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Ventura California – A Walking Tour of the Historic Downtown

Ventura, California, California - Monday, April 18th, 2016

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Gertrude Stein famously quipped about her home town of Oakland, California that “There is no there, there”. Without naming names I’ve been to a few other places in California that would fit that description, but today I’m about to walk the historic centre of Ventura California and I can assure you that it’s definitely there and worth visiting. Won’t you join me.

History of Ventura California

The first thing I learned upon studying up on Ventura California is that it’s real name is actually San Buenaventura or to anglicize it, St. Bonaventure who was a 12th century Franciscan writer and philosopher who has been very successful at getting a pile of colleges, schools and universities named after him, so why not a city. San Buenaventura is quite a mouthful so Ventura it is.

Ventura California is the site of the last of the California missions founded by Father Junipero Serra, San Buenaventura. He was particularly adept at converting the native population to Christianity by actually working alongside them to create the early settlements of California and occasionally taking their side against the governor and the military. With today’s revisionist history he is of course reviled by some of the politically correct, but the bottom line appears to be that he has left California an amazing legacy with his nine missions and the twelve others that followed after his death. That’s why I’ll start my visit at the mission.

San Buenaventura Mission

The exterior of San Buenaventura mission has an impressive and very nicely whitewashed facade considering what Serra had to work with in 1782 when he founded the place.

San Buenaventura Mission Ventura California
Front View of San Buenaventura Mission

You don’t enter through the front door, but through the gift shop and museum on the right side of the mission grounds. The entry fee is a reasonable $4.00, less for seniors and children. You exit the gift shop into the small museum and then into the very shady and quiet mission grounds where the sound of running water is the predominant sound.

Ventura California fountain in mission San Buenaventura
Fountain in the Courtyard of San Buenaventura Mission

I can’t help but notice women and children praying at several of the small shrines on the grounds, before coming across Father Serra just near the entrance to the mission proper. He looks harmless enough and is depicted with his walking staff which he surely needed as he trekked over 24,000 miles during his career.

Statue of Father Serra on the missions grounds Ventura California
Father Serra

The interior of the mission is also quiet, dimly lit and certainly not nearly ornate as would be Spanish or even Mexico City ecclesiastical architecture of a similar period. Still it does have a fine altar.

Altar of San Bueanaventura mission Ventura California
Mission Altar

And this excruciating looking crucifixion. It is apparent that the Spanish mastery of wooden sculpture that I’ve often commented upon in posts from Spain, has been transported to the New World. Note the unusual feature of Christ not only having his hands and feet transfixed by nails, but his knees as well.

Crucifixion in San Buenaventura mission, Ventura California
Mission Crucifixion

Ok, I’ve had my daily dose of religion so it’s time to move on. However, on the way out through the gift shop I can’t help but notice this really neat shirt with designs of the California missions on it. How does it look? I suppose I’m now a man in a mission.

Cabinet Boy, Ventura California
My Mission Shirt

The little boy you see peering out at me is actually a trompe l’oeil painting on an old piece of furniture affixed to the sidewalk. It’s little things like this that make exploring Ventura California decidedly an enjoyable task.

Now that I’ve seen the mission, the plan is to just wander around the surprisingly small area that is historic Ventura and see what I find. Writing this post after having done so, I can say that Ventura California has quite a number of buildings dating from the early twentieth century that are very interesting either for their overall architecture or architectural details incorporated into them.

Ventura California City Hall

Certainly the most interesting building is the Ventura city hall. Originally designed for use as the Ventura County Courthouse it is a grand neo-classical building that sits atop the end of California Street with a sweeping view down to the Pacific. This is what public buildings are supposed to look like in my opinion.

Ventura City Hall, Ventura California
Father Serra and Ventura City Hall

There is another statue of Father Serra here, but one quite different than the humble little guy outside the mission. This Father Serra is big, angry looking and looks like he’d use his staff for more than just walking. You wouldn’t mess with this guy.

Father Serra outside Ventura California City Hall
Father Junipero Serra

Here is the view looking down California Street from in front of the statue.

California Street, Ventura California
View From Father Serra Statue

I think I’ll go inside City Hall to see if it’s as nice inside as out, but when I get to the door it’s locked. There is this sign in the window.

City Hall is Closed
City Hall is Closed

What! You can buy city hall in Ventura? Where do all the employees go? This is a weekday and not the weekend so WTF? I’m sure there is a simple explanation, but I’d love to here it.

Here’s an example of some of the decorative detail I mentioned. This is the front of a hotel on California Street.

Ventura California hotel front
Ornate hotel front

Here’s another interesting touch on the building that houses the Ventura tourist information center. It’s well worth visiting for the wealth of info on the history of the area, what to see and do and has a lot of locally made products for sale.

Ventura California Masons sign
Free & Accepted Masons

Even though my father, grandfather and briefly my eldest son, were Masons, not being religious, I’m not. Looking them up on the internet the Free and Accepted Masons are affiliated with the Scottish Rite version of masonry. This is but one of a number of buildings in Ventura California that have maintained the exteriors as they would have looked many years ago. How about these two ads?

Advertising on the side of a building in Ventura California
Ventura Advertising

How about the exterior of the Century Theatre on Main Street? It’s still a movie theatre and could serve as the model for so many of the faux theatre fronts we find in shopping malls and theme parks today. This is the real deal.

Front of Century Theatre, Ventura California
Century Theatre

In some cases it’s just the signs themselves and not the buildings that are the attraction, like this one attached to a trendy clothes boutique.

Beautiful Disaster, Handsome Devil, Ventura California
Beautiful Disaster, Handsome Devil

Sometimes it not even something manmade, such as this huge Moreton Bay fig planted in 1874 and now grown so big it takes up a large chunk of the park it’s planted in.

Moreton Bay fig, Ventura California
Moreton Bay Fig Planted in 1874

But I’ve saved the best for last, at least if you grew up in the 1960’s. Here is the First National Bank building on the corner of Main and California. It is the quintessential early 1900’s California professional building.

First National Bank Building Ventura California
First National Bank Building

OK, but what’s the big deal, you ask? Well it’s not the building, but who practised law inside for many years – Erle Stanley Gardner who interestingly enough, never had a law degree. If you’ve never heard of Gardner, you’ve surely heard of his most famous invention – Perry Mason. Yes, this is the building where Perry was conceived.

Birthplace of Perry Mason, Ventura California
Birthplace of Perry Mason

I don’t know of anyone who didn’t watch and love the Perry Mason TV series that ran from 1957 to 1966 and constantly on reruns after that. Watch this video which combines the dramatic opening music to the show and Raymond Burr’s penetrating stare that forced one perjurer after another to confess that “Yes, yes! I killed him!”

Standing outside the office door I half expect to see the comely Della Street emerge or to see P.I. Paul Drake rush in to deliver the last minute piece of evidence that will nail the real murderer.  This piece of pure serendipity is a great way to end this tour of historic Ventura California.

One last tip. If you’ve been seduced by the sweet sound of America’s Ventura Highway into thinking that it will be a great way to get to Ventura, think again.

The Ventura Highway (now Freeway) is a four lane nightmare at many times of day. Do yourself a favour and take the AMTRAK instead. It will drop you right in the middle of old Ventura without the stress of driving.


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