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L.A. Then and Now

Mission cross is a lasting Ventura landmark

The symbol, which dates to 1782, has survived natural and man-made challenges.

August 24, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

For more than two centuries, the old mission cross perched on a hill above Ventura has been a highly visible beacon for travelers. The first explorers came by ship and mule. Today, motorists speed past the landmark that lies east of Highway 101.

With a sweeping view of coastal Ventura and the Channel Islands beyond, it's been the site of countless weddings, anniversaries and first kisses. The landmark survived Ventura's transition from a dusty mission outpost to a bustling modern city.

Five years ago, it withstood a potential constitutional lawsuit challenging the city's ownership of the religious symbol. But the marker's biggest foe has been the elements.

In the 226 years since the cross was first planted, its timbers have been replaced at least twice and possibly three times. The historical record is unclear.

Earlier crosses withered away or were blown down in winter storms that came roaring over the beach city.

Last replaced in 1941, the 26-foot emblem is still in good shape. But the one-acre plot surrounding it, including an asphalt parking area, needs a major face-lift, civic boosters say.

Plans are underway to do just that, said Marie Lakin, spokeswoman for the Serra Cross Conservancy, a nonprofit group that maintains the site. Preservationists are in the midst of a campaign to raise $1 million to add a circular walkway, benches and landscaping.

A parking lot would also be relocated to give the immediate area surrounding the cross a more peaceful feel, she said.

"It's an underutilized gem," Lakin said. "Everyone goes up there and looks around because it's got the most amazing view. But no one's been able to fix it up and make it a lovely, leisurely park to stroll around."

"La Loma de la Cruz," as it was called by the earliest Spanish residents, was established under the direction of Padre Junipero Serra shortly after he founded San Buenaventura Mission on Easter Sunday in 1782. The mission is the ninth in a series of 21 missions erected by Spanish friars across California and is the last built by Serra.

California at that time was untamed land with few roads. The cross, milled from pine trees, was planted high on a hill to help travelers find the mission. Most historical accounts say the original cross stood for nearly 100 years.

On Nov. 2, 1875, fierce winds and rain knocked down the cross, leaving its parts scattered around the scrubby hillside. Don Jose de Arnaz, one of the city's prominent citizens, climbed up the hill the next day with his daughter Ventura to inspect the damage.

Ventura wanted a souvenir of the visit and took a scrolled, two-foot piece inscribed "INRI," the Latin acronym for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," often found on the top of Christian crosses. Her pluck proved to be of great value to historians.

After keeping the piece for much of her life, Ventura Arnaz donated it to the local historical museum. Today the piece, which was attached to the original cross with wooden pegs, is one of the Museum of Ventura County's prized possessions.

Father Juan, the mission priest, had said he intended to replace the fallen emblem at once. But the hill sat vacant for the next 37 years.

Entrepreneur K.P. Grant bought up the 100 acres of land surrounding the cross site, intending to build an observatory "where men of science might study the heavens," according to E.M. Sheridan, a writer for the Ventura Star. He even went so far as to purchase a six-inch telescope crafted by Alvin Clark.

But the people of Ventura didn't show much enthusiasm for Grant's idea. Instead, citizens led by members of the E.C.O. Club, a women's service group, pitched in to erect a new cross in 1912. As he neared old age, Grant abandoned his initial dream and deeded the land to the city of Ventura.

The cross was erected in 1912 on Admission Day -- the anniversary of California's admission as a state -- to big fanfare, complete with band music, speeches and an original poem.

It was replaced once more by the city in 1941.

In the spring of 2003, a Ventura man filed a lawsuit challenging the city's ownership of the symbol, saying it violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

Citizens proposed a solution for the city: Sell a one-acre parcel surrounding the cross to a private group, which would then maintain it.

On Sept. 22, 2003, the Serra Cross Park was sold to San Buenaventura Heritage, now known as the Serra Cross Conservancy. It was the highest bidder at $104,216.87, said Christy Weir, who helped spearhead the idea.

"Rather than spending years in a court battle and millions of dollars of city money, we thought there was a more practical solution," said Weir, now the city's mayor.

"For a lot of people, it's a personal landmark in their lives. We didn't want someone else to have control over what happened to it."

The nonprofit has since managed the site, arranging for weddings, parties and other private events. Cross grounds, in Ventura's Grant Park, are open to the public daily at no cost.

Weir and other city leaders are hoping that the planned beautification project will draw more people interested in its historical significance -- or those who just want to see a magnificent view.

To donate, send a check or money order to Serra Cross Conservancy, P.O. Box 48, Ventura, CA 93002.

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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