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STRUCTURES : A Solid History : Ventura's landmark City Hall is a repository for lore of Southern California's colorful past.

January 31, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The thing about the past is, there's always more where that came from."

Thus spake private eye Jake Gittes, a.k.a. Jack Nicholson, in the closing voice-over speech in the film "Two Jakes."

Director-actor Nicholson's sequel to "Chinatown"--about a sordid Southern California past, of dubious oil interests and the suburban invasion in the San Fernando Valley--took a beating at the box office.

To Ventura, though, it was the film that immortalized, in celluloid at least, the architectural centerpiece of Old Ventura--the City Hall. For a week in June of 1989, Nicholson and his crew moved into the cherished old building, a stand-in for a late '40s Los Angeles courthouse. (The past isn't what it used to be in L.A.)

But around these parts, the building needs no introduction, no Hollywood location scout's seal of approval. Probably no local structure is more visually and symbolically dramatic, or as steeped in local legend. Perched like a lordly, lavish manor at the juncture of California and Poli streets, it overlooks the old town and the blue Pacific beyond--a constant reminder of the past.

The City Hall actually began its life as the County Courthouse. Originally built in 1912 for $225,000, it was designed by architect Albert C. Martin in a neoclassic style then the norm for public buildings. Gladding, McBean and Co. completed the architectural spectacle with a wealth of terra cotta ornamentation--scrolls, floral embellishments and a series of friars' faces in relief lining the outer walls.

In 1932, an annex was built to the west to house the sheriff's office and a local jail. In 1936, Ojai artist John Palo-Kangas, commissioned under the Federal Art Project, made an imposing statue of Father Junipero Serra to stand on the green out front, the guard of God and justice. In the atrium between the two wings--built in 1981--is a huge wooden replica of the statue built by the Channel Islands Carvers. In the fine tradition of granting equal time, another wall features a mural replicating Chumash rock paintings.

It was in this courthouse in 1958 that Elizabeth Duncan became the last woman sentenced to death in the county, for the murder of her pregnant daughter-in-law, whose lifeless body was dumped near Ojai. By 1968, though, the noble courthouse was condemned as an earthquake risk.

The city, eager to preserve a landmark and looking for a good home for its City Hall, bought the structure and spent $3.4 million to renovate it. For earthquake proofing, a special epoxy foam made a bond between the terra cotta face and the interior walls. Gladding, McBean and Co.--still in business--had some of the original molds from its work of six decades before, and the decorative terra cotta surfaces were meticulously recreated.

Much as we take it for granted, the City Hall hums with history. You can still hear, as a real-life Jake Gittes might have, high heels clicking in rhythm, echoing down the marble-lined halls. You can stroll around in the ageless splendor, and follow the brass railing up the central marble stairway to the space that was the courtroom and now houses the City Council. In that central chamber, light filters into the dark mahogany-filled room from a stained-glass skylight and arched windows with a postcard-perfect view.

And you can still gaze up at the rows of friars' faces. Their expressions vary slightly, crossing the line between beatific smiles to knowing smirks. Official word has it that those curious, anonymous friars provide a link to Ventura's Mission heritage. But what I see in their pudgy faces is an attitude of repose. They take the long, slow view of history in a region that relishes life in the fast lane.

A real repository of Southern California lore, the City Hall is one of those landmarks you can't escape. It rewards the attentive observer with a sense of wonder and a sense of the past. And there has always been more where that came from.

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