Photo by Brenda Manookin
You might expect the President of San Buenaventura Conservancy, the organization responsible for identifying and protecting landmarks and historical buildings across the county, to live in some beautiful, historic home with ground-breaking architecture and a high-profile first owner.
But Cynthia Thompson isn’t exactly what you expect. The L.A. native lives in a duplex in Oak View — “All we could afford,” she says. And she wasn’t saying as a little girl, “When I grow up I want to be a historic preservationist.”
In fact, Thompson started out in the movie industry, as a buyer for set decoration and props. She might have stayed in L.A., and in this line of work, if life hadn’t intervened.
After the riots in 1992, she moved to Ventura County to give her kids (two sons and a daughter) a safer place to grow up. However, she was still working in L.A. and fully planned to return to the city when her kids were grown.
“For the first six years I lived here, I really didn’t live here,” she says. “I slept here.”
But in 1998, her stepfather died. It was clear she needed to move her mother to Ventura, and that she’d have to stay in town to take care of her. That’s when she applied for a job at the Pierpont Inn, hoping her experience doing historical research for the movies could lead to a job as a historian and period-specific interior designer. It did, thanks to new owner Spencer Garrett. And that’s when her life changed.
“I was totally fascinated,” she says. She spent increasing amounts of time doing research at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, learning about the historical buildings all over Ventura, about the importance of cultural tourism, and about financial incentives for properties that are officially designated. Riveted by this new field of research, she enrolled in a course on historic preservation at USC. “It just sort of grew from there.”
Another shift came in 2000, as she was helping plan a celebration for the Pierpont’s 90th anniversary. In conjunction with the museum, she helped organize the 1910 Ventura County Exposition, an event which brought together historical societies from across the county to present booths reflecting their community’s culture at the turn of the century. “It was just fabulous,” she says. Around the same time, the Downtown and Midtown Community Councils wanted to plan an event to celebrate their architecture, producing the first Ventura Architecture Tour.
The final catalyst in the birth of the Conservancy, and the new direction of Thompson’s career, came in 2004, when it was clear the Mayfair Theater would be lost. This building wasn’t only a magical window into another time, but was the only building in Ventura designed by star architect S. Charles Way (known for his Art Moderne and free-line modern style).
With so many people in the community coming to appreciate Ventura’s unique architecture, and faced with the heartbreak of losing one of its best examples, a group of concerned citizens came together to keep such a thing from happening again. Thus, the Conservancy was born. Soon after, Thompson’s life took shape around historic preservation: She’s not only president of the Conservancy’s board, but an historic preservation consultant and period-inspired and period-correct interior designer.
Why does she do it? Why is preserving a sense of Ventura’s history important?
On a very basic level, says Thompson, “your identity is in your built environment.” It isn’t only Ventura’s unique position sandwiched between the ocean and the mountains or its quirky agricultural history that makes it, well, Ventura. It’s the mission, the old bank building, the Bellamaggiore, the charming midtown houses. These are what define Ventura, says Thompson, and what makes it both worth living in and worth visiting.
And if it’s worth visiting, that means it’s bringing in tourist revenue: from people staying at our hotels, eating in our restaurants, shopping in our malls and paying for our goods and services. “Tourism is extremely important to the lifeblood of a city,” explains Thompson, “and particularly to a seaside community such as Ventura.”
On another level, historic preservation is a movement that runs parallel to the sustainability movement, both trying to conserve resources in an environment that threatens to use them into extinction.
“It’s about, ‘How do you find environmentally resourceful ways to maintain what we have, without this slash-and-burn mentality?,” she says. “There’s nothing greener than a historic building.”
Beyond philosophical and financial reasons for preserving Ventura’s landmarks, Thompson has a personal reason to be so involved in this process.
“I think it has to do with mortality,” she explains. “When you’re gone, you’re gone. So what is there to say that you were here?”
She points to the Pierponts and the families who have maintained the historic hotel over its nearly century-long life, or to Eugene Preston Foster, whose family donated the city’s library, Seaside Park and Community Memorial Hospital, and who was instrumental in forming the city’s school and park systems. These people left a tangible legacy behind, she says. But not being wealthy, Thompson’s contribution has to be something different.
“I think all of us would like to leave behind something that lasts — that makes a lasting impression. I can’t build buildings,” she says, but she can work with the conservancy to protect the ones that are already here — and make sure new buildings are worthy future landmarks. “It’s a way of perpetuating the culture for the future, to leave something behind that may make a difference by affecting policy and attitude in Ventura.”
So what, exactly, does a conservancy do? It raises awareness about historic preservation through events like the Architecture Weekend, for one. It works with government bodies to protect specific properties. It prepares national register, landmark and historic district norminations. Specifically, the conservancy is currently working on saving elements of the Mayfair Theater and saving buildings like the Top Hat, the Elks Lodge and the Masonic Temple building from destruction or reconstruction.
Though the Conservancy wasn’t formed in time to save the Mayfair, Thompson hopes it will be able to keep other Mayfairs from disappearing off Ventura’s map. When asked about some of her favorite projects, though, she says (in true diplomat form) that she loves them all equally. But she does point to several buildings she’s had a particular connection to: the Foster House at 2717 Ventura Avenue, and the Gould family home, added to the Architecture Weekend in 2004.
The Foster House, said Thompson, is “the single most socially significant residence in the city of Ventura.” It’s also severely neglected, often broken into and used as a squat for the homeless. The Conservancy is trying to work out a partnership with the school district, which currently owns the home, to restore it. If they don’t, she worries, “Frankly, it’s in danger of being burnt to the ground.”
The Gould House is the only Greene & Greene designed house in Ventura County. When the grandchildren inherited the house, it had no historical protection whatsoever. They could have sold it. Instead, they worked with Cynthia for four years to help get its official designation.
“And of course I love and will always deeply love the Pierpont Inn because I was so intrinsically involved in it,” she added.
She’s also excited about the way two newer projects have blended into the historical landscape. The best example of compatible infill, she said, is directly across from Memorial Park. On either side are bungalows built in the 1920s. Though the new building is larger than surrounding buildings, it blends well without being jarring. Another is the proposed WAV (Working Artists Ventura) project, a state-of-the-art community designed to provide live/work space for artists. “It can be an extremely contemporary statement,” she says.
“It’s important that 50 years from now that we have some statements in the built environment that shows we were here, that we’re creating landmarks for the future … not that we’re replicating the past.”
A perfect example of this outside Ventura, she says, is Frank O. Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. “I’m not always crazy about his style, but you can’t deny genius,” she said. And there’s no question that the building is an automatic landmark, placing you at the beginning of the 21st century.”
And now, with cultural tourism at an all-time high after September 11, these issues are more important than ever.
“Buildings last a long time, but people don’t,” she says. “In the story of our buildings, there is the story of our existence.”