Looking at the fenced-in, boarded-up decaying house, its expansive grounds parched and litter-strewn, it’s difficult to imagine the Foster House in its original glory. For those of us going about our daily business in Ventura, it’s even harder to conjure images of covered wagons traveling Main Street or a Seaside Park sans Quonset huts and cement.
For Phil Ranger, the great-grandson of E.P. Foster, these visuals come more easily than for the rest of us; as a young child, much of his time was spent exploring the lush landscape surrounding the house at the far end of Ventura Avenue, that his grandfather inherited from dad E.P. Such were the simple pleasures in a simpler time.
“It was a forest of fruit trees — bamboo everywhere, a kid’s fantasy come true — and me and my sister would run and play all over. There was a large fish pond with goldfish and koi and frogs and lily pads. It was the greatest place to play for a kid on earth,” he remembers.
Ranger, a Ventura real estate broker is saddened by the state of disrepair his grandparents’ home has fallen into. Deeded to the Ventura Unified School District by a Foster heir to carry on the family’s legacy of generosity, the house has remained largely unused for decades, save for vandals and others who routinely break in and defile the once charming home, which the San Buenaventura Conservancy named as its No. 1 endangered structure.
Were it just any old house, previously owned and inhabited by any old resident, the sight of it wouldn’t be so jarring. But given the fact that E.P. Foster — a pioneer who, as a young child, traveled to the Central Coast in a covered wagon — left his fingerprints all over the city and even the county, it’s a shame to see an important part of local history largely abandoned.
It wasn’t until Ranger met artist and historic preservation activist Sarah Kalvin that he learned just how much of the city’s landscape his great-grandfather was responsible for. Kalvin was curating an exhibition to celebrate the life of E.P. Foster at the Bell Arts Factory when she met Ranger through his sister. Kalvin told Ranger that Foster had actually planted the trees at the mouth of the Ventura River that are fondly referred to as Hobo Jungle. Kalvin’s respect and affection for E.P.
Foster began with her interest in Hobo Jungle. “Those trees are like a sanctuary for a lot of people,” she said. Ranger, a Brooks Institute graduate, went to the location and photographed the trees, which due to storms over the years, have been thinned out quite dramatically. Kalvin’s knowledge about the Fosters served as a gentle wake-up call for Ranger. “She’d been living here six or seven years and knew more about my grandparents than I did,” he said. “So she kind of struck a nerve inside me, and I’ve wanted to get a little more involved.”
Foster, along with others from the first forestry commission in Ventura County that he helped found, actually planted many of the non-native trees (before it was considered an unsustainable practice) that are peppered throughout the county.
Foster’s generosity toward the city in which he raised his family displays an attitude of selflessness that seems to have gone the way of the wagon he traveled to town in. Rather than spend lavishly on himself, Foster routinely donated land to the city for public use and created the county’s first park system. His gifts include Foster Park, Camp Comfort, Dennison Park, E.P. Foster Library and Seaside Park. Failure to adhere to Foster’s vision of a scaled-down Golden Gate Park for the land that is now the Ventura County Fairgrounds is one of many examples of how his legacy has faded from the hearts of Venturans, just as his unofficially historic home has fallen into disrepair.
Kalvin and Ranger hope to change all that. Currently seeking nonprofit status for their Foster Legacy Foundation, and in negotiations with the school district to acquire the Foster House for restoration and educational purposes, they are trying to raise awareness about E.P. and his wife Orpha’s impact on the city of Ventura, the effects of which continue to touch residents’ lives even today. Ventura Mayor Christy Weir echoed that sentiment: “Every time we enjoy the scenery where the
Ventura River meets the ocean, [E.P. Foster’s] legacy lives on.”
Sunday, Sept. 5, is officially E.P. Foster Day in Ventura. On Saturday, Sept. 19, Kalvin is inviting plein air artists and photographers to the Foster House to help her ongoing project to document the house through art. “We want the public to know about the need to restore the house,” she said. Selected works from the event will be part of a large exhibition devoted to Foster early next year. Kalvin is also planning a watercolor exhibit where paintings by Ventura County’s first watercolorist, Orpha Foster, will be displayed, courtesy of the Foster estate.
Ultimately, Kalvin, Ranger and others who are part of the foundation would like to see the Foster House restored and used as a museum and for educational purposes. But perhaps more important to them is to awaken and sustain the memory of a man who consistently put his community ahead of himself and most important, to continue where he left off, “to mirror what E.P did back then and impact the city and county in ways that he would have done,” says Ranger.
For more information about E.P. Foster and the effort to restore the Foster House or to participate in the artists meet-up at the house, please visit www.fragilesands.com.