How One Town Saved its Crumbling Homes

01
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A Bold Move to Rescue Historic Architecture in Oxnard, California

Filigreed Porch of Victorian Home in Oxnard, California
The Pfeiler Ranch House in Heritage Square, Oxnard, California (1877). © Jackie Craven

Urban development hits like a tsunami. Like many communities across the United States, Oxnard in southern California saw some of its most cherished older homes face the wrecking ball. In 1985, plans for a new parking lot threatened two Victorian era houses and a Carpenter Gothic church. Other historic properties scattered throughout the City faced similar fates. Could these buildings be saved?

In an ideal world, historic homes take priority over shopping malls, and significant architecture can be restored and preserved on site. But all too often, the steamrollers cannot be stopped. Hoping to save the town's architectural heritage, Dennis Matthews, an administrator for the Oxnard Redevelopment Agency, proposed a bold solution—create a sanctuary for endangered buildings. He suggested that the town establish a protected area where derelict and threatened buildings could be relocated.

The Oxnard Plan:

Between 1985 and 1991, eleven houses, a pump house, a water tower, and a church were lifted onto flatbed trucks, transported across town, and transplanted in the newly created Heritage Square. Some buildings went through extensive renovations. Only parts of the original water tower could be saved. But once the $9+ million project was completed, Oxnard had picturesque complex of older buildings, ranging from early Victorians to Arts & Crafts architecture from the 1900s. The restored buildings are used for professional offices, shops, and restaurants.

The Pfeiler Ranch House:

The oldest home in the complex is the Pfeiler Ranch House, built in 1877. Originally located on ranch land at 1980 Rice Road, the home has Italianate flourishes popular at the time. Restored are the curved windows, decorative eave brackets, and porch filigree. The color scheme is not original, but consistent with the palette chosen for buildings relocated to Heritage Square.

Find the Pfeiler Ranch House at: 220 Seventh Street, Oxnard, California

02
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This Queen Anne Found a New Home

Elaborate Queen Anne Victorian in Oxnard, California
The Justin Petit Ranch House in Oxnard, California (1896). © Jackie Craven

Towers and verandas! Beaded columns! Spindles, spools, and colored glass! That's 32-tons of Victorian exuberance, hoisted from its foundation and transported across town. "One little slip and it's firewood," redevelopment administrator Dennis Matthews told the Los Angeles Times.

Miraculously, the 7,100-square-foot Justin Petit Ranch House survived the journey, moving from 1900 E. Wooley Road, Oxnard, California to the tourist destination and business park that is Oxnard's Heritage Square. Fifteen years after the big move, the Eastlake-inspired Queen Anne mansion thrives as a living example of the town's architectural heritage.

The Justin Petit Ranch House:

Designed and built by Herman Anlauf and Franklin Ward, the Justin Petit house had been a 13-room homestead for prosperous farmers of lima beans, sugar beets, and lemons. According to Ventura County records, the home was the first in the area to have electric lights.

Today the interior rooms are used as business offices. Visitors are welcome to stroll Heritage Square and examine the carefully preserved exterior details of the Justin Petit Ranch house and more than a dozen other historic buildings relocated to the commercial park. The restored house was featured in the E.P. Dutton book, America's Painted Ladies (1992).
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Find the Justin Petit Ranch House at: 730 South B Street, Oxnard, California

03
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Can an Old House Learn New Ways?

Music, dinner, and Victorian architecture in Heritage Square, Oxnard, California
The Heritage Square plaza is a cheerful setting for festive events. Here, a party gathers in front of the Perkins / Claberg House (1887). © Jackie Craven

What happens to old structures when they are moved from their original settings? Preservation specialists for the US Department of the Interior say that relocated buildings lose historic integrity. But, what if the building is deteriorating and faces demolition? Sometimes the only way to save a home is to give it a new home.

Relocation combined with adaptive reuse allowed preservationists in Oxnard, California to restore more than a dozen old structures, including the landmark Perkins-Claberg House.

The Perkins-Claberg House:

Built in 1887, the elaborately gabled home displays the craftsmanship of Danish-born master carpenter Jens Rasmussen. Although a Queen Anne, the house also has unusual flat spindles and ornamental half-timbering characteristic of the Victorian Stick Style. Owner David Tod Perkins was President of Union Oil Company and later became a State Assemblyman. From 1920 to 1980, the Clabergs lived and raised their families in the elegant home. One of the Claberg daughters, Stella, surrounded the house with plants collected from around the world.

In the early 1990s, the entire house, including its basement, made a five-mile journey from 465 Pleasant Road to Heritage Square in downtown Oxnard, California. The porch and bay window now face a brick plaza where community members and visitors often gather for concerts and other events. The interior rooms have been converted into commercial space.

Find the Perkins-Claberg House at: 721 South A Street, Oxnard, California

04
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This Old Church Needed Salvation

Carpenter Gothic Church in Oxnard, California
Heritage Square Hall in Oxnard, California (1902). © Jackie Craven

Small church, big problems. The town's only remaining wooden Victorian church would have to be moved, or it faced demolition. Built in 1902, the Christian Church of Oxnard, California still had many of its original Carpenter Gothic details, including a soaring stained glass window. Local preservationists wanted the building saved. Combining City redevelopment money with private contributions, they raised more than $9 million in funds. By the early 1990s, the church had a new home several blocks across town in the newly-created Heritage Square.

The Church at the Center:

Heritage Square is a park-like complex with more than a dozen historic buildings collected from various parts of Oxnard and its surroundings. The collection is an odd, anachronistic mix:  Early Victorian houses nestle beside 20th century Arts & Crafts architecture. The buildings are arranged in a circular formation, their carefully restored facades facing a brick plaza with fountains, paths, and small gardens. Harmonizing the mixture of architectural styles, all the buildings are painted a professionally-coordinated palette of cream, gold, rose, green, and taupe.

Preservation purists will say that history never looked this good. Oxnard's Heritage Park is a fanciful re-creation where old buildings take on new roles in settings very different from the ones the original designers imagined. Still, the project has provided urgently-needed protection for architecture otherwise doomed for demolition. In their picturesque new setting, the restored buildings are adapted for re-use as offices, shops, and restaurants.

Rescued and restored, Oxnard's old church is now called Heritage Hall, a secular space used for community meetings, concerts, special events, and weddings. The altar and organ are gone, but beautifully restored are the ornamental bargeboards and the stained glass. On the east side of the building, two new stained glass windows were added to replicate the colors and patterns in the originals.

Find Heritage Square Hall at:  731 South A Street, Oxnard, California

Should old buildings be moved? Tell us what think!

05
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From Family Home to Prosperous Winery

Historic Scarlett House in Oxnard, CA
Scarlett House in Oxnard Square, California (1902). © Jackie Craven

Is this house Victorian? Or, something else? Built in 1902, the blue-green Scarlett House represents a transition between eras. The decorative millwork, turned balusters, and recessed porch recall the exuberance of Queen Anne architecture. However, this home is restrained and nearly symmetrical in design. The low, sloping roof and shed dormer reflect Colonial Revival ideas, or maybe Gustav Stickley's Craftsman Farm. The wide overhanging eaves and recessed porch also anticipate bungalow styles that took America by storm in the early 1900s.

The Scarlett House is one of two buildings in Heritage Square designed by architect/builder  J.W. Parish. The neighboring Fry-Putenney House is a smaller home in the Queen Anne style.

The Scarlett House:

The name, Scarlett House, does not come from the ruddy color of the window sashes.  John Scarlett was an Irish-born rancher who married Anna Lyster, an Australian, and settled on a 700-acre ranch near Oxnard where they raised five children. When John died, Anna left the ranch for this compact house located on 211 South "C" Street in the town of Oxnard. She lived here with family members until her death in 1917.

A century later, the house was slated for demolition. Preservationists from the Oxnard Redevelopment Agency dismantled and moved the Scarlett House several blocks across town to Heritage Square. Owner Dale Reeves did extensive restorations. One of carvings on the frieze is original; the others are recreated. The house now has a new life as a winery and tasting room.

Find the Scarlett House at: 741 South A Street, Oxnard, California

06
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Saving an Old Queen

Historic Queen Anne Fry-Puntenney House in Oxnard, California
Fry-Puntenney House in Oxnard Square, California (1900). © Jackie Craven

Designed by J.W. Parish, who also built the neighboring Scarlett House, the Fry-Puntenney house is a modest late-Victorian with a modern flare. The round tower, patterned shingles, and oval window are decidedly Queen Anne. However, the roof is low with a gradual slope. As in the Scarlett House, the porch is tucked beneath the main roof of the house.

The original owners, Abraham Fry, his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter Pearl, were farmers who profited from the real estate boom of the early 1900s. Together and individually they bought and sold a series of building lots in Oxnard, California. In 1900, they purchased the corner lot at 201 South "C" Street. The house they constructed on this lot was one of the town's earliest. Although the house appears small, it contains four bedrooms, a parlor, a dining room, and a kitchen.

The Frys sold the house to another investor who maintained it as rental property for decades. The name Puntenney is from Harriet Puntenney, a music teacher who lived in the house for many years with her two children and her widowed sister. 

The Fry House, along with the Scarlett House and the nearby Community Church, faced certain demolition until the Oxnard Redevelopment Agency launched the Heritage Square Project. Between 1985 and 1991, more than a dozen buildings were relocated and restored.

Find the Fry-Puntenney House at: 750 South B Street, Oxnard, California

07
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Architecture on the Move

Roof line of the Stick Style Victorian Perkins / Claberg House
Complicated roofs add to the excitment of the Perkins / Claberg House (1887). © Jackie Craven

Relocating old buildings is a risky, delicate, and expensive process. Even so, many structures  have traveled across towns, and even across continents, so that they could be restored and protected. Some, like the buildings of Heritage Square in Oxnard, California, were divided into large sections and transported on flatbed trucks. In other parts of the world, old structures have been entirely dismantled and sent long distances to be reassembled in museum settings.

If you enjoyed learning about Oxnard's Heritage Square, you may also be interested in these stories about historic buildings that were relocated:

  • Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old home in China, traveled piece by piece to be reassembled at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
  • Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art purchased the Bachman Wilson House by Frank Lloyd Wright and transported the carefully inventoried pieces from New Jersey and reassembled them in Arkansas. 
  • Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts showcases forty 19th century buildings that came from towns throughout New England.
  • The Cloisters Museum Gardens in New York's Fort Tyron Park displays medieval covered walkways imported from Europe.
  • Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan has a historic English Cotswold farmhouse and landmark architecture from around the USA.

Plan Your Trip to Oxnard, California:

Have you visited an open air architecture museum like the ones described here? Tell us what you saw!

Sources for this article:

  • Moving Historic Buildings, by John Obed Curtis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Technical Preservation Services, 1979: https://ia700702.us.archive.org/26/items/movinghistoricbu00curt/movinghistoricbu00curt.pdf
  • A Visitor's Guide to Oxnard Square: http://www.heritagesquareoxnard.com/files/40513700.pdf
  • Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1991: http://articles.latimes.com/1991-11-07/news/vl-1228_1_heritage-square
  • Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1990: http://articles.latimes.com/1990-09-03/local/me-1584_1_heritage-square