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STRUCTURES : Pearl of Piru : Ventura County's most dramatic Queen Anne-style Victorian house overlooks the tiny town.

July 25, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tucked up off of California 126 between Fillmore and Valencia is Piru, a postage-stamp sized town cut right out of the American dream. And what American small town would be complete without the proverbial house on the hill?

Following a road up a short, winding road off the main drag, you stumble on a little Xanadu, a 10-acre lot with finely manicured grounds, orange groves and most impressively, Ventura County's most dramatic Queen Anne-style Victorian house.

Victorian architecture--particularly the complex, more-is-better look embodied by the Queen Anne style--revels in contrast and diversity. What modernists and minimalists might find gaudy and excessive--the obsolete pretensions of a gilded past--others find an extravagant form of architectural expression. In the past several years, though, the Victorian style has been reassessed. With its rampant sense of eclecticism, Victorian architecture could be seen as a direct ancestor of post-modernism.

In the Piru mansion, you find a polyrhythmic pattern of forms and a general avoidance of homogeneity or symmetry. To the right, a three-story tower of neatly fitted sandstone and copper anchors the design. Another, subtler tower form is tucked into the left end of the house. Other forms of the house collide in a happy heap of geometry.

A variety of roofs converge into a roof cresting on top, and a phoenix sits atop a finial. The soft lime-green walls have been covered with both fish-scale shingles and horizontal siding. There's lots to look at.

In a way, the mansion's place in Piru makes perfect sense. "I call Piru the slowest-growing town in California," says Ruth Newhall, in the mahogany-lined library of the house she lives in with her husband, Scott. "I'm afraid it's not going to stay that way. In due course of time, they're going to get the freeway through here, which none of us want. It has changed very little in the last century, really."

Looking at the Newhall house, it would appear that it has changed less than most things in town since it was first completed a century ago. In fact, what you see rose from the ashes of a fire in 1981, which burned the house to the ground. Today, a small black scorch mark under one of the eaves on a chimney is almost the only hint of its incendiary past. That chimney was rebuilt after it fell during the 1979 earthquake: What nature turns asunder shall devoted homeowners rebuild.

In the late 1800s, publisher David C. Cook hired Sam and Joseph Newsom, the highly regarded brothers-in-design, to build his Piru mansion. It was finished in 1890, for the then-princely sum of $50,000. Cook's memory is ensured some longevity via the numerous "C" initials he planted throughout the house, including on the frame of the balcony.

In West Coast architectural circles, the Newsoms were well-known. Working first out of the Bay Area and then in Southern California, they were respected for their mastery of the ornate Queen Anne style.

On the outlandish end of their spectrum was the wild, opulent home they designed for lumber baron William Carson in Eureka. More a storybook castle than a residence, it remains a textbook example of nearly satirical Victorian-era excess.

Their fruits in Piru are more moderate. The house is a more persuasive argument for the vitality of the Victorian style.

Although the Newhalls have lived in Piru for 23 years, Scott Newhall plays a role in a much longer local history lesson. His great-grandfather, Henry Mayo Newhall, bought large chunks of land in the county in the 1800s, including the area between Piru and south. When he granted land rights to Southern Pacific and the railroad passed through, the township of Newhall was formed.

As a child, Scott Newhall remembered admiring the old Piru mansion. He spent years in San Francisco as publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle. When the couple decided to leave the Bay Area, they were drawn back to these parts by the sudden availability of both the coveted mansion and the Newhall Signal, which the family ran for many years.

After the fire, hundreds of photographs of the old structure--inside and out--poured in from concerned locals. On the basis of this unofficial pictorial documentation, and their memory of 18 years spent in the house, they launched into the rebuilding project.

Restoring the house turned out to be a 2 1/2-year project, involving up to 40 workers at a time. Skilled crafts people were required, and the Newhalls found most of them here in Ventura County.

"They were all so eager to do it that they worked very reasonably," Ruth Newhall said. "They enjoyed it. There aren't many jobs like this."

Scott Newhall also did much of the metal work on the house. They now have a fully equipped machine shop in the basement. "My husband is a frustrated machinist," Ruth Newhall said.

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