The executive director of the DANA Cultural Center looked on with a smile as a group of giggling kids crafted their own adobe bricks from mud and another group bounced around learning the steps to a Mexican folk dance on a recent Friday morning.
“I grew up in Nipomo, and it wasn’t until I came here for an interview that I ever saw Nipomo from this angle,” said Marina Washburn as she gestured behind the students to the ranch’s rolling hills, dotted with green.
“The feeling that you are seeing in place what people saw 175 years ago — to feel that it was here, it was always here, and that the roots of our stories are still here — is just amazing,” she added. “We want to give more people, more kids, the opportunity to feel that.”
The students that day were among 1,500 who annually visit the former home of one of Nipomo’s most prominent settlers, Capt. William Dana.
Once a $14 million expansion is completed at the end of 2016, the site could host about 3,000 students and up to 6,000 non-student visitors each year, Washburn said.
“We’re really hoping to make this into a community asset,” she said, “not only as that field trip, but as a community gathering place.”
The DANA Cultural Center is a nonprofit organization that has served as the steward for the Dana Adobe since it incorporated in 1999. The group used to be called Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos but recently changed its name to better reflect the organization’s growth beyond the adobe into an education center teaching the broader historical context of late 1800s California.
The group has secured close to $10.2 million in grants and outside funding for its expansion project, which includes building a new visitors center, Chumash Interpretive Area and walking trails throughout the 130-acre property, as well as some restoration and beautification improvements.
The new visitors center will act as a gateway to the property, Washburn said. The 5,800-square-foot building will feature two classroom spaces for student lessons and hands-on activities, and smaller spaces for galleries, meeting rooms and archives. It will also be entirely powered by solar panels.
“We’ll be able to connect people not only with the history, the fauna, the habitat and so on, but also with each other,” Washburn said. “The idea of this classroom museum space that we are building is to invite the community to take part in the stories that we tell here.”
Just south of the new center will be an open-space Chumash Interpretive Area, where members of the Chumash tribe could hold meetings, language classes and other demonstrations that would be open to the public.
“This would be for things that show that the Chumash are still a living culture; they aren’t just dead and gone,” docent Alan Daurio said, noting that the Chumash were some of the earliest travelers through the area, as well as being the principal laborers at the Dana ranch. “They tie in really well with this place’s history.”
Washburn and Daurio, who is also a board member on DANA Cultural Center, estimate they will need close to $4 million more to pay for additional improvements to the site. For example, a bridge is needed across the now-dry Nipomo Creek bed so that emergency vehicles can access all parts of the property, and an 1800s-era house needs to be moved from a different area of Nipomo to the Dana site for restoration.
The first phase of construction — the visitors center, Chumash area and some of the walking trails — is slated to start around October.