Preemptive preservation

Preemptive preservation

Looking toward the future, the county’s Cultural Heritage Board makes plans to save parts of the Wag

By Matthew Singer 05/18/2006

A wrecking ball may be years away from threatening the Wagon Wheel area of north Oxnard, but local historians are preparing to launch a preemptive strike today to avoid a preservation fiasco tomorrow.

Although redevelopment plans for the region are still in their most infantile stages, the county Cultural Heritage Board is making it known that they wish to work with the Oxnard City Council to designate parts of the Wagon Wheel Restaurant and Motel as landmarks, which would prevent the current property owner from leveling the building in the future. The hope, says board member Gary Blum, is to sidestep the confusion and outrage that sometimes arises among citizens when old structures are faced with demolition, a lá the situations involving the Top Hat Burger Palace and Mayfair Theater in Ventura.

“Preservation is mainly about educating community leaders,” Blum says. “That’s why the Cultural Heritage Board is stepping in early: to avoid controversy.”

Most of the Wagon Wheel’s significance stems from its connection to late developer and philanthropist Martin Smith. In 1947, Smith — a man who many longtime county officials consider to be one of the most important figures in Oxnard’s growth during the 20th century — developed the 64-acre parcel, constructing the motel with an adjacent restaurant that has since been boarded up. Because the land was at one point the site of a slaughterhouse, he decided to use a unique Western ranch style as a guiding theme. He even brought in a Hollywood designer to help materialize his vision. Since building supplies were scarce in the years following World War II, Smith moved old army barracks over from the Seabee Base to serve as motel units. Horseshoes, branding irons and, of course, wagon wheels were utilized as decoration. He also erected a huge neon sign as a way to lure people in from the adjacent highway.

“Not a lot of those motels in the early days had as lavish a sign as that motel did,” says Judy Triem, historical consultant for San Buenaventura Research Associates, who put together a survey on Wagon Wheel for Cal Trans in 1999 during a road widening project.

While many of Smith’s contributions are still standing around the city, Triem says Wagon Wheel is one of the last remaining examples of Smith’s earliest projects. Beyond that, it’s also among the few remaining examples of classic roadside architecture left in the county.

“Architecturally, it’s an oddity in some ways,” Blum says. “It represents the evolution in American cities.”

Right now, the property is owned by Newport Beach-based Oxnard Village Investments LLC, which has put forth a proposal to revitalize the site with a mix of condominiums, town homes and retailers, a plan that would displace the residents of the adjoining mobile home park. Blum says it’s too premature for the owners to conduct a historical resource survey similar to the one Triem did for Cal Trans seven years ago, but he hopes they do at some point.

For their part, the Cultural Heritage Board, as an official advisory committee, has already sent a letter to the Oxnard City Council suggesting Wagon Wheel is entitled to landmark status. Ultimately, it’s the council’s decision as to whether or not the complex qualifies as worthy for preservation.

“As the oldest remaining Martin Smith development, the complex appears to be eligible for the National Register for its association with Mr. Smith,” wrote board chair Adele Wash. “As Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn once said, ‘Nobody has made a greater impact on Oxnard in the twentieth century than [Martin] Smith’ … The Board recommends that their preservation play an important role in the redevelopment plans for the property.”

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