Heritage Square

Architectural spotlight: Oxnard’s Heritage Square
Ventura County beach town keeps its Victorian past alive
By Zachary Rosen

Just a quick drive off Highway 101 down Oxnard Boulevard and around the corner from 7th Avenue sits an entire block of historic homes known as Heritage Square. Set amongst the modern-day developments in Oxnard, this collection of fully restored Victorian structures sit as if they’re preserved in their own time. Open for almost 30 years, Heritage Square hosts a variety of businesses year-round with seasonal events annually adorning the well-groomed grounds. Visitors can explore Heritage Square throughout the year and enjoy wine tasting, take a guided tour, or enjoy a meal while learning about the historic architecture and early days of Oxnard.

The majestic Petit House displays one of the area’s best examples of Victorian architecture. Photo by Aurelio Ocampo

An idea long in the making

The Perkins Pump House, before it was moved to Heritage Square. Photo courtesy Friends of Heritage Square

The idea for Heritage Square first began in 1985 when the city was developing new infrastructure around town. Several of the properties contained homes that a previous survey had determined were of historical significance. Taking inspiration from other heritage squares in areas like Pasadena, the city decided to move all of the structures to one location. It began with the idea to relocate three buildings, but they soon decided to expand the concept to a whole block, almost three acres large. The city worked for several years, wanting everything to be put in place before inviting the public to the site, officially opening Heritage Square in 1991. Today, the site features 15 historic structures, including an antique water tower set among the homes. During its development, the city wanted to make sure the grounds complemented the historic homes, placing a large emphasis on landscaping design. Patterned brick paths lined with flowers and shrubs connect each building and tie together the different areas. A small rose garden, and a white garden with more than 60 varieties of white blooming plants, add to the Victorian ambiance.

The historic water tower, before it found its new home in Heritage Square. Photo courtesy Friends of Heritage Square

Built between 1877 and 1912, the different homes all tell of figures from Oxnard’s early days, with each one being commissioned by a unique set of personalities. The Perkins/Claberg House (1887) was built by a local Danish carpenter, Jens Rasmussen, who eventually became president of the Union Oil Company and an elected member of the State Assembly. The different range of homes explore styles of architecture that have been popular throughout our past, like the more classic Colonial Revival and whimsical Queen Anne-style architecture. Pfeiler Ranch House, built for Louis and Caroline Pfeiler in 1877, is the oldest house at Heritage Square and features the ornamented and symmetric woodwork of Italianate architecture. A water tower originally from the same property sits to the side of the central courtyard and helps set the antique scene. While visiting Heritage Square, guests can learn details about these buildings, the characters that commissioned the homes, and the families that lived in them throughout their storied past.

Site Superintendent Gary Blum mentions that some people come to Heritage Square expecting a “house museum.” Each building is actually individually owned and houses one or more companies, although a visitor brochure and historic plaques in front of each building provide some self-guided education for visitors. The grounds are always open to sightseers, and visitors can come explore the grounds at any time. A small visitor center located in the Perkins Pump House (1887) gives guests guidance and brochures, as well as souvenirs from the small giftshop. Those looking for a deeper understanding of Heritage Square can arrange a guided tour with one of their docents. The guided tour gives guests an exterior analysis of the range of buildings and usually includes interior access to about three of the different buildings, depending on their availability. These personal tours offer a more intimate experience with the knowledgeable staff curating the conversation to what interests the group. Heritage Square has approximately 30 docents that are drawn to the history and architecture from a wide range of areas. (Of course, Gary mentions that they are always looking for more volunteers.) Before the quarantine, private and group tours were led on weekends, but now a reservation system allows pre-scheduled guests throughout the week. This has provided them more flexibility, and they are giving more tours than ever.

Steampunk, speakeasies, and sandwiches in a Victorian setting

Another of Heritage Square’s favorite events: Steampunkfest, which typically takes place just before Halloween. Photo courtesy of Oxnard Downtowners

With each building being personally owned, Heritage Square is home to a variety of businesses ranging from professional services, such as an orthodontist and a hair salon, to establishments like a wine tasting room and a small coffee shop. Located in the Laurent-McGrath House built in 1901, the restaurant La Dolce Vita 1901 faces the main courtyard and features al fresco dining and a range of tasty dishes inspired by Italy and the Mediterranean. With a selection of Italian wines and such items as a zesty Lemon Pistachio Pasta or a more classic Chicken Piccata, La Dolce Vita 1901 offers an intimate setting to enjoy your evening. The restaurant also includes a full bar and attached speakeasy with Bar Manager Jared Krupp mixing up his classic yet innovative style of Prohibition-era cocktails. For his range of concoctions, Jared will harvest local ingredients and craft his own infused spirits like a pineapple-ginger rum or a strawberry-basil vodka. Grab an aperitif at this elegant speakeasy or to stop in to wrap up an evening at Heritage Square.

Sample a wide variety of red wines at Rancho Ventano Cellars, located in the Scarlett House. Photo by Aurelio Ocampo

If you’re looking for a quicker visit or an early evening stop, try a round of wine tasting at Rancho Ventavo Cellars. Nestled in the Scarlett House that was built in 1902, this winery appropriately focuses only on red wines. On offer are more than two dozen wines primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Syrah grapes. Tastings are $10 and include a crystal logo glass. The tasting room is typically open Friday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm, although reservations can be made for larger groups. For morning visitors, Heritage Coffee & Gifts, located in the Petre Ranch House (1912), provides caffeinated and decaf options to brighten up your day. With a warm wooden interior smelling of fresh roast and toast, the charming coffee shop features a range of sandwiches and baked goods to go alongside their selection of coffee drinks. A small gift store lines the walls with items produced locally from Oxnard artisans.

The extensive landscaping and scenic ambiance of Heritage Square provides a natural setting for many events throughout the year. The Heritage Square Hall (1902) building was originally a church and inherently lends itself to weddings; however, the building is also often rented for workshops, group visits, and concerts. Throughout the year, Heritage Square produces a range of their own events, such as an annual Spring Tea, that highlights the distinctive grounds. During the holiday season, lights and decorations surround such festive features as a gingerbread house display.

Heritage Square Hall, today. Photo by Aurelio Ocampo

One of the more unusual experiences held at Heritage Square is the annual Oxnard Steampunkfest that takes full advantage of the Victorian surroundings. This regional event, usually held in October, brings together workshops, costumes, and festivities for a day with plenty of people-watching and fun photos to be had. One of the area’s most popular events is the Summer Concert Series, with an eclectic selection of musicians playing for their audience on Friday evenings in the outdoor courtyard. Of course, the quarantine has affected their schedule, but Heritage Square is bringing back events as it is safe to do so, with a full Summer Concert Series planned for this season.

Whether it is for a festive event, guided tour, or just an afternoon of wine tasting, Heritage Square entertains and educates amongst the splendor of Victorian architecture.

For more, visit heritagesquareoxnard.com