Demolition of Wagon Wheel imminent
Despite its historical significance, the motel will only be a memory or available on video
By Paul Sisolak 11/26/2008
When the name Martin “Bud” Smith is mentioned in Oxnard, there’s no doubt two words immediately come to mind: Wagon Wheel.
There’s a strong sense of nostalgia, particularly with the city’s longtime residents, for the western-themed motel/restaurant/bowling alley hybrid, one of the last vestiges of California roadside attractions left over from the days of the 1950s and ‘60s, and one of the many famous sites developed by real estate giant Smith.
But nostalgia alone may not be enough to increase the numbered days of the Wagon Wheel; a decision last week by city officials rejected an appeal by a local conservancy to save the landmark property off Highway 101 from demolition.
The appeal from the San Buenaventura Conservancy requested that the Wagon Wheel be spared as part of the Oxnard Village development, a proposal to construct 1,500 homes and over 50,000 square feet of commercial space. The conservancy is fine with the project so long as the Wagon Wheel is integrated into the mix; however, plans for Oxnard Village call for the removal of structures already at the 64-acre site.
The 4-1 council vote seemed to answer the question: what is the difference between nostalgia and history?
“When a building gets to be a hundred years old, it reaches a certain plateau, when the community in general, everybody, sort of realizes, ‘Gosh, this is something that is really valuable,’” says Stephen Schafer, conservancy chair, who filed the appeal. “When you’re looking at something from the mid-century, especially if you grew up with it, it’s hard to say, ‘I can see the historic value in this.’”
Oxnard resident Rebecca Barkley understands this but views the Wagon Wheel as an important, local slice of Americana.
“How often do our residents reminisce about what used to be architecturally in the city?” she asked at the meeting. “The answer is every day.
“We must rise above temptation to raze this charming, unique icon and put ourselves in the forefront of preservation,” Barkley continued. “Protection is progressive.”
“The preservation community, locally, feels very strongly about Wagon Wheel,” said Gary Blum, chair of the county’s cultural heritage board. “It’s an important historic resource we should somehow incorporate into this development.”
Blum and others who spoke at the council meeting suggested that Oxnard suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, refusing to recognize itself, through places like Wagon Wheel, as a corridor for pioneer settlers, an integral piece of the 19th Century American West.
“Oxnard continually seems to struggle with its identity and what it is to the rest of the community and the world,” Blum stated. “Right now, Oxnard along the 101 corridor is Best Buy and Circuit City and Olive Garden. The only thing uniquely ‘Oxnard’ is the Wagon Wheel, which had over half a century of imprinting on the motorists and visitors what Oxnard was. It was this beckoning architecture that would lure you in for a night’s stay or a meal.”
However, that’s where the line between history and nostalgia gets blurred, according to one council member who, as a lifelong Oxnard resident, recalls the Wagon Wheel as a fond childhood memory.
“For me, to reach an historical level, there has to be something significant with the property,” says council member Dean Maulhardt.
Maulhardt referenced other Oxnard landmarks restored and preserved, like the Carnegie Library or the Santa Clara Church. Does the Wagon Wheel qualify in their league?
“It does have a lot of nostalgia, but it doesn’t make it historical. It’s probably hard to define,” he said. “But being old and antique-ish doesn’t qualify.”
On that level, the council’s vote seemed to reflect the Wagon Wheel’s kitschy appearance would conflict with the Oxnard Village’s nod to modern European design. On the other hand, those opposed to the project argue that the Italian and Spanish stylings of the development would fit in no better with the character of Ventura County.
Tim Flynn, the council member who cast the only dissenting vote, pushed for the Wagon Wheel’s preservation. He also made reference to another historic district — in this case, the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego — as an example of what Oxnard could achieve by keeping the Wagon Wheel around.
“I think we have a unique opportunity to do something in Oxnard where we can say it’s not just another shopping mall, it’s not just another business park, not just another Southern California suburban fixture,” Flynn said at the meeting.
The council’s rejection of the conservancy appeal also meant its approval of the Oxnard Village environmental impact report (EIR), a document prepared by city staff examining the positive and negative effects a building project may impose on its surroundings.
The changes are not all environmental, either. According to the EIR, destruction of the Wagon Wheel would produce cultural impacts. To mitigate these impacts, the EIR proposes a series of media-based measures that would be installed at the site as part of the Oxnard Village plan
as a way of remembering the Wagon Wheel legacy.
Those may include an interpretive display summarizing the Wagon Wheel’s history; an oral history project containing interviews and recollections of those involved with Bud Smith and the Wagon Wheel’s development, and two 30-minute TV specials documenting Smith and the Wagon Wheel, to be broadcast on Oxnard public access.
“It would basically forever record, for posterity, what was there and the factual history of it,” said council member Maulhardt. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea.”
Schafer, of the conservancy, disagrees. There is no way, he says, to properly mitigate such a huge cultural loss, to any degree.
“I’ve never seen mitigations like TV shows. It’s pretty innovative, but it doesn’t quite hack it,” he said. “There is no way to mitigate the demolition of the Wagon Wheel.”
Bud Smith passed away in 2001, and his input could have been the final word on the fate of the Wagon Wheel property. According to Maulhardt and fellow council member Andres Herrera, who both knew the late developer, Smith would have been the first person to green-light the Wagon Wheel’s removal.
“For Martin Smith, there is a legacy of the (financial) towers and the (Oxnard) harbor,” Maulhardt said. “I’m not sure this is one he wants to be remembered for.”
“The world has changed around us, and in this instance … even he (Smith) understood the nature of change,” Herrera said. “He knew exactly what needed to be done in that area.”
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