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L.A. THEN AND NOW

A treasure trove of trash withers in Simi Valley

How Bottle Village came to be is up for debate; how it will end remains to be seen.

November 23, 2008|Steve Harvey | Steve Harvey is a frequent contributor to L.A. Then and Now.

Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley is a place of many mysteries, but one story holds that it was created largely out of thousands of beer containers to remind the founder's husband how much he drank.

Another story is that Tressa Prisbrey in 1956, then pushing 60, merely wanted a place for her collection of 17,000 writing implements, so she built the first two bottle-walled structures, Pencil House 1 and Pencil House 2. Johnny Carson donated a pencil.

Prisbrey went on to build 11 more bottle structures on the property in the 1960s. Perhaps it was true that she hoped her projects would block the stench from a nearby poultry farm.

The construction -- she did the walls, others did the roofs and hung the doors -- no doubt helped her deal with the death of her 39-year-old daughter.

Whatever her motivations, Prisbrey (1896-1988) constructed an eccentric folk-art wonderland out of the colorful castoffs from a local dump.

"Anyone can do something with a million dollars. Look at Disney," Prisbrey once said. "But it takes more than money to make something out of nothing, and look at the fun I have doing it."

She also made a few dollars giving tours, which she began conducting when curious passersby started showing up on her doorstep.

Prisbrey, a Minnesota native, didn't consider herself an artist. "I can't even draw a car," she had said. But her Bottle Village has been designated a state landmark, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and featured in several books.

One can almost hear Prisbrey uttering one of her favorite lines: "Well, imagine that!"

Alas, for some in the community, Bottle Village is an example of one man's treasure being another man's junk.

It has never received much government or neighborhood support. The 1994 Northridge earthquake destroyed several of its structures, and others need repair. Preserve Bottle Village, a nonprofit group that now owns the property, gives private tours but is searching for grant money. There is little activity on the uninhabited site now.

"Crumbling Bottle Village is an ironic paradox -- built from castoffs, now cast aside," wrote artist Joanne Johnson, one of the tour guides.

Hoping to increase membership in Simi Valley's most famous landmark, Preserve Bottle Village is holding an open house from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. today. Entrance to the property at 4595 Cochran St. is free, though the group asks for a donation of $20 per family.

Visitors may first notice the property's mosaic walkway, which has such inlaid items as pink stove tops, variously colored tiles and marbles, a Mickey Mouse guitar, a 1939 California license plate, the inside of a pencil sharpener, a doll arm, some broken eyeglass frames and upside-down laundry irons.

Then there's the wishing well made of blue milk of magnesia bottles, a planter consisting of burned-out headlights and a "spring garden" made of old bed and car springs.

"Never needs watering," Prisbrey noted.

In the back are large, flat sculptures in the shape of a heart, a diamond, a spade and a club. "Grandma liked to go to Vegas," explains Johnson, who knew Prisbrey in her final years. Standing near an assemblage of brown Arden milk bottles, Johnson says that one of the things she finds fascinating about Bottle Village is that it's a walk back in time, "a sort of consumer waste archive. It's the glass era preserved."

While children delight in the sights, Johnson points out that Prisbrey had a sort of gothic, grown-up sense of humor too.

"Bottle Village," for instance, is spelled out on the walkway in rifle shell casings. A doll in one room wears a dress adorned with beer-can pop tabs. A false fireplace in the Round House has a screen made of intravenous feeding tubes. "When the wind blows, they sound like glass chimes," Johnson says.

The Meditation Room, one of the structures destroyed by the Northridge quake, isn't quite what it seems.

"It had a golden feel to it because the walls were made of beer bottles," Johnson says, recalling one visit. "Grandma sat down to play her piano and you expected hymns. But she sang some bawdy songs. Then she just turned and smiled."

Imagine that.

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steveharvey9@gmail.com

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