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Owner Agrees Not to Open Historic House to Public

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Ojai man abandoned efforts to turn his historic 1909 Greene and Greene bungalow into an interpretive center this week after residents complained the plans would disrupt their upscale neighborhood and cause traffic headaches.

Bill Moses, owner of the Pratt House on Foothill Road, wanted to transform the former winter home and 54-acre estate of a wealthy oil executive into a place where people could take tours, attend seminars and hold fund-raisers. He was the first person in Ventura County to apply for interpretive status for his residence.

But in a series of public hearings and private meetings during the last few weeks, neighbors raised concerns about traffic. They also worried about noise, lighting at night and the number of events planned. Moses said 97% of his property would be off-limits to public events, but that didn’t quell fears

“This is a quiet, residential neighborhood and having a commercial business here doesn’t fit into the area,” said Bob Tallyn, head of the Upper Foothill Road Homeowners Assn., which opposed the effort. “We felt it would add extra traffic up here. There would be noise from weddings and fund-raisers. Ojai has a history of not policing these things.”

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Tallyn called the Pratt House a “national treasure” but said Moses could afford the upkeep without having to turn the house into a business.

Sally Lemire, who lives next door to Moses, led a petition drive to stop the plan, gathering 101 signatures in less than a week. She said Moses initially told her he wanted to hold 12 weddings a year and six to eight seminars a month at his home.

“We have no sidewalks on our street, it’s a narrow street. You park one car out there and it causes a problem,” she said. “I’m glad he has withdrawn it. I don’t see how anyone could ever dream of passing a commercial venue in a neighborhood like we have.”

Not everyone opposed the plan. Carole Topalian, who lives across the street from Moses, was a forceful supporter. Moses, she said, would have kept things low key.

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“He was not going to turn the place into Disneyland,” she said. “I think the concerns were totally overblown. There is enough parking on his property so that you wouldn’t even see any cars on the street. Instead of one wealthy man benefiting from living in this piece of art, he was going to share it with the community.”

Despite his disappointment, Moses professed no bitterness toward his opponents.

“My opponents’ positions are honorable,” he said. “Their concerns are intelligent and justifiable.”

He officially announced his plan to terminate the project at a meeting of the Ventura River Valley Municipal Advisory Group in Oak View on Monday.

“When I first began this process of communicating with my neighbors and the community, I pledged that without full support I would not move forward,” Moses told the audience.

“Since I have not received full community support for opening the Pratt House to the public, I am honoring my commitment and withdrawing my application with the county of Ventura.”

Moses said nothing he tried softened his critics. He drew up plans to reduce traffic, cut noise, eliminate on-street parking and drop the number of monthly events planned at the house.

“They did not like it because it came down to a commercial operation, and they made it clear that would be hard to govern,” said the 39-year-old Moses. “They thought that, given its nature, it would grow. I said, ‘I live here and this is my home,’ but they remained opposed.”

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The Pratt House is one of five so-called ultimate bungalows in the country, the best known of which is the Gamble House in Pasadena. It was designed and built by Charles and Henry Greene for the wealthy Pratt family as a winter escape from their New York home.

Architectural Digest called it an “American Masterpiece.” Moses, a former cable television executive and investment banker, bought the house in 1994 and, he said, sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into it for preservation.

When he learned of a Ventura County ordinance that allowed historic homes to receive interpretive center status, Moses applied. The ordinance is designed to give owners an incentive to keep up historic properties by letting them charge admission to a site and making it available for functions.

Kim Hocking, a senior county planner who helped write the interpretive center ordinance, said the system worked as designed.

“I don’t think we can generalize from this, that we will get the same reaction elsewhere in the county,” he said. “Other places will be more isolated or in the middle of big groves. The last thing we wanted in preserving history is to have a negative effect on a neighborhood. This is a conditional use permit. It’s totally discretionary.”

Moses has often held private affairs such as fund-raisers at the home and said he would continue to do so.

“Some of the restoration is going to be put off for a bit,” he said. “At the end of the day this was meant to be an opening. But the last thing I want is to drive up and down Foothill and have neighbors scowling at me.”


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