For some college students, curiosity ends with the final exam.
Not so for Mark Harris, a 32-year-old professional photographer who parlayed a history class at Moorpark College into a traveling photo exhibition on landmark architecture that opens today.
Harris began shooting pictures of the landmarks that he visited while enrolled in a class called "California History on the Road," whose students travel to historic sites from San Diego to the Gold Country of Northern California. Afterward, he hit the landmark trail alone, photographing dozens more historic places. "It just sort of took over, and I went with it," he said.
The result is "Architectural Images of California," an exhibition of about 200 photographs of historic buildings, more than half of them in Ventura County.
The display traces the evolution of California architecture from the founding of the missions in the 1770s to the revival of the Mission style 150 years later in modest stucco homes with clay roofs and wrought-iron trim.
Large photographs of such landmarks as the mission at San Juan Capistrano and the Olivas Adobe in Ventura hang beside small studies of an elaborate brass door-hinge in a Victorian house in San Diego, the wooden steeple of a Gothic Revival church in Ventura or the terra-cotta tiles over the fireplace at Thacher School in Ojai.
A Look at the Quirky
While Harris focuses on such well-known Ventura landmarks as the Mission at San Buenaventura, the David C. Cook Mansion near Piru ("the best preserved and most lavish Queen Anne house still standing in Southern California," according to the exhibit), and the Camulos Adobe near Piru, he also chronicles the obscure, quirky and unexpected.
The exhibit features a 1927 Mission-style gas station, a 1931 residential replica of the Taj Mahal in Ojai and a simple, single-story 1874 house with board and batten siding on East Thompson Boulevard that could easily be dismissed as just another house. Yet the exhibition reveals that it is the only remaining example of Gothic Revival, the architectural style most popular at the time of Ventura's founding.
Admitting that he still "doesn't know that much" about architecture, Harris received help from his former professor, Art Bettini; Judith Triem, a Santa Paula historian, and David Gebhard, author of "Guide to Southern California Architecture" and "Architecture in Los Angeles: A Compleat Guide."
The group, which received a grant from the California Council on the Humanities, hopes that the exhibition makes a strong argument in favor of preservation.
"We're growing too fast without much thought or appreciation for the people who came before us," Bettini said.
In an unconventional move aimed at reaching a wider audience, the exhibit will be mounted in two shopping malls and a library.
"Images" opens a four-day run today at the Esplanade shopping center in Oxnard and moves June 1 to Ventura's San Buenaventura Plaza for another four days. An informal discussion with the exhibition's organizers will be held at 7 p.m. June 6 at Ventura College and 7 p.m. June 22 at the Thousand Oaks Library.
Although the mall approach has been used with success in the Midwest and East, the idea is novel in California, said Susan Gordon, a spokeswoman for the California Council on the Humanities.
"We're interested in seeing how successfully this idea plays out," she said. "If people are really delighted to have this kind of exhibit in a mall and somebody calls with a request, I would say, 'Have you thought of doing it in your mall?' "
Nothing could have been further from Harris' mind when he enrolled in Bettini's class. A photographer for a defense contractor whose days are filled with "jets, gizmos and things like that," Harris thought that he had found an easy way to complete a history requirement for a bachelor's degree in communications or photography--he hasn't decided which.
Hoping to submit them as a final term paper, Harris began shooting pictures of the landmarks that the class visited over weekends and holidays. Then he set foot in Villa Montezuma, an 1887 Queen Anne mansion in San Diego, and an assignment became an obsession.
"The way they lived--you could feel it," recalled Harris, who has installed photographs of the villa's elaborate stained-glass windows in the Thousand Oaks tract house that he shares with two roommates.
Harris ended up turning in close to 400 photographs of Monterey ranch houses, Gold Rush hotels and the state Capitol. Bettini was wowed and managed to get the $7,500 grant.
Since then, Harris has traveled thousands of miles, tracking down landmarks almost every weekend. He often returned several times to the same sites, sleeping in his car to capture the morning light. On one weekend alone, he traveled 700 miles.
"I was amazed," he said. "I didn't realize half this stuff was out there. Occasionally you drive by an old house and go, 'Oh, that's neat,' but there are literally thousands of these houses."