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Preservationists, Educators Square Off Over Old School

Some want landmark status for the 80-year-old building, but the Conejo Valley district fears such a move might limit its use of the site.

June 29, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

As Thousand Oaks celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, a group of preservation-minded residents are pushing to have the oldest remaining school building in town designated a historic landmark.

The former two-classroom building once known as Timber School is at the center of a skirmish between the school district, which owns the 80-year-old structure, and those who want to save the building.

"We're not opposed to making it a historic landmark, [but] it's still our land and we want to be able to use it" as the district chooses, said Dorothy Beaubien, president of the Conejo Valley Unified School District board.

Fearing that the building may be lost, residents and activists are urging the board to preserve the structure. They say the building, though less than a century old, is a valuable part of the region's history and that it's never too early to start safeguarding such structures.

"You have to start somewhere, and if you don't lay the groundwork now, these sites get lost forever," said Linda Van Dolsen, chairwoman of a citizens' committee that will help the City Council determine whether Timber School should receive landmark status.

The original wooden, one-room schoolhouse was built in 1889 on the southwest corner of the 10-acre property at Newberry and Kelly roads. It was replaced in 1924 by the existing concrete, one-story, Mission Revival building that houses the administrative offices of Conejo Valley High School.

But plans are underway to relocate the continuation high school to a site on Janss Road near district headquarters, with construction tentatively planned to begin in fall 2005.

At issue is what happens to the remaining buildings and property, which includes a maintenance yard and warehouse.

The city's General Plan foresees the Timber School site eventually being used by developers interested in a prime location adjacent to the Ventura Freeway. But giving the building historic status could have some bearing on how the rest of the property is developed.

The building -- with round arches and a domed bell tower -- was designed by Roy C. Wilson, the first licensed architect in Ventura County.

Wilson's Santa Paula firm designed hundreds of buildings in the county from the 1920s through 1970, including the 9,600-square-foot Santa Paula mansion of pioneering citrus rancher Charles Collins Teague, Nordoff High School in Ojai, Ventura College stadium and Santa Paula Memorial Hospital.

Seven Wilson buildings have been designated county landmarks, including three public schools: Hueneme Elementary in Port Hueneme, and Barbara Webster School and Isbell Middle School, both in Santa Paula. All were built in the 1920s.

William Maple, a committee member who also sits on the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board, helped develop a historical narrative of Timber School for the committee. Even a young city such as Thousand Oaks, Maple said, should be concerned about preserving its history.

"This school is older than the other three [public school] landmarks, and provides a nice chance to tie in to the history of the overall county," said Maple, who designs museum exhibits.

The committee, after several months of meetings, recently approved a list of recommendations to forward to the City Council, which in its capacity as the city's Cultural Heritage Board is scheduled to take up the matter July 13 and ultimately will decide on the historical status of the school building and the land it occupies. If granted such status, the site could become eligible for state preservation funding.

With original design drawings available, the building could be fully restored, Van Dolsen said.

At the school district's insistence, the committee is expected to recommend that a historic designation not restrict how the district uses the property.

The property may work better for a commercial developer because of its proximity to the freeway and the fact that it's flanked on two sides by businesses, Beaubien said. "It's a very valuable piece of property," she said.

It's unknown whether receiving historic status would reduce or increase the property's value. Although never formally appraised, district officials say developers have offered as much as $5 million for the site.

The city may have to buy the historic portion of the property to ensure the school district doesn't lose any money, committee members said. Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Bill-de la Pena said she and Councilman Ed Masry are "committed to making sure a historic designation does not have a negative financial impact on the school district." She said the city is primarily interested in that portion of the property occupied by the school building.

"The goal is to preserve the school, and [that] to preserve it won't cost an arm and a leg," she said.

Mayor Bob Wilson Sr. said the district, which has turned to the city for about $4 million in financial assistance over the last year, cannot afford to lose money on its property.

"I feel strongly that the city should buy that building from the school district," Wilson said. "If there's a historic component, then it's the city's responsibility to take care of it."

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