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A Present From the Past

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cheerful sound of mariachi music, the laughter of children and the smell of tri-tip roasting darkly over an open pit Sunday made it easy to imagine what life was like during the summer fiestas at the Andres Pico Adobe in the early 1800s.

Charros on horseback swung graceful loops with their ropes while young girls in colorful costumes prepared to dance in the shade of half a dozen stately olive trees.

In fact, that was the goal during the celebration commemorating the renovation and reopening of the adobe after a $450,000 restoration of the landmark that was badly damaged by the Northridge earthquake.

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“We wanted to get the authentic flavor of that time,” said Ralph Herman, president of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society, which managed the renovation.

About 200 residents, politicians, history buffs and other fiesta-lovers gathered at the adobe in Mission Hills--the oldest in the San Fernando Valley--to relive a bygone era and be on hand when the doors of the 163-year-old structure were officially reopened to the public.

During the celebration Sunday, speaker after speaker testified to the important role that the adobe has had in the Valley’s history.

“If we do not remember our history, we are limiting our future,” said City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents adjoining communities in the northeast Valley.

The adobe was built in 1834, mostly by Native Americans, and owned by Mexican Army Gen. Andres Pico, brother of the last Mexican governor of California. Pico lived in nearby San Fernando Mission while the adobe was occupied by his wife and children.

Pico was best known for signing the Articles of Capitulation with John C. Fremont in 1847, ending California’s involvement in the Mexican-American war.

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Over the years, Pico’s family modernized and expanded the house to include a second story, kitchen and other amenities. It was sold and rented several times before it finally stood vacant and in disrepair by 1925.

Around 1930, Mark Harrington, curator of the Southwest Museum, bought the adobe and worked to restore it. In 1945, the adobe was again sold and rented to several families until it was bought by the North Valley YMCA in 1957. Fearing that the facility would be demolished, the San Fernando Valley Historical Society persuaded the city of Los Angeles to buy the adobe in 1965.

Over the years, the society has occupied and maintained the aging structure. The adobe was closed in 1992 for structural reinforcements, but before work began, the 1994 Northridge quake nearly destroyed the building. The quake left gaping holes in the walls, caused a chimney to collapse in a heap of rubble and spread cracks throughout the facade.

Since then, the historical society--in particular its vice president, Harold Rockwell, a retired drywall contractor--has overseen the city-funded repair job.

Today, a fresh coat of white paint adorns the uneven walls of the building. New red tiles cover the rebuilt roof. The broken and cracked adobe bricks were replaced with new bricks hauled in from Northern California, the only place where authentic adobe bricks could be found.

“It’s a window back to the past,” said Msgr. Francis Webber of the San Fernando Mission, who performed a blessing of the building Sunday. “We really ought to pay more attention to sites like this.”

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On Sunday, the adobe got all the attention it could handle.

Cruz Gandara, 14, and Jesus Lesarez, 73, both members of San Fernando Valley Charros Assn., an organization of amateur cowboys, rode their horses around the 2 1/2-acre adobe park, performing rope tricks to start the festivities.

Several local elected officials made speeches and issued certificates and plaques to the historical society and to Rockwell for their work on the adobe.

“I’m not a historian but I get a personal satisfaction in the work,” Rockwell said of his efforts.

An official ribbon-cutting ceremony opened the gates to the adobe and allowed the crowd to walk through the cool interior.

One of the guests wandering through had a special connection to the building. Eleanor V. Middlekauff Eddy of Thousand Oaks said her grandfather, Elsworth Middlekauff, bought the place from the Pico family and made it his summer home from 1899 to 1906.

“I think it’s very exciting,” she said of the reopening. “I’m going to come back more often.”

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Her daughter, June Wassell, said she feels at home in the adobe, “like I’ve been here before, even though I have not.”

Middlekauff’s granddaughter, Holly Wassell, 12, simply dubbed the event “cool.”

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