Posted: Friday, Jul 22nd, 2022

By Visit Ventura

Quirky, Hidden, Unique Places in Ventura

We don’t have a Gum Wall – we prefer to keep our gum in our mouth – but in Ventura we do have two (sometimes hidden) World War II gun turrets on the beach, the office where Johnny Cash hammered out business deals, and the church that inadvertently led to Cash’s famed Folsom Prison concert. Plus, Perry Mason’s real-life office, a haunted adobe, and a memorial to the greatest surfing dog ever – a memorial that will happily remind you that there are so many good things in life.

Looking for Ventura different? Wholly unique? Downright quirky? Hidden wonders? Curious places? Conversation stoppers?

Look no further.

We’ve got your Ventura Obscura.

1. Haole’s Memorial Rock Garden

Haole Rock Memorial

It is the loveliest spot, immortalizing the loveliest of beings. On a sunny Ventura day, it is swept by sea breeze and happy memory. A rainbow-colored garden of love and kindness, Haole’s Memorial Rock Garden is tucked inconspicuously at the edge of a planter on Ventura’s beach promenade because, well, Haole the Surf Dog epitomized all that is right in this world. Including modesty. Wanna feel good? This will do it. 

2. Johnny Cash’s Office and Church

Quirky, Hidden, Unique Places in Ventura

Yep, the Man in Black left his footprints all over Ventura and surrounding environs. Cash had a downtown Ventura office (he lived in nearby Casitas Springs from 1961 to 1967) where he and manager Saul Holiff founded Johnny Cash Incorporated and opened the office in 1961. Located in Ventura’s Zander Building – 400 block of East Main Street – Holiff oversaw Cash through ups and downs (among them the Folsom Prison performance and a divorce). Cash also went to church at the Avenue Community Church (767 N. Ventura Ave), where he became friends with longtime pastor, Reverend Floyd Gressett. Gresset, who ministered to inmates in the state prison system, helped set up the famed concerts Folsom Prison and San Quentin. As the story goes, a Folsom inmate asked Gressett if Cash could visit the inmates. Leading to the first, unpublicized Cash concert that was held at Folsom in November 1966 and the famous return visit in January 1968.

Quirky, Hidden, Unique Places in Ventura

3. China Alley

Unique Places in Ventura

Though records are understandably spotty, it’s believed that Chinese immigrants first began arriving in Ventura in the mid-1860s. Their community grew quickly, a hard-working enclave of laborers, farmers, cooks, laundrymen, gardeners, servants, fishermen, and volunteer firemen passing life as we all do; conducting business, raising families, and enjoying rare leisure time with perhaps a little gambling. Soon enough Ventura’s China Alley grew into a bustling cluster of wooden shanty buildings lining Figueroa Street below the Mission. Now nothing but hush and a lovely mural.

4. Two Trees

two trees at sunset
Image by Latitudes Fine Art Gallery

Sure, every Venturan know about Two Trees (Venturans still call them Two Trees, no matter if Trees come and go), but maybe you’re not from Ventura. And even if you are from Ventura, maybe you didn’t know that one year, for their senior prank, the seniors at Ventura High School moved an entire classroom of desks up to Two Trees. In 1898 Joseph Sexton, a horticulturist of note, planted 13 Blue Gum Eucalyptus saplings atop the hill. The rest is ongoing history. 

5. Rock Stack Art On Any Beach

rocks piled at the ventura promenade

Anything is possible on the beaches of Ventura (most of the rock art is near the promenade). Juan Manuel Cisneros once built a mission facade that morphed into a nativity scene that captured millions (not a figure of speech) of hearts on social media. “My rock stack nativity scene is my Christmas present for Ventura, a community I’ve come to love,” Cisneros said at the time. “I carefully selected each stone I needed, sometimes walking 30 minutes down the beach to find one that was the exact size and shape.” Now anything and everything crops up on Ventura’s beaches. 

Are there limits to human creativity? Thankfully, no.

6. The Ventura Pier

Ventura Pier looking into Ventura

The Ventura Pier is, in many ways, Ventura’s centerpiece. Pronging out into the Pacific at the base of our folded hills, the Pier is visible from every high point in town. But even Venturans might not know that the Pier was originally built (in 1872) for $45,000. Or that, owning up to the power of the sea, the newer steel pilings are 72 to 80 feet long, 16 inches in diameter, and weigh between 6,400 and 6,600 pounds. At one point the Ventura Pier had the distinction of being the longest pier on the West Coast, attaining that honor at 1,958 feet. The ocean has since chewed the Pier away, but still plenty of space to walk out on the Pier and feel the history beneath your feet.

7. Olivas Adobe

Hidden Places in Ventura
Photo credit The Museum of Ventura County

The stately adobe home and courtyard were built between 1847 and 1849 by wealthy Raymundo Olivas on his 4,700-acre Rancho San Miguel. The Olivas home was one of the few two-story haciendas in Southern California, and certainly one of the most regal homes in the Santa Clara River Valley. Inside tip: you can see a concert – and dance your heart out – within the Olivas Adobe walls. Every summer, Ventura puts on the aptly named “Music Under the Stars,” a series of outdoor concerts within the adobe walls – and yes, beneath the stars. Oh, right. Also purportedly haunted by the Lady in Black. Possibly the ghost of Teodora Olivas, the mother of 21 Olivas children. Possibly the ghost of her youngest daughter, Rebecca, who was the last family member to live in the Adobe. 

8. Erle Stanley Gardner Building

Quirky, Hidden, Unique Places in Ventura

In 1932, in the third-floor law office of this very building (Suite 306), Gardner typed out the opening pages of his first Perry Mason novel. “The Case of the Velvet Claw” debuted in 1933 and was an immediate hit. Gardner went on to write nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring Perry Mason. A few things you might not know about Gardner. He got kicked out of law school (purportedly for organizing an underground boxing match in which he participated). He loved representing legal underdogs (“I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.) He enjoyed steak dinners at his favored Pierpont Inn. He taught his daughter to fish on the Ventura Pier. 

9. Ventura Gun Turrets

Two large concrete rings, each 38 feet in diameter, almost invisible (and sometimes wholly invisible) in the sand just to the north of the mouth of the Ventura River (depending on storms, the sand and cobbles come and go; burying – and revealing – the turrets). Here, during World War II, a pair of huge cannons sat atop the concrete rings, manned by soldiers scanning the ocean horizon for an invasion. Officially dubbed Battery Two, the full-circle iron rails of the Panama Mounts were designed to permit turning the guns to fire inland too. Soldiers also built asphalt roads and walkways over the sand. Beneath the whispering cypress trees, they built makeshift barracks. They drilled continuously, but thankfully no attack ever materialized. By 1944, the threat of attack had dissolved. The big guns and the soldiers who operated them were shipped to the combat zones on the other side of the Pacific, the barracks came down, and the site was abandoned

But not entirely.

Quirky Places in Ventura

10. Ventura Logos Painted Around Town

Hidden Places in Ventura

When the Amgen Tour of California came to Ventura in 2019, Visit Ventura – with the kind help of umpteen Department of Parks & Recreation workers – stenciled Ventura’s 48-foot long and 17-foot high brandmark ambigram on the streets and the roofs of buildings to shout our community pride to the skies and Ventura’s thanks to the race for coming to our town. Yep, eleven ambigram Ventura logos – close to 500 feet of VENTURA – scattered about town. You might know the one up at Grant Park. But did you know that the same ambigram appears atop City Hall and the Ventura Beach Marriott

11. Tiffany-style Starburst Stained-Glass Domes and Carved Faces Peering Down Upon Our Town

Unique Places in Ventura

Not entirely quirky and hidden, but kind of cool, and you can tour it for free. That would be Ventura City Hall. Interesting things start before you even step inside, namely the faces of 24 terra cotta friars running the length of the building between the first and second-floor windows, part of the design of architect Albert C. Martin, who – cocktail party tidbit –  is also known for his design of Grauman’s (now Mann’s) Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The inside City Hall is downright glamorous, a bouillabaisse of history and period architecture with terra cotta façades, marble facings, ornate plaster ceilings, exquisite woodwork, and, inside Council Chambers, Tiffany-style starburst stained-glass domes depicting the scales, sword, and law book of justice. Fun facts: the original 1913 Courthouse was built for $269,000. Today the cost would be skyward of $7 million. Take a free self-guided tour.  

Unique things in Ventura: Ventura City Hall Domes

12. The Moreton Bay Fig Tree

Morten Bay Fig tree ventura

Planted in 1874 in Plaza Park – then the eastern outskirts of downtown Ventura – the massive Moreton Bay Fig has shaded both a campaign stop by presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt and a concert by composer John Philip Sousa. Officially, Ventura’s Moreton Bay Fig is 73.5 feet tall and 140 feet wide, with an 8-foot, 8-inch trunk. Friendly arboreal sparring, in terms of sheer volume, Ventura’s tree falls third to Santa Paula’s Fig (85 feet tall, with a 131-foot-wide canopy and a trunk 9 feet in diameter) and Santa Barbara’s massive specimen (though a mere 76 feet tall, Santa Barbara’s tree has a 172-foot-wide canopy and 12.5-foot trunk.).

13. Serra Cross

grant park cross ventura sunset
Image by Steve Cattanach

Most Venturans – and most visitors – are familiar with the Serra Cross; you just have to look up, or drive up, to Grant Park. Less familiar, the stone ramparts just back from the Cross. They were built in 2010 by stoneworkers from around the world, the global effort overseen by a Japanese family who has built castle walls and ramparts for eight generations. The stones came from a quarry in Ojai and the entire thing was built in 10 days – using the Japanese method of dry stone walling; using no mortar and relying on gravity to hold the stones in place for centuries. Each stone was shaped by hand using ancient tools. Look for the lovely round stone sitting atop the ramparts.

14. The Mitchell Block

Mitchell Block Houses

Driving down Thompson Boulevard, you might miss it if you sneeze. But keep your eyes open for these eight houses, still standing antiques which give us a glimpse into what architecture was like in the late 19th century. The story goes like this: Edward Mitchell and his family were Irish immigrants who moved to Ventura and bought what is now the 600 block of Thompson. They built several homes there for different family members, reflecting Victorian vintage, the architectural style of the times. 

15. John Lennon at John’s on the Beach (Spasso)

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Ventura, CA
Courtesy of San Jose Public Library

Ventura is kind of known for being an under-the-radar beach town with hidden gems everywhere you look. Celebrities and famous musicians have stopped in town across the years and we love to see John Lennon on that list. On an afternoon in town in 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono played with locals at John’s on the Beach, currently known as Spasso, which is located at the end of Seaward Avenue. Fans recount John singing Revolution. Imagine that!

16. Art City

Art City in Ventura, CA

A gallery, art studio, and a peaceful place for an afternoon stroll all in one! Check out Art City with larger-than-life sculptures that will make you feel like an ant, precious stones and gems that make for a perfect Instagram post, and engage with artists working on their craft right in front of your eyes. A true hidden gem in Ventura that everyone — visitors and locals alike— should visit. 

17. Figueroa Street Tiled Fountains

Figueroa Plaza fountains and Missions

At the end of Main Street is the historical district of Ventura where you can find China Alley, the beautiful San Buenaventura Mission, Figueroa Plaza, Peirano’s (Ventura’s first commercial brick building), and two beautiful tiled fountains connected by a canal. The cobalt blue tiles are dazzling and are definitely worth the photo!

18. Gordon Grant Murals

Unique murals in Ventura: Gordon Grant Mural

As you run your errands, you probably wouldn’t have guessed you’d be looking at a mural that is over 80 years old standing in line at the post office! Painted during the Great Depression (1936-1937) and funded through the Federal Arts Project, under the New Deal WPA, the murals depict the heart of Ventura: agriculture.

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