates what to do with it. Deterioration is now so bad that passersby can scratch away mortar from between the bricks with fingernails.

"If we wait much longer," Reynolds said, "it might just fall in. Until it's rehabbed, we cannot relax."

For now, the alliance will publish its list. Later, the group plans to put forward proposals for preserving or marking each site, Shorts said.

Salazar, who lives in midtown, thinks of Washington School, her neighborhood, and local history in layers. And those layers have value.

"Because of the geography of the town, between the mountains and the ocean, the town has grown in layers eastward," Salazar said. "It's kind of cool. It's like a layer of sedimentary-rock pieces of Ventura history."


Endangered Sites

These are the 10 sites viewed by the Historic Preservation Alliance of San Buenaventura as the city's most endangered historic sites:

1) Jack Rose Building, at Main and Chestnut streets.

2) Spanish-style building next door, which houses Paddy McDermott's and Crafter's Showcase, at 577 and 573 Main St.

3) Mayfair Theater, at Ash and Santa Clara streets.

4) Washington School, 96 MacMillan Ave.

5) Ventura County Christian High School, 5200 Telegraph Road.

6) Portions of the San Buenaventura Mission aqueduct system.

7) Peirano grocery/Wilson Studio complex and lavanderia.

8) San Miguel Chapel at Figueroa Street and Thompson Boulevard.

9) Original Junipero Serra statue, boxed up in an industrial yard at 2951 N. Ventura Ave.

10) Theodosia Burr Shepherd garden, at Chestnut and Poli streets.


The Historic Preservation Alliance of San Buenaventura meets on the third Sunday of each month at the Dudley House at 3 p.m. For more information, call Don Shorts at (805) 643-4217.

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