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JAUNTS : Oxnard's Heritage Square Offers Quick Trip Back in Time : The collection of Victorian mansions now hosts activities such as a farmers' market, concerts, weddings and tours.

July 29, 1993|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was like this: Downtown Oxnard had what might be called an image problem. Meanwhile, a number of the town's historic mansions had a date with a wrecking ball. Teaming the two elements was a marriage made in heaven; the union produced Heritage Square.

Nearly two years after its opening, the honeymoon is still on. Within the complex of noble structures, nostalgic activities are expanding like Victorian families.

On Fridays, after the square's offices close, a time machine kicks in. Growers gather at 5 p.m. on the south edge of the block to offer fresh vegetables and snacks at a farmers' market. Picnickers settle on the grass and the porches overlooking the plaza to enjoy an early evening band concert. Special festivities are planned for holidays. Period weddings are booked nearly every weekend.

The latest venture is weekend walking tours to show off the 100-year-old architecture.

To take part in the walks, townsfolk and tourists gather in the Disneyland-neat courtyard accented with flawless flower gardens. They are greeted by guides dressed in quaint turn-of-the-century costumes and, as it happened on a recent Saturday, a man in a T-shirt and paint-splashed trousers.

The man was Gary E. Blum, descendant of a pioneer Oxnard family, a docent at the square, and owner of Petit House, the massive Queen-Anne style home of his great-grandparents that dominates the courtyard.

Blum knows this place like the back of his hand. He was there when the homes were trucked in from surrounding fields like raw skeletons, stripped of their lath and plaster, and resurrected on site over the span of five years.

He saw the replica of the Maulhardt winery go up brick by brick, authentic to the detail of the windows out of plumb with the roof ridge.

He can point out the original structure of the stately McGrath House and the new wheelchair-accessible porch blended to match the style.

He knows the beveled glass windows were stolen from the First Church of Christ Scientist, and had to be restored.

The Carpenter-Gothic style church, rechristened Heritage Hall, has been secularized with 1940s theatre seats, and is minus altar and organ. However, it is becoming a popular spot for weddings. Blum says the parties "usually bring in a boombox" to play the wedding march.

But it is Petit House that Blum is truly intimate with, from its witch's cap tower to the porch roofs painted blue to match the sky.

Justin and Frances Petit contracted with Herman Anlauf to design their home on Wooley Road in the Colonia district for the sum of $8,000. It was completed in 1896 with 7,000 square feet, two staircases, seven entrances, seven bedrooms, two parlors and two maids' quarters. Most bedrooms had outside entrances, which gave gentlemen the option of strolling out to the fields instead of visiting the one bathroom.

"He couldn't get used to indoor plumbing," said the owner's great-grandson. "He thought it was wasteful of water."

The couple raised seven children in the home. The last of them, Ed Petit, died in residence in 1964. For the next two decades, the building housed farm laborers.

Blum brought the building to its present location in sections, restored or had rebuilt to authentic detail every floorboard, balustrade, mantel, etched transom and column in the home, as well as the curved glass windows in the front wing.

As a finishing touch, over one entrance is a keystone carved with the initials J. P., salvaged from an original chimney. Alas, Frances Petit was not so immortalized. But her portrait hangs in the entry alongside that of her husband.

Since its restoration, the home has been acclaimed in "America's Painted Ladies," the ultimate architectural coffee table book published by Dutton in 1992.

There are eleven homes in the square, each an Oxnard landmark, each carefully renovated and painted in earth tones coordinated by a color consultant. The result is a virtual Victorian theme park.

The tour ends at an ancient water tower salvaged from the Pfeiler ranch on Rice Road. A pair of time capsules was buried under the tower when the square was opened in 1991.

With the disclaimer that he was not in on the choice of contents, Blum says the time capsules contain, among other artifacts, a Bart Simpson doll, tapes by M. C. Hammer and Madonna ("Her tape was No. 1 that week"), a proclamation by then-mayor Nao Takasugi, three local newspapers and a video of "Pretty Woman."

At the visitors center, director Ruth Bernstein says the purchase and restoration of the buildings, a joint venture involving the city and private investors, has cost $10 million. She considers it money well spent.

"The success of the concerts is an indication that Oxnard is still alive and people will still come together as a community," she said.

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