It’s taken me a few years to book a tour of Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley. Tucked back into a deep lot on Cochran Street, unmarked by signage, the remains of Tressa Prisbrey’s 25-year labor of love are largely hidden from view to the casual passer-by. Nearly destroyed by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the walls and foundations of this fabulous village are still under the care of the Helpers at Preserve Bottle Village.
After finally stepping inside the gates, I had the opportunity to ask two of these volunteers, Franci Rehwald and Drew Kennedy, what made them so devoted to what some might describe as a crumbling fortress.
“There was a birthday party for Grandma Prisbrey,” said Franci as the tour group filtered out. “She had turned 80-something…and they had recreated a portion of Bottle Village, a wall…and I was enchanted, inspired, and just drawn to her.”
And I had to agree. Though much of Bottle Village’s 13 buildings lean and hang, its bottled walls still gleam red, white, and blue in the sunlight. Its walls and walkways are a time capsule of 1950s artifacts from television tubes to glass milk bottles, all salvaged from the local dump over a quarter century by Grandma Prisbrey’s tireless hands.
“Before, it was just ‘Ew, castaways from the dump,’” said Drew. “Now it’s “Wow, you saved that? Look at that!’”
Drew joined Preserve Bottle Village after Franci put out a call for more community leaders. Franci herself has been volunteering here as long as it took Grandma Prisbrey to build it. Not one to toot her own horn, she was also responsible for paying the back taxes on the lot to ensure the city of Simi Valley didn’t shut it down.
“If we were in Pasadena or Venice Beach, they’d get it,” said Drew, who came here with a background in antiques and collectables. “It would be done. We don’t even have an arts council in Simi Valley.”
The Bottle Village was not just a casual work of art; it was the Prisbrey family home, imbued with the soul of their family story. Grandma’s husband had a drinking problem, so she built a wall out of his bottles to give him some perspective. When her son was dying of cancer, she took three days to build him a bottle home with electricity and plumbing where he could make his final departure.
She planted a spring garden, featuring metal springs from a car.
“It’s kinetic,” continued Drew.” It’s always moving. It’s kind of breathing. I know it sounds funny, but it really is.”
It’s easy to imagine this place inhaling and exhaling as people come and go. A unique example of “outsider art,” Bottle Village draws visitors and art enthusiasts from as far as Australia. But all this visitation comes with a cost.
“When we do a tour,” said Drew, “a lot of what we’re doing is watching everyone because not everybody understands the fragility of this place.”
“I hear things crunching, and my heart just breaks,” added Franci. “One woman walked down the stairs into the round room. The stairs are very clever in that [Grandma] laid out bottles flat and those became stairs. But many of them have broken. So you have a shell of a bottle, and there [this lady] was down the stairs.”
And she has a point. As seismically active as southern California is, the future of Bottle Village in its current condition looks pretty bleak. The entire lot is lined with huge bins full of bottles that were salvaged from the last collapse. Caution tape warns visitors to stay away from unstable walls. It’s an uphill battle for sure.
Franci says it’s her life goal to see Bottle Village restored to its former glory. That means all the buildings rebuilt to their original sizes and specifications, an interpretive center at the entrance with videos of Grandma Prisbrey speaking and playing the piano, and one full-time staff member to greet guests. There’s just one problem, the kind that plagues most Helpers: money.
“The people I’ve spoken to figure that it could be done for less than $3 million,” said Franci. “In the world of fundraising and restoration, that’s not a heck of a lot of money. Maybe to you and to me and most people, but in the world of fundraising, it’s not a lot.”
And there’s the long-term wellbeing of the Bottle Village to think about. The volunteers are now applying for a grant to build a sample wall for earthquake testing. They say the Getty Center has developed a material that can be attached to adobe to keep it from crumbling during an earthquake. It just needs to be tried out on sample Bottle Village materials before it can be implemented on a grander scale.
Drew believes that, with funding and experts on board, it would take five years or less to restore Bottle Village. Meanwhile, they are planning engagement events, like the Cleaning Day on April 22 (Earth Day) and a unique display of Grandma Prisbrey’s vast pencil collection at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.
“I’ve come here for my own personal cleanup days, and there’ll be somebody at the gate, and they’ll be from another country. I didn’t plan on doing a tour that day, but that was obviously a better idea. That, to me, is amazing.”
To help the helpers at Preserve Bottle Village: