Nothing good is ever easy. And such was the name of the game with building a historical memorial mural along Main Street in front of the San Buenaventura Mission in Downtown Ventura, intended to tie in the with city’s sesquicentennial anniversary in 2016. According to people working close to the project, however, there was never a concrete date of completion set.
The conversation about building an elaborate art-tile wall memorial — 40 feet long, 9.5 feet high, celebrating 168 historically significant figures and 47 landmarks of Ventura, designed and created by tile artist and Ventura resident Michael O’Kelly — began in 2015. And then the sesquicentennial celebration in April 2016 came and went. One year later, still no wall. Plan changes, approvals and rain caused delays. Getting all the details of the people and landmarks correct to the time period was an arduous task. Now, the project is starting to move toward going under construction, but still there are several stumbling blocks to overcome.
“We had hoped to get it done last year,” said City Councilwoman Christy Weir, a member of the group of volunteers who have been working on the project. “This project is so unique and special that things always take longer.”
While the project seemed to be making headway this year, building the actual wall upon which to mount the tiles has presented some issues, such as uncovering perhaps one of the oldest artifacts in Ventura.
The San Buenaventura Mission is the most notably historical landmark of Ventura, and doing any sort of construction on or near the property poses certain risks, Weir said. For the mural wall, the city approved the group’s plan to replace the current lower wall in front of the Mission offices and build a larger one in its place. During the exploration late last month to see what was behind the wall and to prepare the footings for a new wall, an old wall, estimated to have been built in the late 1700s, was unearthed. Also found were some bone fragments assumed to be from an old cemetery at the site.
Archeologist John Foster was at the site at the time of the discovery. The items were photographed and documented while a Chumash representative monitored the dig. The items were then replaced and the same dirt removed from the site was put back in place. And so, on to the next plan: to build a wall in front of the existing wall where a planter is currently located.
“[We] ripped all bushes out of the planter and John Foster dug down a foot to see if anything was in the planter — all clean and fine,” Weir said.
The permit for the construction of the wall had to be amended and is now under review. Community Development Director Jeff Lambert said that the city has been cooperative with getting the project moving along, but any project can take a while to move forward.
“We do not want to skip a step,” he said, relaying that the project had to be reviewed by the Design Review Committee and the Historic Preservation Committee, especially given its location. “This project could not jump ahead of anybody else; things take months.”
Lambert said that the straightforward building permit was issued relatively quickly, but then the exploration led to the discovery of the approximately 230-year-old wall. That pushed the project back a bit to amend and approve the building permit.
Weir had said earlier that because the group working in the project was made up entirely of volunteers, sometimes schedules had conflicts that could create further delays.
Michael O’Kelly said that he hopes to have the mural wall completed by July, in honor of his son who died earlier this year and would have celebrated his 22nd birthday July 9.
“It has become a personal memorial as well as the city historical memorial,” O’Kelly said, adding this was an honor shared by both Michael and his son’s mother.
Weir stated that once the amended permit is approved and the wall is built, the wall would take approximately a month to cure, then the tile installation could begin, which would take about a week. The wall is expected to last hundreds of years.
“It is not instantaneous if it is done well and right,” Weir said.
To learn more about the project, go to Ventura Historic Mural on Facebook.