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STRUCTURES : Episcopal Church : Fillmore's landmark was moved there from Port Hueneme, where it was built in 1901.

August 27, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is some ring of poetic justice that Fillmore, one of the last great small towns in the swollen geography we call Southern California, is home to some historically significant architectural gems.

You find them in the strangest places. The Bardsdale Methodist church is a startling baby-blue oasis amid orange groves. The Trinity Episcopalian church, tucked away a few blocks off Fillmore's main drag, is an edifice from another place and time.

You may have seen glimpses of the church in the TV miniseries "The Thorn Birds," in which the building stood in for a turn-of-the-century Australian church. If you saw the recent exhibition of Ann Hyun's pencil drawings at the Fillmore Chamber of Commerce, you saw an affectionate rendering of the church.

But when it comes to architectural appreciation, there's nothing like the real McCoy. There she stands, a pristine redwood relic at the corner of Second and Saratoga streets, a 91-year-old church ringed by a manicured lawn and with a looming pine tree on the property.

For the uninitiated, stumbling across the church, a classic small town parish of yore, is akin to slipping into the warm bath of history.

Like many a historical landmark (this church was officially declared a County Landmark in 1979), the Episcopal church carries with it a background that taps into the story of Ventura County's yesteryear. Its past is not as unbroken as you might expect.

The impressive structure can be traced back to the efforts of the early Ventura County settler Sen. Thomas Bard. Bard himself was Presbyterian, while his wife was Episcopalian. Thus, he had a role in building churches for both denominations.

At a price tag of $1,846.25, Bard had the church built in 1901, in the section of his rambling estate--now the Port Hueneme Naval Base--called Berylwood. Bard died in 1915 and was buried in the graveyard behind the church.

Later, the very nature of Port Hueneme changed radically. Whereas it had initially seemed that Hueneme might become the main port for Los Angeles, shipping routes focused farther south and the town of Oxnard developed much faster than expected.

As the parishioners splintered off, another Episcopalian church, using the same plans as the Hueneme church, was built in Oxnard. Meanwhile, in 1933, Bard's original church was moved, board-by-numbered-board, to its Fillmore roost, where it was exactingly reconstructed.

In 1948, a parish hall was added to the rear of the church, at a cost of $8,283, four times the cost of the original.

The rich, tangential background of this house of worship is a point of pride for the congregation. Church member Laura Bartels showed a reporter through the place recently, noting that "you can see how the boards don't quite fit together perfectly."

Bartels reported that the congregation consists of about 60 families. "It's been limited somewhat by its size," she said.

Parishioner Reg Hammond's involvement in the church goes back to the late 1930s. After living in various parts of California, he and his wife returned to Fillmore and have belonged to the church since 1975.

Hammond commented: "The parish has really looked after (the church) and kept it in good repair. A wooden church of this kind for a small congregation is very meaningful."

The sanctuary interior is a pleasant, darkly hued celebration of wood, with cross-bracing rafters and exposed beams overhead. Chandeliers, small diamond- shaped stained glass windows, and relief sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross, contrast with the otherwise wood-filled space.

As rare and evocative as the church appears at this historical juncture, its design is a careful blend of the stolid and the ornate--not unlike the Episcopalian creed itself.

The Episcopal church was the extension of the Anglican church, which first migrated to the United States in the 1600s. The religious practices mediate the structures of both Protestant and Catholic faiths. Architecturally, too, Episcopalian churches often express a similar duality in which formality meets casual, organic warmth.

Gabled, shingled roofs define the general layout, from the chapel to the flared gable roof on the bell tower that sits atop the entryway.

A gabled roof even graces the ceremonial lich gate at the corner, which announces the outer entrance to the property. Originally designed as a resting place for a coffin in a funeral procession ( liche is Saxon for body), the gate now serves as a decorative flourish that helps to set the church apart from its suburban neighborhood.

That goes for the stylistic, architectural neighborhood, as well. This is one of those buildings whose humble beauty only increases with age.

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