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STRUCTURES : Visitors Are In for a Shock--As Fillmore Was Jan. 17 : Historic downtown is largely boarded up; buildings are in varying stages of habitability. But there's a sense of a town in recovery.

March 10, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A brightly hued brochure from the Fillmore Chamber of Commerce describes the town, and not deceptively, as "the home of blue skies, orange groves, clear air, star-studded nights and small-town values." Today, both the Chamber of Commerce office and the office of the Fillmore Herald are closed--civic hubs rendered unusable by a seismic act of God.

If you haven't been to Fillmore lately, chances are that you're in for a shock, as was this humble town on the early morning of Jan. 17. Of all the towns in Ventura County, it was Fillmore that took the worst beating in that 6.8 quake.

Even casual observation reveals a town turned asunder. There are no apparent signs of destruction visible as you drive down California 126, with its faceless strip-mall franchises still intact. The problem lies where it counts most, as you turn onto Central Avenue, the heart of the old town.

That once-charming downtown area is now largely boarded up, its crumbled facades bandaged behind scaffolding that keeps pedestrians out of harm's way. All over town, red, green and yellow tags from building inspectors are displayed in windows, indicating degrees of habitability.

All is not lost. The south side of Central is flanked by two notable historic structures, still standing and suddenly taking on symbolic importance. The Italianate former Fillmore State Bank, built by Albert C. Martin in 1917, was unscathed. At the opposite end of the block stands the impressive former Farmers & Merchants Bank, built in 1913.

But between these stalwart bookends, several buildings have been red-tagged and closed to public access. The sight is a sad one, but humor has its day too. The Up In Arms store is boarded up, with "Gone Fishing" scrawled in big letters on plywood. Across the street, too, many buildings sit in varying states of ruin, while demolition is well under way on others.

At the actual and sentimental heart of the destruction is the condemned theater, "The Show," built in 1915 and one of the last remaining independent small-town theaters in Southern California. The debilitated florist shop, connected to the theater building, now sits behind a pile of brick and debris, with a sign in the window reading "Delivering flowers. I'll be back in a moment."

It will be a long moment. The "Notice and Order" from the city of Fillmore attached to the theater tells all: "East wall has partially collapsed and supports the roof structure . . . the front and side parapets partial failure . . . marquee in partial collapse."

Partial collapse is as functional a term as any to describe what's happened in Fillmore. More than half the businesses in the historic one-block stretch of Central have been crippled by the quake.

But there's also a sense of this being a town in recovery, with a stubborn will to survive. That very marquee in partial collapse now reads "The Best Town Ever."

One sure sign of recovery is the huge temporary structure, a makeshift emporium with a space-age ambience, which has been erected at the entrance to the old town area. This long twin-peaked, onion-shaped structure will provide a place of business for those put out by the quake.

While the Northridge quake has radically altered the face of Fillmore, this was not the first instance of earthquake damage here. In the 1971 Sylmar quake, registering 6.3 on the Richter scale, pieces of an upstairs wall of the Briggs Hardware building tumbled onto the adjacent Martha's and collapsed the roof. That isolated incident proved to be a hint of things to come.

Ironically, it was that very aspect of Fillmore's charm--the historic small-town atmosphere--that also contributed to its downfall. If there's a lesson here, it has to do with the perils of brick-and-mortar structures in a seismically sensitive area.

What makes Fillmore's earthquake damage more dramatic, in one sense, than the damage closer to the Northridge epicenter is the blow to the unity of its architectural and historical character. Whereas the San Fernando Valley, because of its sprawl, has had trouble maintaining a cohesive identity, Fillmore has had the advantage of being a small town blissfully apart from the urban reality.

That was especially true of Central Avenue. Now, that block, once a bastion of archival architecture dating back to the period between 1910 and 1920, when the biggest building boom occurred, has suffered a serious blow. The inevitable incursion of strip-mall elements and fast-food joints on California 126 has threatened to chip away at the singular character of this railroad town, one that never got co-opted into the suburban mesh of Southern California.

Little more than a month after the shake, the story of the fall and the rise of Fillmore continues. Along with that process, its sense of identity is put to the test by unforeseen circumstances.

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