Photo by Matt Katz
In 1971, Rachel and Joseph Tarquinio were on their way to Ventura when they nearly sped past their future. After all, it appeared to be just a demolition site—a blemish marring the beauty of the idyllic California countryside.
The Tarquinios saw a crumbling structure with boards crossing the windows, a dysfunctional roof that let in more than it kept out, and a small forest of trees growing from the center of the edifice. It was a Queen Anne Style Victorian one-room schoolhouse that had served the community of Camarillo between 1895 and 1935. It was a remnant of American frontier living that conjures images of a schoolmarm in long skirts ringing the bell to announce the start of the school day. Sadly, the school’s previous two owners had allowed the landmark to languish into a state of noble disgrace, another piece of history wasting away beneath the strain of human disregard.
“We saw the junk pile,” says Rachel Tarquinio. “We couldn’t look inside, but there was a little sign outside that said ‘For Sale’ and I screamed ‘stop!’” Joseph, a model husband, stopped—and his wife met what would become the second love of her life.
Unlike Rachel, Joseph wasn’t sold on first glance. “I had to kind of entice him,” explains the spry seventysomething, who moves like a woman half her age. “We were opposites and had only been married for two years. He was a Hilton hotel man and I was a farmer’s daughter.” Growing up on a farm in South Carolina gave Rachel an appreciation for “earthly living” and a healthy respect for work, which proved essential during the two-and-a-half years it took to clear the land around the school.
Once the deed had passed hands, the Tarquinios moved onto the property prepared to dwell among the ruins. “On army cots, we slept,” Rachel says. “My furniture was in storage.” Eventually, their family grew as they transformed their home and land. They had a daughter, Deborah Beattie, who currently lives in Ventura, and two grandsons, Ian and the late Trevor Beattie. (As children, Trevor and Ian, now 18, built forts under the branches of a 100-year-old pomegranate shrub.) These days, Rusty the dog and a coy black Persian cat named Sassy roam the property at their leisure.
The Tarquinios’ home features over an acre-and-a-half of verdant land populated by more than 20 different kinds of fruit and nut trees, including kumquats, figs, cherries, avocados, and blackberries. According to Rachel, “You can come out here any time of the year and have something to eat on this land. Right now there are oranges, tangerines, walnuts, and macadamia nuts.” After retirement, Rachel and her husband sold the produce themselves. “My husband sat on the road and sold it as fast as we could pick it—just for fun.”
Today, Rachel donates some of the produce to Food Share, a nonprofit food bank based in Oxnard. What she doesn’t give away, she savors. “I’ll just bring some water out and I’ll sit and eat four or five oranges, and then I’ll get up and back working again.” And she works with boundless energy—up by 5:00 a.m. and dreaming of all that needs to be done on her land by 9:30 at night. “I have to do it. You have to do what you have to do.” Straight to the point and ethically sound, Rachel speaks from experience.
As the Tarquinios developed the land, they continued reconstructing the school to create a 2,060-square-foot home with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. They raised the structure to build a solid foundation, rewired the electricity, replaced the roof, incorporated some copper plumbing, and built a fence around the property, which features a wrought iron gate at the entrance. Whenever possible, they utilized the school’s original building materials. The home’s interior boasts original oak wood ceilings, cedar-lined closets, and extensive oak paneling, as well as crown moldings in every room. Rachel nods, “It’s built right. We did it right.”
Perhaps most endearing are some of the features original to the school, such as the dilapidated barn, the fish pond built by the school teachers, the two half dome windows more than a century old, or a pair of etched glass window panes that Rachel discovered in the barn that now reside on either side of the front door. Or perhaps it’s the hidden details—more difficult to spot—that the creator feels impelled to share. “I made this myself with things I found on the property,” Rachel says, pointing out the brick walkway in the front yard.
The Tarquinios added on to their property by building a detached guest house, a front porch embellished with fire-engine red wrought iron gothic scrolls, and a sunroom, which used to be the cupola housing the school’s bell. The sunroom now features stained glass windows and a 360 degree view of the surrounding lemon groves and strawberry farms. “We ate breakfast up here on Sunday mornings and read the paper,” Rachel tells me. As she remembers time spent with her late husband, the view offers a glimpse of a hawk idling on the tip of a windmill in a neighboring field.
Most recently, Rachel and Joseph’s home received a fresh coat of paint. She now stands basking in her newfound valor, preserved by guardians of history who have helped safeguard the too-often-abandoned past. The one-room schoolhouse has evolved into a stately home—a refined ‘painted lady’ of the late 19th-century, beguiling those who skirt her perimeter. She has certainly wooed her owner. “This is the love of my life, excluding my husband,” Rachel says.
The property is listed at $1.5 million, yet it seems unconscionable to calculate the value of a life-long passion, the creation of a home that has become one family’s indelible footprint. Whether it houses the next generation of dream chasers, a three-star restaurant, or a frontier-inspired bed and breakfast, Center School House will not be forgotten. As Rachel Tarquinio eloquently puts it, “This is an important piece of history, but I have to pull the shade and say goodbye—just let it go. And it’s not easy.”
Rachel Tarquinio , accompanied by her dog Rusty and watched over by Sassy the cat, has worked tirelessly on her family’s property, utilizing original materials and found objects to transform the historic schoolhouse into a stately home.