A plodding marathon aimed at reviving one of Riverside County’s most historic sites – a drawn-out effort that was slowed by litigation, an annexation and a gnawing recession – appears to finally be headed down the homestretch.
About 50 history buffs and preservationists gathered for a low-key ceremony Monday night, June 24, that marked their arrival at a key juncture in a two-decade push to revive Temecula’s iconic Vail Ranch headquarters.
“It is an important milestone,” said Darell Farnbach, a founder of the nonprofit Vail Ranch Restoration Association. “I think it’s fabulous.”
The gathering, which coincided with a meeting of the Temecula Valley Historical Society, featured significant announcements by Farnbach and his wife, Rebecca. The announcements included news that the Wolf Adobe, one of the oldest buildings in a vast area, is now available for lease.
“We are making history today,” said Rebecca, a VRRA founder and the author of a series of community history books.
The future commercial use of the Wolf Adobe and a cluster of nearby buildings – a point that now appears about one year away – is being likened to a marriage of historic preservation, tourism attraction and against-the-odds economic development.
“We need this,” mused Jimmy Moore, who has twice served as the historical society’s president, as he stood outside the Wolf Adobe following the ceremony.
Moore then wondered whether many Temecula residents today can even imagine what it was like when the area now covered by streets, stores, businesses and homes had more cattle than people.
“I don’t think so,” said Moore, who served as a leader of Temecula’s successful push to become a city nearly 25 years ago. Moore’s wife, Peg, served on the first City Council after Temecula incorporated in December 1989.
Difficult indeed, as the 4.5-acre site that houses the adobe and the other remnants of a sprawling, nearly forgotten cattle ranch seems lost in time. The still-sleepy site is flanked by big box and chain stores not far from Temecula Parkway, one of the busiest streets in the fast-growing city of about 105,000 residents.
Site’s history runs deep
Luiseno Indians lived throughout the area – hunting, fishing and collecting acorns – until they were ejected and isolated as a result of lawsuits and a harsh treaty. The Wolf Adobe, which is believed to date back to 1867, primarily served settlers who were traveling west.
The store was named after Louis Wolf, an immigrant who alternately served as a store owner, postmaster, road commissioner, labor contractor and landowner. The property was at a crossroads of the Southern Emigrant Trail and several local stagecoach routes.
Wolf married Ramona Place in 1862. The pioneer setting and many of its characters were believed to have been incorporated into Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona,” an 1884 novel that exposed many of the abuses that had been inflicted upon California Indians.
The adobe and its cluster of nearby buildings became the heart of the 87,500-acre Vail Ranch by the early 1900s. By then, the town of Temecula had shifted west to the banks of Murrieta Creek, which at one time was flanked by a railroad line that linked San Diego to San Bernardino.
Until it was sold for development in the 1960s, the ranch covered a vast area that stretched from Vail Lake to the Santa Rosa Plateau. At the time of the ranch sale, Temecula consisted of a few Old Town streets surrounded by ranch land and, at a distance, the Pechanga Indian reservation.
Growth quickly gobbled up massive chunks of Temecula. The land surrounding the former Vail Ranch headquarters was targeted for the development of a Walmart, a Kohl’s, a Ross Dress For Less and many other retail uses.
The shopping center developer initially set aside just the adobe and the land it occupied for historic preservation. Farnbach and a cadre of other historical preservationists then sued the county, which at that time was overseeing the development of the unincorporated Temecula area.
The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1998 after the developer agreed to set aside 4.5-acres that included the adobe, a ranch bunkhouse, an office, a cook’s house, an implement barn and other buildings. That action protected the site from development, and a modest amount of work was done then to prevent further deterioration.
In February 1999, county supervisors allocated about $170,000 to help shore up and spruce up the historic adobe building and other structures there.
Bumpy road to development
A plan to develop the ranch headquarters into a commercial hub was shelved for years as stores, restaurants, a gas station and other businesses were built and opened nearby as part of the Redhawk Towne Center.
The center changed hands, and then became part of the city in 2005 when Temecula annexed the Redhawk and Vail Ranch housing tracts. A special account was created about that time to set aside sales tax revenues to help pay for the eventual renovation of the ranch headquarter complex.
The historic site was then spun off by the shopping center owner, which owned a national network of commercial properties. The site shifted to Arteco Partners, a Pomona-based company that specializes in revitalizing historic buildings and districts.
Temecula planning commissioners approved Arteco’s development plan in May 2008. Arteco was in the process of wrapping up its financing and moving ahead with its construction plans when the recession hit. Bank loans evaporated, unemployment soared and land values plummeted.
Several factors – a recovering economy, an approaching deadline to obtain building permits and loosening bank loan restrictions – prompted Arteco to shift gears recently and begin work on the project, Gerald Tessier, president of the company, said in a Tuesday afternoon telephone interview.
“We felt that the time is now,” he said.
Lease negotiations are currently being conducted for the adobe, where seismic retrofitting work has been done, other improvements are finished and utilities are nearly ready to be connected, Tessier said. Initial work has begun to rehabilitate the other historic buildings on the site. Those structures were built from 1880 through 1920, records show.
Arteco is paying for the work “out of pocket” while it finalizes efforts to obtain a construction loan, Tessier said. It is expected to cost about $5.5 million, and take about a year to improve most or all the existing buildings to the point at which they can be leased to tenants.
Future focus on sales, showcasing history
When the work is done, the rehabilitated buildings will contain exhibit rooms that show how people once lived or the ranch operated, Tessier said. VARRA members plan to serve as docents and organize special events, historic recreations and school group tours.
Tessier and other preservationists compare the Vail Ranch site to Old Town San Diego, a historic district where there are restaurants, shops and other tourism-related businesses. Tessier said the proximity of Temecula’s wine county is expected to draw daytime and dinner visitors to the ranch headquarters, and shuttle bus and limousine services might schedule visits in order to add a splash of local history to their excursions.
An outdoor “hay wagon stage” will be built as a venue for music concerts and other performances, Tessier said.
“We think that’s all cool and fun stuff, and we think it will add to the economic viability of the project,” he said.
Tessier said he is starting to talk to prospective Wolf Adobe tenants now. He said an early end to those negotiations would not necessary mean that building would open soon. Tessier said he would prefer to have several of the historic buildings open at the same time, a move that would focus broader attention on the tenants and the rehabilitated site.
If a lease deal is struck soon for the adobe, that would give a business operator several months of rent-free access while they do tenant improvements, install signs and complete other advance preparations, he said.
Tessier said his company has revitalized about 20 historic buildings or complexes elsewhere over the years. All of them have successfully attracted tenants and customers, he said. He predicts the Vail Ranch headquarters site will follow suit.
“That’s our goal: To make something that works for the locals and the tourists that come in for the wine country,” he said. “I have a ‘build it and they will come’ mindset.”