By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer | Photos by Viktor Budnik
The Oaks in Santa Paula is a special community. A short drive from town along Highway 150, and just a few miles from Steckel Park, some 200 homes nestled at the lower end of Santa Paula Canyon together make up a neighborhood formed over the decades. One of its most notable features is its native vegetation, specifically (although not limited to) the beautiful California Live Oak trees that dot the landscape, giving shade and a sylvan, almost magical quality to the environment. The beauty and distinctive flavor of the region called to numerous creatives who built homes here, among them architects Roy Wilson, Robert Raymond and John Stroh; photographer Horace Bristol; and artist Douglas Shively.
Some 10 years ago, the Oaks welcomed Melanie and Mike Binsley, longtime Santa Paula locals who moved into their current house in 2012. As they soon discovered, their abode was as rich in history as the community itself.
Set in Stone
The building where the Binsleys reside was originally constructed not as a house, but as an office space for none other than Roy Wilson. Wilson was the first licensed architect in Ventura County, and the man responsible for the design and construction of three buildings related to the Limoneira Company, as well as several built on Santa Paula’s Main Street.
Wilson built his Oaks office in 1937, and his architect’s eye is immediately apparent. The structure sits in harmony within its woodland environment, thanks to its low form and stone construction, which echoes the rocks of nearby Santa Paula Creek. The stone served another purpose: It keeps the house cool when the sun is high and the temperatures rise. According to Melanie Binsley, the stonemasons were the Madrona Brothers, who “did a lot of churches and schools in the area.”
By the 1960s, the building had been purchased by new owners who used it to live in. At that time it underwent some renovations and extensions, becoming a long, slender two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home offering around 2,300 square feet of indoor living space. Even so, many of the original design elements can still be seen today. For example, visitors might notice stones laid out to create a bird-shaped image (said to be the Madrona Brothers logo) on an exterior wall, or one of several stones featuring hand-carved images. These owners also kept the two beautiful stone fireplaces, one of which is in the Binsleys’ bedroom (formerly Wilson’s original office).
After moving in, the Binsleys instituted other changes to make it their own: An attic space has been converted into a loft, the bathrooms were updated, etc. The person assigned to carry out these modifications? Chris Wilson, grandson of the property’s original owner and architect.
“He’s a contractor,” says Melanie of Roy Wilson’s descendant, who lives just up the street and has become a good friend. “He helped with the renovations, and that made it very special.”
The grounds surrounding the Binsleys’ home take up just half an acre, but the lot seems so much larger. That’s partly due to the unspoiled, somewhat wild landscape around it — very characteristic of The Oaks. But the emphasis on outdoor living also adds to the expansive feel.
The arbor near what was once Wilson’s office entrance, for example, is the perfect spot to enjoy coffee and scones on a small, circular table, beneath wisteria that grows overhead. Near the driveway, a large sculptural fountain made from metal and river rock beckons to visitors. While it’s currently dry, owing to the drought, it still makes quite a sight.
“At Halloween I put skeletons up there,” Melanie says with a grin. “We decorate all the way down the street!”
This playful nature served Melanie well as a preschool teacher and daycare provider, who worked with Head Start, the First Christian Church and the Santa Paula Community Center before retiring. And it also informs her decor. Scattered around her home and yard are eclectic pieces that she proudly describes as “oddball”: A planter shaped like a pig, colorful sculptures and other artwork, ceramic “faces” that have been placed on the trees, and an elfin village of miniature houses displayed charmingly in her backyard. A beautifully restored, vintage red-and-white Shasta camper adds to the sense of whimsy.
The Binsleys love to entertain, and there are numerous tables and chairs in front and back for friends and family to gather. Recently, the Binsleys built a bocce ball court under a large oak tree out front. They frequently set up tables and chairs around the court and invite guests over for a game or two. It’s particularly delightful on summer evenings, when the heat of the day has given way to the cool of the night, the wine is flowing and the fairy lights in the branches above are twinkling. And yes, the games go on even after dark, thanks to light-up bocce balls.
Come Out and Play
The backyard sees plenty of use, too — both by the Binsleys, and presumably by the architect himself.
“This was probably a dirt playing field,” says Melanie, gesturing to the large, rectangular space. Specifically, a field for roque, similar to croquet and popular during the first quarter of the 20th century.
The onetime roque court is surrounded by beautiful stone benches installed by Wilson, possibly using rocks from Santa Paula Creek. According to Melanie, three perfectly round stones that were found on the property, and which are prominently displayed on a bench, were probably claimed from the river as well, and prized for their symmetry.
Melanie imagines that Wilson’s friends and colleagues would gather in this space to play roque, and sit on the benches to watch the game and converse.
While the outlines of the roque court can still be seen, the backyard now features a mix of lawn and patio, made out of stone pavers, with a barbecue and wine barrels that have been turned into tables — a perfect complement to the rustic elegance of the home and property.
A separate patio immediately adjacent to the dining room — with gorgeous, floor-to-ceiling windows — is marked off by low stone walls. Here the Binsleys have yet another seating area, an umbrella for shade and a pizza oven — which has, indeed, seen plenty of use over the years. And when not set up for dining with guests, it also serves as Labradoodle Corky’s own little shady corner of the yard.
When Mike and Melanie (and probably Corky) feel like digging in the dirt, they head over to the side yard. There a large, fertile plot resides, perfect for herbs, tomatoes and other homegrown vegetables. There are a few fruit trees as well.
Whether it’s bocce ball out front, a barbecue or pizza party in the back, or a morning spent gardening, everything about this property seems to invite residents and guests to enjoy the outdoors.
“It draws you outside,” Mike confirms. “That was the philosophy of the architect, I think.”
Santa Paula Cellars
Coffee and scones are a mighty fine way to start a morning at The Oaks. But the Binsleys enjoy their adult libations, too — wine in particular. In fact, they host a semi-regular gathering of fellow wine lovers that have taken to calling themselves the Cork Suckers. And while a variety of wines (and sometimes beer and spirits as well) are donated for the cause, a favorite is that which comes from Santa Paula Cellars, Mike’s personal wine label.
“I’ve made wine in the garage since college,” Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate Mike explains. (Melanie attended Cal Poly, too, which is where she and Mike first met.)
Through the decades he developed his craft — and his passion. Those who tasted the fruit of his labors were impressed, and encouraged him to take his winemaking to a new level.
“In 2014 I found a custom crush place in Santa Clarita,” he says. He’s been making, aging and storing wine ever since.
Now operating out of Pulchella Winery, Mike makes small batches of cabernet, petite syrah and other wines every year. Currently he shares it with friends and family, and a few restaurants around the county, such as the Ranch House in Ojai or the Hangar Bar and Grille at the Santa Paula Airport.
His tentative goal at the moment is to open a tasting room in Downtown Santa Paula.
“Perhaps next year,” he says. Wine enthusiasts, stay tuned!
The property that Roy Wilson purchased and built upon nearly 85 years ago has changed through the decades. From office to residence, from roque court to patio, it has evolved with the decades and the desires of its residents.
But its spirit, like its strong stone walls and the ancient oaks surrounding it, has remained. A place where friends and family meet, where stories are told and laughter is shared, where the art of living is explored and celebrated daily.
It has aged like a fine wine, and based on the joy the Binsleys — and their many visitors — get from the space, it only continues to get better.