In its typical boom town fashion, Oxnard is building a past.
The city, better known for its penchant for development than its preservationist passion, suddenly has become nostalgic.
So, over the next 13 months, Oxnard's Redevelopment Agency will cover one downtown block with 11 transplanted turn-of-the-century homes, one 80-year-old church, a vintage water tower and a winery once operated by the Catholic Church. The resulting crazy quilt of early Oxnard that is to be called Heritage Square will be a working landmark, with the historic structures earning their keep by serving as offices, stores and restaurants.
"It's almost like a kit of parts--you have to piece them together like a puzzle," said Nick Deitch, an architect on the project that this month took its first tangible step toward completion. "It will be an almost instant effect."
The first piece was put in place during the wee hours of July 12, when the 73-year-old Gordon House was carted in two pieces to the vacant block bounded by 7th and 8th, and A and B streets.
Two other houses slated for Heritage Square--a 1905 Craftsman and an 1896 Victorian--had been moved earlier to nearby city property when they were threatened with destruction, but the Gordon House was the first to occupy the project site.
After a hearing later this month to condemn the only portion of the block that is not controlled by the city, the project is expected to begin in earnest.
At an estimated cost of $4.9 million, Heritage Square will be Oxnard's second largest downtown redevelopment project, after the $7-million Transportation Center completed in November, 1986.
The city owns five of the houses that make up the project, as well as the old winery and First Church of Christ, Scientist. The remaining six houses and the water tower are privately owned. The Redevelopment Agency hopes to recoup its investment by selling the city-owned structures as well as the land beneath the project.
Participants hope the project will help turn the tide on the blight that swept through Oxnard after redevelopment efforts two decades ago razed the city's turn-of-the-century core.
"This is a way for the city to make amends for demolishing most of the downtown area in the 1950s and 1960s," said Deitch, a partner with Main Street Architects in Ventura.
Dennis Matthews, the redevelopment administrator overseeing Heritage Square, also sees an opportunity for Oxnard to get into the market for quaintness now cornered by neighboring Ventura and by Santa Barbara just down the road.
Sense of History
"This looks to Oxnard's history or roots," he said. "There's never been much emphasis on that. It's all been, 'Tear down an old building or go out to the ag lands and tear them up.' "
City officials say that the project is unique in the state because it marries commerce and preservation from the outset.
Economic considerations didn't originally occur to planners behind such projects as San Diego's Heritage Park, which was started in the mid-1970s to preserve one Victorian house. Only after several houses were added did county officials make a stab at luring boutiques and other shops, some of which failed, said Bob Downer, a San Diego County parks official.
"In hindsight, there are a lot of things that could have been done differently," he said. "We set the houses in a park-like setting, and that's not the way you want to set up a shopping center. We didn't have the floor space or parking."
Oxnard has vowed not to make the same mistakes.
Already the Perkins house, an 1887 Victorian home on Pleasant Valley Road, is being considered for a restaurant, and the city has been approached by a couple who have expressed interest in turning the Gordon House, a five-bedroom Craftsman, into a bed-and-breakfast.
Most of the other houses are expected to be converted into offices, which are more lucrative for landlords and easier on the buildings than retail or restaurant uses. Planners expect to attract architects, attorneys and real estate agents.
"There are some businesses that say, 'I want to present more class and grace than a modern building can offer," Matthews explained.
But that comes with a price. For instance, older floors must be bolstered to support modern office equipment such as computers and copiers, said Ralph Fernandez, another Main Street architect working on the project.
That's where liberties with history will end, designers pledge. They plan to restore the fading architectural flowers to their former glory. Hardwood floors will be stripped of dingy linoleum and carpeting, delicate gingerbread trim of flaking paint and majestic porches of jury-rigged enclosures.
And the garden will bloom in homage to the Garden Beautiful Movement of the turn of the century, when the American aristocracy imitated its English cousins with elaborate paths, elegantly trimmed hedges and vast flower beds, said Chris Roberts, whose Ventura landscaping firm has been hired for the task.