A surprise on a road well-traveled

Oftentimes on a Friday afternoon, when U.S. 101 turns into a northbound parking lot, I'll opt for a leisurely drive home along some of the back roads connecting my place of work to my place of residence. I figure that if what should be a 30-minute drive is going to take an hour, I might as well spend that hour in more pleasant surroundings. My usual path leads me through bucolic Hidden Valley, down the grade past Cal State Channel Islands (formerly Camarillo State Hospital) and westward across the vast agricultural expanse of the Oxnard Plain, leading eventually to the city of Oxnard and the beach before turning northward again for Ventura.

It's a pleasant drive, taking in as it does homes, ranchland, farmland, a university, a brief glimpse of the Pacific Missile Test Center and even an onion-domed Orthodox church. (Well, sort of.) My favorite part, however, is Hidden Valley. It's well-named, hidden as it is from Thousand Oaks by the hills, and it's always made for a delightful drive. The oak trees, white fences and winding two-lane road are the sort of environment in which one can imagine oneself on a sunny day, riding along in a convertible with the top down. Hollywood seems to agree; it often does filming in the area, using it as a backdrop for everything from television shows to movies, and even a Rod Stewart music video. Just a couple of weeks ago, I followed a couple in an almost hundred-year-old Mercer Raceabout, without license plates, that was apparently in mid-restoration. Meanwhile, I do the best I can, rolling down the windows and sliding back the sunroof in my Hyundai Elantra.

Hidden Valley is the sort of place that is emblematic of those parts of Southern California that have the misfortune to find themselves on the periphery of the vast Los Angeles megalopolis. When I was a child, it was largely ranches and farms, reachable only by the winding road that led past Lake Sherwood. With the development and build-out of the Conejo Valley, however, came development pressure, first to Lake Sherwood and then to Hidden Valley itself. Homes came to be placed where homes probably should not be. Much of the rural charm of Lake Sherwood was destroyed when development brought McMansions to the area (and a hole was blasted through a hill to provide a route for a four-lane road), but a different kind of development has affected Hidden Valley.

As Westlake became more and more affluent, the relatively modest homes around the lake were no longer sufficiently grand for the legions of _nouveau riche_ who sought new ways in which to display their wealth. The development of the North Ranch area satiated the appetites of some for ever-grander housing, but it was inevitable that the largely empty canvas of Hidden Valley would be attractive to those who had visions of country manses and horse stables. There was a house on a wooded hillside that had once (briefly) been a monastery; this was purchased in the late 1980s by investors who christened it "The Chateau" and had a gold-colored sign placed next to the entrance gate to that effect. Some of the ranches were divided, with homes built on them. Others were remodeled.

The worst example of such remodeling was once a very attractive ranch house (as in a house on a ranch, not a ranch-style suburban tract home). It sat perfectly in its setting, slung low and wide beneath a canopy of trees, neither calling attention to itself nor disappearing into the landscape. It was purchased by Robert Nesen, who had been the local purveyor of Cadillacs, and who was a major contributor to the Republican Party. Because of this, he was tapped by Ronald Reagan to serve as ambassador to Australia. Upon his return to California, he apparently decided that he wanted a house modeled on the American ambassador's official residence in Canberra--and it was this house he chose for the project.

It was never terribly successful. It managed to look faintly ridiculous, a brick-and-mortar Georgian house, complete with pillared portico, with white clapboard extensions on either side. It neither did justice to its setting, nor did its setting do anything for it. It was an excellent example of what happens when the parameters of a building project are determined by the size of the owner's wallet and the owner has no taste. Any self-respecting architect should have shot down the project from the beginning, but this architect apparently had issues with self-esteem. I used to avoid looking at it, the way you avoid looking at the obviously disfigured or those with horrendous birth defects. It just seemed more respectful somehow to give this poor, violated house the dignity of not gazing upon it.

Bob Nesen may have eventually realized that. At some point after its completion, he opted for an even more ostentatious gated estate in the North Ranch area of Westlake. I suspect it may have been at least in part because David Murdock, who owns Dole Foods, had property--virtually a baronial estate--in Hidden Valley just a mile or so away that was larger, in better taste, and generally evidence of much, much more money. Piles of it, actually, the kind of money that makes the merely rich look like pikers.

Recently, I had noticed that some work was being done to the house. A few weeks ago, I saw evidence of windows being pulled out, perhaps in preparation for yet another overhaul. With that in mind, one can imagine my joy this afternoon at driving by and seeing that it had been reduced to a few piles of bricks, all other evidence of its existence having been hauled away. The lone survivor was a very small cottage in the back of the property, in clapboards painted white, looking slightly dazed, as if it was relieved that its preposterous neighbor had finally been demolished.

You can't stop progress. You can't go back again. I don't know who purchased the property, or what their plans are. I am certain that they won't be restoring the old house. Land hereabouts is simply far too valuable for that, and it seems that few people with that kind of money have the taste to recognize that sometimes restraint has its own elegance. But at least one example of ridiculous wealth, bad taste, and poor choices has been removed from my little corner of the world, and that is something that doesn't happen nearly often enough. Let the celebration begin!