Looking at the endless recycled items that were artistically used to build Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley, it’s hard to pinpoint the mindset of the self-taught architect who started turning trash into treasure in the mid-1950s.
Some say the late Tressa Prisbrey was a maverick for collecting hundreds of thousands of bottles to make walls for the structures located on a third of an acre on Cochran Street. Others believe her self-taught artistry was a catalyst to battle depression after outliving two husbands and six of her seven children.
One thing’s for certain: Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey was ahead of her time.
“When she did this people were saying, ‘what is this trash?’ ” said Drew Kennedy of Simi Valley, secretary of the Preserve Bottle Village Committee. “As you can see now, it’s very, very progressive. And that’s what folk art is: castaways. Things would just inspire her. She would collect things that just showed up at the dump.”
The committee is a nonprofit effort launched in 1979 to acquire and restore the privately-owned historic property. That same year, Bottle Village was named a Ventura County Cultural Landmark. In 1981, the site was declared a California State Historical Landmark National Register. After Prisbrey died in 1988 at 92 years old, Bottle Village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
“This was built by a woman,” said Francie Rehwald, of Malibu, president of the Preserve Bottle Village Committee. “It is one of singularity on the national registry of historic sites built by a woman.”
Every inch of Bottle Village was created with Prisbrey’s unique eye for turning recyclables into works of art. The structures on site were originally built on themes for their design, including the Television Tube Fence, Horseshoe Shrine and Mosaic Walkway, as well as the Pencil House, which showcases her collection of more than 17,000 pencils. The Shrine of All Religions was built with 600 blue Milk of Magnesia bottles.
“She would do all these whimsical things,” Kennedy said. “She would collect automotive headlights from the automotive shop that was in town and make wishing wells out of them. And she had bottles hanging from the trees so it was like you were inside a wind chime.”
Many of the site’s structures were severely damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and over the years, Bottle Village has slowly disintegrated. The Preserve Bottle Village Committee is seeking volunteers to help with hands-on fixes, and also needs donations to help restore the site to its original integrity based on historical photographs. The committee worked with Architectural Resources Group to approach the project as effectively as possible. The group, which specializes in historical sites and has notably worked on Watts Towers State Historic Park, provided a master plan for restoration last month.
Plans for the renovation include ADA access, as well as the establishment of restrooms on site. “We are also very interested in establishing a self-guided tour because people come from all over the world to visit Bottle Village,” Kennedy said. “We’re looking to collaborate with others to design an automated, self-guided tour.” Rehwald also notes that the committee is always looking to train more docents, in the hopes of increasing the number of public tours offered.
All the structures on site need a bit of TLC, including the Doll House, in which thousands of dolls have been weathered over the years. “I have a whole list of different projects that we’re doing,” Kennedy added. “We just do a little bit at a time.” A fundraiser is planned for the spring, although details are still being worked out (and will eventually be announced on the Facebook page for Preserve Bottle Village).
In the meantime, a handful of tour dates will be available December-March, although there are other ways to see the Village. “We can also do private tours upon request,” said Tammy Grodt, of Simi Valley, treasurer of the Preserve Bottle Village Committee. “Contact us to see the beauty of Bottle Village.”
Bottle Village tours are offered Dec. 28, Jan. 15, Feb. 11 and March 26. For more information, visit www.bottlevillage.com, or see the Preserve Bottle Village page on Facebook.