“I hear it’s haunted.”
Standing in front of a photograph of Santa Paula’s Glen Tavern Inn, Elena Waller, the manager of the Agriculture Museum, laughs in response. “Yes,” she says. “That’s one of the first things that people say when they see the Glen Tavern . . . but a lot of people don’t know that it was a Tokyo International College at one point. It has gone through many, many stages. In fact, Rin Tin Tin (the canine movie idol of the 1920s and 1930s) actually used to stay there quite a bit and I’ve also heard that John Wayne stayed there. . . . Our little Glen Tavern is pretty famous and it’s just down the street from us.” Today, it remains a popular hotel and restaurant.
The photograph is just one of many on display in Santa Paula’s Treasured Architecture at the Ag Museum in Santa Paula, on exhibit through June 9. They serve as a strong focal point for this wonderfully multifaceted exhibit.
Another photo shows the Ebell Clubhouse, which was the place in the early part of the 20th century to hobnob with Santa Paula’s high society. Now it’s home to the Santa Paula Theater Center. Then there is a photo of the first house in the area to have electricity. At the time, it was billed as “Santa Paula’s Electrical House — with every possible provision for comfort, beauty and convenience.” Today, it’s lovingly referred to as the “Fairy House” because of its English Tudor revival style, which makes it look straight out of an old Walt Disney film.
The photographs are the work of Santa Paula native Michael Moore. In 2000, after being recommended by his mentor, the photographer, writer, and local historian John Nichols, Moore was commissioned by the Santa Paula Historical Society to help “identify and aid in the preservation of 70 architecturally exceptional residences and commercial buildings” in the city. Over the course of a few months, Moore photographed all manners of buildings — from homes to businesses, from Tudors to Victorians — all around town. Moore took to the streets, armed with an excellent eye for detail and a very large camera. All the while, he had to adhere to a few strict stipulations set by the Historical Society, including that the photographs be large-format and black and white.
Moore began the project by doing his homework, namely scouting out the buildings in order to gauge how to best capture them on film. Depending on how sunlight hit them at different times of day, he says, some were “morning houses and others were better in the afternoon.”
Photographing each building was its own unique experience. One that stands out is the time he photographed the Limoneira buildings. “I was out there alone,” he recalls, and then the ground started rumbling. “It was an earthquake. All the buildings were swaying back and forth. There was a lot of shaking.”
Sometimes, Moore had to improvise. “A couple of times I borrowed my parents’ truck for a higher viewpoint,” he says. The project turned out to be a wonderful experience. “It was super fun,” Moore says. “It was so dynamic and simple.” Especially, he notes, compared to his work today as a CGI artist and documentary filmmaker (www.PlanetMoore.com).
At its heart, the exhibit celebrates the history of Santa Paula. Each photograph is accompanied by a bit of backstory, provided by historians Judith Triem and Mitch Stone. For instance, the “venerable Cauch’s Drugstore” opened in 1888 on Main Street, then moved down the street in 1927 to occupy the former Safeway Market. The Glen Tavern Inn was built to accommodate well-healed visitors to “the oil and citrus hub of the county.”
Additional history is offered via a fun video segment about the “Fairy House,” taken from a vintage TV show. In it, John and Leslie Nichols share how they uncovered some of the historic house’s idiosyncrasies. For one, its extra-sturdy walls are made from the same material used for swimming pools.
The exhibit also features a writing wall, where guests can share their memories of a particular building. During one visit, people shared their fond memories of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on North Oak Street. There is also an interactive station that challenges guests to build various architectural structures with blocks. (It’s not as easy as it looks.)
The experience doesn’t end at the gallery. In a way, the exhibit is just the beginning. The museum offers a free walking tour guide for visitors to see the actual buildings. (The museum asks visitors not to disturb the occupants of the private residences.) A few are mere steps away from the museum’s doors.
“Standing at the Ag Museum you can look to the left and see the Glen Tavern,” Waller points out. “To the right you will see a house that was used as a boarding house for the railroad.” Out the back of the museum, past the garden, one can see the First Christian Church.
On May 5, as part of the Ag Museum’s Free First Sunday, John Nichols will discuss the fascinating stories behind Santa Paula’s historic architecture. Nichols, who authored the book Santa Paula Through Time, states that “Santa Paula has more historic architecture than any town in Ventura County.”
Also on the calendar is the Ag Museum’s summer concert series. On May 3, the series opens with Brothers Fortune performing its popular blend of alternative rock-Americana. (Admission is $5 for museum members, $10 for non-members.)
Santa Paula’s Treasured Architecture celebrates the rich history of Santa Paula and offers a memorable way to enjoy the here and now. “Some people say we’re a sleepy farm town,” says Waller. “I don’t think we’re a sleepy farm town. I think we’re pretty exciting.”
Santa Paula’s Treasured Architecture through June 9 at the Agriculture Museum, 926 Railroad Avenue, Santa Paula. For more information call 805-525-3100 or visit venturamuseum.org.