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STRUCTURES : History and More : Peirano's Grocery store in downtown Ventura stands atop a recent archeological find. What's a city to do?


Whether to serve the master of historical preservation, commerce, redevelopment or all three--that is the question burning on the corner of Figueroa and Main streets in downtown Ventura. Peirano's Grocery store and the former Wilson Studio are sitting dormant, awaiting decisions being contemplated in City Hall.

To the casual observer, the store is a dusty, brick-walled slice of history. "Fresh and Cured Meat . . . Fresh Fruits and Vegetables" are now empty promises faded but legible on the storefront facade.

To Venturans of long standing, the store is a significant reminder of the Ventura of old. It also is a bulwark against the threat of thoughtless redevelopment in an area of downtown Ventura richer in history than any other. To entrepreneurs, the property is a potential cornerstone in a future downtown renewal plan.

Hanging in the balance is the status of the building itself. When the city of Ventura bought the place from Nick Peirano Jr. in 1987, it put out RFPs (Request for Proposals) to lure prospective businesses. But the city found the cost of meeting stringent earthquake-proofing standards prohibitive to would-be takers.

The plot has grown considerably thicker this fall, since renowned Southern California archeologist Roberta Greenwood helped to discover beneath the floorboards of Wilson Studio a Mission lavanderia (a large washbasin like the one in front of the Santa Barbara Mission) dating back to the 1700s.

How is the city to deal with a property that had already been acknowledged as a historical landmark and now has added archeological worth as well? In the next few months, Ventura's City Council is expected to consider the options of making the archeological find available for public view, of covering it with sand for safekeeping or deciding on yet another course of action.

All of this hullabaloo might have amused or warmed the heart of Italian immigrant Alex Gandolfo, the original proprietor of the store built in 1877 by J.J. Mahoney for Blackburn and Brooks. His nephew, Nicola Peirano, came over from Genoa, Italy, and took over running the store in 1893, building a warehouse next door before the turn of the century.

Into the early years of the 20th Century, the store abutted the old Ventura Chinatown--although the Chinese kept to their own enclave and had their own store. Nick Peirano Jr. ran the store, first with his brother, Victor, and then on his own, from the '30s until 1987.

"My dad carried everything from baling wire to shotgun shells and black powder, fresh vegetables . . . not too much meat in those days, because everybody had their ranches and most of them had their own meat," Peirano explained in an oral history.

Today, the building, even in its mute, dilapidated state, is a fascinating anomaly in a neighborhood chockablock with thrift stores. Ornamental relief brickwork dignifies the trim on the roof facing the fountain, square and, fittingly, the Ventura Museum of History and Art.

The brick masonry contrasts with the mansard, Spanish revival red tile roof above the storefront. In the store's heyday, a portico projected toward the street to protect the produce bins on the Main Street sidewalk.

On its west-facing wall, there are now brightly painted, large-scale period-piece paintings done in 1987 by Linda Taylor, which advertise Borax and Ghirardelli chocolate. Vestiges of history are all around. The Mission sits in its timeless splendor across the street, and next to it is the Albinger Archeological Museum.

A block away on Figueroa sits another historical landmark that serves as an unofficial adjunct to the store. The Peirano House, also a historical landmark, was built in 1897 in the ornate and then-popular Queen Anne style of Victorian architecture. Elements of the "Eastlake" style, such as the elaborate turned wood of its porches, add to the distinction of the structure, now home to an attorney and a psychologist. Law and order.

The homeyness and rococo flourish of the Peirano House is in marked contrast to the more foursquare, utilitarian design a block away at the family store. And yet it is the store that hums with a prouder, louder sense of history.

What is it about a building that so piques the public curiosity?

"It seems to me that the community has always loved this building," said Miriam Mack, the redevelopment administrator with the Ventura Revitalization Agency, who has been intimately involved in the ongoing saga of the store. "It's been a grocery store since 1877. Architecturally, it's rare in our city, and everybody seems to have fond memories of the building. It seems to be important.

"That was one of the reasons the city decided to buy when Nick Peirano was talking about closing down. We felt that if the city had ownership, it could be sure that the ultimate user would, number one, rehabilitate it sensitively and properly, and, number two, maximize the economic potential of that corner. It's a real key corner of downtown retail."

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