City hall in Ventura….several times!

Since 1980, I’ve always noticed what I assumed was the old county courthouse in downtown Ventura when speeding by on the freeway. I’ve always wanted to stop and visit it–many of California’s courthouses are delightful–but never did so until this trip.

In reality, I knew that it wasn’t the courthouse because the modern courthouse is in a complex with other Ventura County government buildings on the east side of town. But since we passed the building on our way into Ventura, we decided to explore it.

It’s an impressive building. Built by Albert C. Martin, Sr. in 1913, who also designed Graumann’s Chinese Theater and the L.A. City Hall, among other famous buildings in southern California, it’s a Beaux Arts building similar to many of the courthouses of similar vintage (e.g., Riverside) and sits on a cut into the hillside along Poli St. as the foothills rise above downtown Ventura.

The view to the Pacific is stunning:

The courthouse was in use until the early 1970’s. It received some seismic damage from the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. The City of Ventura (well, San Buenaventura, to be precise) decided to buy and restore the courthouse and turn it into City Hall.

Despite its formal, classical design, it also has some fun features. My favorite was decorations in the form of Franciscan friars….and not particularly handsome or heroic ones, either!

Here’s a somewhat better shot with shadows that show you the friars’ features:

The detailing of the facility is typical for public buildings of the time:  lots of oak marble on the inside, with oak and mahogany doors and trim. It has a nice staircase that you can see on the left. Chandeliers are nice touches, with lots of effective wood trim. To my surprise, there was no rotunda inside or large space rising 2 or 3 stories as in many other courthouses. It’s elegant on the outside, but very matter-of-fact and down-to-earth on the inside. Here’s the top of the staircase:

We did go up to the second story, and took a look into the city council chambers, which clearly was the old master calendar court from the courthouse days:

I did find an online picture from the courthouse days. Some things don’t change much.

There are three exquisite stained-glass skylights:

This one was in the shade of the tower:

All had very classical and well-executed detailing around the light well:

There currently is a statute of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the Franciscan missions in California, standing in front of the courthouse. Father Serra is a controversial figure: the Roman Catholic Church recently canonized him; the indigenous peoples of California look at him more as an Angel of Death who destroyed their way of life and enslaved their ancestors. San Buenaventura was the last of 9 missions he founded before he died in the 1780’s. In any case, his statute was’t always in front, as you can see from this linen postcard from the 1920’s:

Now he’s there, big (much bigger) than life, and in bronze.

I didn’t realize until one of the local residents pointed out to me that somebody had shimmied up the statute and tied a face mask around his mouth to protect him from the smoke from the Thomas Fire:

Venturans obviously have a sense of humor, as the mask hadn’t been moved for more than a week.

For somebody who walked in sandals over dusty trails, Father Serra sure had a nice pedicure:

Having seen city hall, we decided to go for lunch, which led to our adventures along Foothill Boulevard which I described a couple of posts ago. When it was clear that we weren’t going to get into Arroyo Verde Park, we turned south and found Camino Real Park which we had passed coming into town. Lots of kids and soccer fields (empty in mid-December, however), and we had a picnic lunch. For some reason, the only picnic tables we could find were by the playground for kids, so there we ate.

After lunch, we decided to visit the Museum of Ventura County. Downtown Ventura is delightfully compact: the museum is across the street from Mission San Buenaventura, and City Hall is just a couple of blocks away. Like the courthouse/city hall, the museum dates from 1913, although in a newer building.

When we arrived, however, the museum was closed. Fortunately, one of the staff saw us and opened the door to explain that there was so much smoke and ash inside that the air wasn’t healthy to breathe. (Don’t ask me what the staff was doing in there with all that bad air!) While disappointing, she suggested we go back to City Hall and take a look at the municipal art collection. So back we drove, and this time parked in the parking lot behind city hall.

The contrast to the above picture was disturbing. All the growth you see in the hillside in back of City Hall was gone, burned right down to the parking lot. You may be able to make out in the upper left a grove of eucalyptus trees. How the fire burned all the way down the hillside to back of City Hall, and yet didn’t ignite the trees, is quite a testimony to the Ventura City firefighters.

After going inside, we finally began to understand why there were so many air circulation machines inside that we had noticed earlier…..they were there for smoke removal. Here’s a picture of one in the back of the City Council chambers (the blue thing in the lower right-hand corner):

The municipal art program is impressive. The city regularly acquires art by Ventura County artists and displays it along the second story of City Hall. Don’t expect seascapes on black velvet; this is the real deal. While we liked some works more than others, the overall quality of the art selected was high, and it definitely held our interest.

What’s odd, though, is that the city doesn’t have any of the art displayed on line. As a result, it’s hard to find examples of the artists’ work. The city puts out a superb booklet covering the collection…if only they had it on-line! But here are some of the pieces we saw…or, more precisely, some of the pieces that were close to the ones we saw, since I couldn’t find the exact pieces on line.

The collection is eclectic, covering most media. Richard Amend does stunning mixed media (this one is on rice paper):

Ted Gall sculpts in bronze. The following statute isn’t the one in the city’s collection, but it’s similar to it:

Gail Pidduck paints in oil. She had a beautiful painting of two farmworkers carrying a large pumpkin. I searched and searched on line, and couldn’t find it. Here’s something similar of hers that will give you a sense of her style.

Katherine McGuire is a watercolorist. Here’s a really nice rendering of one of the streets in town close to where we stayed. She has a nice balance between the detailed and the abstract:

My favorite, I think, was John Nichols photograph of a large ball by a rural building around Santa Paula. I have no idea what any of the objects are, but the juxtaposition and composition is wonderful:

The city is also encouraging artists to decorate the utility boxes (electrical and traffic control) in town through its Think Outside the Box program. Ventura is not a big city–it only has a few more than 100,000 people–but it shows that a municipality can run an arts acquisition program that is both sensitive and sensible.



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