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Historic Structures Offer a Look Into Simi Valley's Past

August 04, 1988|JEFF GORDINIER | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County's oldest adobe--and, potentially, its newest landmark--rests on six dusty acres behind the Arrowsmith Power Systems building in Simi Valley.

Surrounded by an austere complex of new businesses, the 193-year-old Simi Adobe and its adjoining Victorian landmark, the Strathearn House, are testament to the growth that has turned a drowsy farm town into suburbia.

The adobe once served as the center of Rancho Simi, a 114,000-acre expanse of grazing land granted to Santiago Pico, a Spanish soldier, in 1795. Now the adobe is the center of R.P. Strathearn Historical Park, a cluster of old houses almost hidden behind Madera Street.

"It's been sitting here undiscovered for years," said Pat Havens, Simi Valley city historian and director of the Strathearn park since its opening in 1971.

On Friday, a nine-member committee of the state's Historical Resources Commission will vote on whether to declare the park--which they call simply "Rancho Simi"--a California Historical Landmark.

Marilyn Lortie of the state Office of Historic Preservation said that because the park is an emblem of Simi Valley's place in early California history, it probably will attain landmark status.

"Though some of the information is shrouded in a certain amount of doubt because of the early date, we think that it meets the criteria," Lortie said.

The park is already a Ventura County landmark, with a mention in the National Register of Historic Places.

But Havens believes the time is overdue for Strathearn Park to take its place among the nearly 1,000 state landmarks that now exist. She sent an application to the commission on June 29--along with a thick packet that included 69 photographs.

If the state approves Havens' application, Strathearn Park will get a brown landmark sign and the opportunity to buy a bronze plaque for $1,000.

"What this will do is give us higher visibility," said Havens, whose husband Neil is the Simi Valley postmaster, following in the footsteps of his father, uncle and grandfather. "And we'll be more likely to be selected for grants."

The park employs three part-time workers and 40 volunteer docents who lead tours on Wednesdays and Sundays. During the school year, up to three student groups visit Strathearn Park each week.

With the park's new status, Havens hopes to attract more docents to Strathearn and to increase the number of weekly tours.

The exhibits at the park showcase not only the Spanish and American periods in California history, but the preceding Chumash Indian era, as well.

Santiago Pico built his adobe on the grounds of a Chumash village called Shimiji--for "village" or "place"--from which Simi Valley got its name. Twenty years ago, archeologists began to find Chumash bowls and arrowheads--now on display--in the lot outside the adobe.

Don Jose de la Guerra, a suave Spanish aristocrat, bought the Rancho Simi property from Pico in 1842 and owned it until 1864, when American entrepreneurs began to divide up the land.

About then, one of them, Thomas R. Bard, founded the Simi Land and Water Co.

Bard, the only U.S. senator from Ventura County, tried to entice settlers to the rancho with advertisements that depicted Simi Valley as a land of milk and honey--complete with steamboats and huge fish leaping from a blue river.

The ads convinced one group of Chicago businessmen, who called themselves The Colony, to head west in 1888 and try to set up a health resort dubbed Simiopolis. The tycoons brought along 12 prefab houses, one of which stands in Strathearn Park.

Then, in 1889, the Scottish rancher Robert P. Strathearn bought 15,000 acres of the Simi Ranch and attached a Victorian house to the crumbling Pico adobe, which he refurbished. The Strathearns lived in the house until 1968.

"We're just so lucky to have all this in its original site," said Betty Dunbar, a park tour guide. "We feel that the reason Mr. Strathearn kept the adobe was that he was from Scotland, the old world, and didn't tear things down."

Along with the prefab Colony and Strathearn houses, the park includes Simi Valley's original library, a gift shop modeled after a Western depot, and a barn set used in the television series "Little House on the Prairie."

Until the 1960s, film directors used Strathearn Park as a shooting location for such movies as "Green Light," with Errol Flynn, and "Adventure," with Clark Gable and Greer Garson.

Bordered by its original green picket fence and filled with homey relics--board games, family snapshots, dowdy Victorian dresses, a carved oak bed--the Strathearn house has a relaxed, lived-in feel. In fact, staff members of the Simi Valley Historical Society, which is headquartered in the two-story house, often eat lunch at the old table and use the musty parlor for meetings.

"We have to put it all back and make it look like a museum when the visitors come," Havens said.

In the living room, by a window facing a shopping center in the distance, Havens keeps a Christmas cactus that Mrs. Strathearn potted 70 years ago.

"We pretty much try to keep the house the way it was," she said.

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