Lawsuit Stalls Loss of 1947 Motel

The neon of the 1947 Wagon Wheel restaurant and motel, which closed in 2005.

Credit: Stephen Schaefer

Drive along Highway 101 in Oxnard, Calif., and you may catch a glimpse of the Wagon Wheel Restaurant and Motel, a kitschy, distinctive piece of classic roadside architecture.

"It's been a visual landmark for travelers for 50 years," says Stephen Schafer, president of the San Buenaventura Conservancy, which this month filed a lawsuit against the City of Oxnard, hoping to save the 1947 building. "Our group feels very strongly that it's an important piece of mid-century Americana."

The lawsuit filed in Ventura County Superior Court claims that Oxnard violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved a $750 million redevelopment plan in January. That plan stipulated demolition of the Wagon Wheel and development of the surrounding 64-acre site.

Oxnard's biggest builder and philanthropist, Martin V. Smith, started his career by building the Wagon Wheel. The restaurant closed in 2005 and the developer who purchased the property neglected it, Schafer says. In 2007, the Oxnard Cultural Heritage Board found the Wagon Wheel eligible for landmark status, and Schafer believes the structure could qualify for historic tax credits and be restored as a community center.

This rendering shows the 1947 Wagon Wheel restaurant and motel as the center of a new $750 million retail and housing development in Oxnard, Calif.

Credit: Stephen Schafer

"We have found ourselves in a beauty-contest debate," Schafer says. "We don't want to tear this down and then be staring at a giant, weed-filled lot … We're trying to avoid the 20/20 hindsight."

Schafer's group envisions a farmer's market, steakhouse, pool, and tourism center around the Wagon Wheel, which could be at the center of the high-rises and five-story townhouses of the new Oxnard Village.

If successful, the lawsuit will not delay construction of Oxnard Village; it will stall demolition of the Wagon Wheel building.


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