Trying to keep Oxnard's Wagon Wheel in place

Trying to keep Oxnard's Wagon Wheel in place
The Wagon Wheel sign stands as it did when residents brought their guests for thick steaks and visitors enjoyed cocktails on the barroom’s cowhide seats. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
It wasn't long after World War II that Martin V. "Bud" Smith, who was destined to become a legendary Oxnard developer, loosed 200 chickens on the city's downtown streets. Each bird wore a band on its leg that said: "I just escaped from the Wagon Wheel, where they serve the finest chicken around."

So heralded, the Wagon Wheel Motel and Restaurant became a Southern California landmark, a popular stop for vacationers seeing the USA in their Chevrolets. Decorated by a Hollywood set designer when westerns ruled the screen, it was a spot where residents would take out-of-towners for a thick steak, where visitors would enjoy cocktails on the barroom's cowhide seats and gaze at the brands of local ranchers burned into the beams above.

Long shuttered, the Wagon Wheel is now a dilapidated hulk, its demolition delayed only by a lawsuit that contends destruction of the ramshackle old resort would violate the California Environmental Quality Act.

In its day, the Wagon Wheel Junction -- a sprawling complex of attractions that included the kitschy motel -- played a big part in the small agricultural city. Kids putted into the alligator's mouth at the miniature golf course, teenagers met for dates at the roller rink and their parents hoisted mai tais on the authentic Chinese junk that was planted outside a Polynesian restaurant called the Trade Winds.

"Whatever the Oxnard experience was, it was to be found there," said Tim Flynn, a former councilman who cast the lone vote against redevelopment. "It was very much part of the Oxnard psyche."

Wounded by time

But over the decades, the neighborhood fell on hard times. Some of the buildings were leveled. As tourists sped by on the 101 Freeway, the motel turned into temporary digs for parolees. It was the site of at least one porn shoot -- "Hollywood Hostel." With its razing possibly just around the corner, it has been the victim of calculated neglect, according to preservationists like Stephen Schafer.

One recent afternoon, Schafer, president of the San Buenaventura Conservancy, which filed the suit to keep the main motel building intact, surveyed the fenced-off complex from a frontage road off the freeway. The turquoise paint was splotched with patches of white and the shingles were buckling, but the big neon sign with its whip-cracking stagecoach driver was in good shape. Weeds sprouted in the parking lot. The wiring had been stripped by scavengers, but the motel's trademark wagon wheels were still around.

"It's indicative of a whole era, of how Americans traveled and spent summer vacations," said Schafer, a photographer who grew up in the area. "This is so rare. And once it's gone, it's gone."

For many in Oxnard who see the Wagon Wheel as a blighted wreck, that would be just fine. The city declined to make it an official landmark, despite a recommendation from its cultural heritage board. The two-acre site sits on a rundown, 64-acre commercial swath that has been approved for 1,500 homes -- including two 25-story apartment towers that would be the region's tallest buildings. After three years of negotiations, residents of a mobile home park on the site have been offered relocation packages, including low-income housing in the new project.

The development "will be as cookie-cutter as anything on the planet," Schafer warned. But its design, pitched as featuring elements of a Tuscan village, received favorable reviews from many residents who urged its approval.

"We've gone through multiple hearings and the city has spoken," said Vince Daly, a spokesman for Oxnard Village Investments, the project's developer. "It's been vetted for almost four years."

Daly said the lawsuit is needless and destructive.

"This is about the worst thing you can do in an economic situation where you can move something forward," he said. "It's hurting the people of Oxnard."

Next door to the old motel, Jeff Buhai owns the Wagon Wheel Bowl, one of the few neighborhood businesses still operating. A former screenwriter, Buhai cast the conservancy's suit as pointless.

"Just what are they trying to conserve?" he asked.

Buhai, whose family had been in bowling before he launched his Hollywood career, said he'll be at the site for two or three more years before his building comes down. But he never thought it would be forever. When he leased it 10 years ago, he knew the area would eventually be redeveloped.

The 50-year-old Wagon Wheel Bowl was designed by Arthur Froehlich, a renowned racetrack architect. And it was constructed when bowling was done in a "bowling alley" instead of in today's more family-friendly "bowling centers." But Buhai, whose biggest film hit was "Revenge of the Nerds," lays no claim to history.

"I'm older than the bowl," he pointed out.

Not old enough

For preservationists, restoring a past no older than a middle-aged man is often a tough sell.

The Wagon Wheel's Ranch-style architecture is at "an awkward, in-between period" of public appreciation, said Alan Hess, an Irvine architect who has written 18 books on western and mid-20th century structures. "We're just at that point where it's becoming recognized but is not yet fully understood."

Smith, the Wagon Wheel's developer, didn't set out to make history. He built the motel out of surplus military barracks, adding western touches such as cattle horns on the walls and drawer pulls made from horseshoes. He included bricks from the old sugar beet refinery built by the Oxnards, German brothers who never got around to visiting the city that bears their name. The Wagon Wheel was among the first of his real estate holdings, an empire that eventually spanned more than 200 properties.

A frugal man who joked about wearing vintage suits, Smith lived on the Dry Martini, an 83-foot yacht in Channel Islands Harbor, which he helped create. He died in 2001 at 85.

To honor him and commemorate the Wagon Wheel, Oxnard Village Investments envisions a small museum at a kind of bus stop described in planning documents as a " 'Digital Age,' Multi-Modal, Sub-Transportation Center."

But in its suit against the city and the developer, the conservancy said a photo display or a video is no substitute for the real thing. A state appeals court, it noted, has likened such gestures to "drawing a chalk line around a dead body."

The motel's boosters have suggested renovating it for an array of possibilities: artists' studios, a tourism center, senior day care. A farmers market could be set up outside, Schafer said, or maybe a small park -- anything that would keep a remnant of pre-Holiday-Inn motels and postwar Oxnard more or less alive.

"Those Victorian houses we all know and love?" he asked. "Well, in the 1950s, they were tearing them down like crazy."