By Donna Polizzi
It all started when Central Coast community leader Susan Righetti made a phone call to Doug Jenzen, the executive director of a small, local nonprofit. He had no idea that she was about to make the donation of a lifetime to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, a natural history museum in downtown Guadalupe.
Righetti’s offer to Jenzen made possible the initiation of a never-before-seen project, produced for the Central Coast.
A large, vacant building on Highway 1, at 899 Guadalupe Street, just down the street from the current Dunes Center was formerly the Far Western Tavern. It’s five times bigger that what Jenzen is working with today.
But this isn’t just any old building; it’s a historical landmark that has been in the Central Coast’s lineage for decades. Dating back to 1912, it was built as the Palace Hotel, then turned into The Far Western when Clarence and Rosalie Minetti purchased it in 1958. The restaurant relocated to Old Town Orcutt in 2012.
The building has been through a lot in the past years, including a conversion of the second floor into a casino and two fires. Many even say that the building is haunted by a former hotel guest who died in one of those fires.
Righetti and her family, a long line of ranchers, decided that this historical building would be of much greater value if it were put in the hands of the community that surrounds it.
Everyone loved the old Far Western Tavern. It was the local version of Boston’s “Cheers” bar, where everyone knew your name. But the biggest reason people came was the Santa Maria style barbeque, such as the “Bull’s Eye Steak,” the most-ordered item on the menu.
The vision of this tiny, grass roots organization moving into an 8,800-square-foot building slowly became clearer when members of the community were invited to join a planning workshop.
The support to make the workshop possible came from three different organizations, the Edwin and Jeanne Woods Family Foundation, The Fund for Santa Barbara and ERG Resources. It was a breath of fresh air for the Dunes Center, because it meant they were backed by a diverse group in the community.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. … It’s awesome to know that there’s so much support for what we’re trying to achieve … more educational accessibility in an under-served region,” Jenzen said.
Clearly, many members of the community still have an emotional attachment to this building.
The Dunes Center is dedicated to the conservation of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes ecosystem through education, research and community stewardship. This will continue to be the root of the organization, but it wants to extend its umbrella to history and art as well.
The Dunes Center has come a long way, through changes and transformations and now this special donation from the Minettis and the Righettis has inspired the small museum to reach its full potential, in its next phase.
The Dunes Center started as an experimental project that came about from local community members, who had a strong advocacy towards the dunes and its status as a pristine natural area.
It started as the Edward C. Seastrand Center, overseen by the San Luis Obispo Land Conservancy, in 1999. In 2004, it became its own entity and changed its name to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and has moved locations twice since then, all within four blocks of each other.
The organization plans on maintaining much of the building’s historical integrity. After the retrofitting has been complete, the new building will be called the “Minetti Building” in homage to Clarence and Rosalie Minetti.
With more space, the museum will have the freedom to showcase an extensive amount of material from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” movie set, which was buried in the dunes after the film was shot. The Dunes Center leads the excavations of the movie set and will proudly continue to showcase that exhibit in the Minetti Building.
The larger Dunes Center will also be able to provide more educational programming for local elementary schools.