Tressa Prisbrey began construction of the Bottle Village in 1956. Initially, her goal was to build a structure to house her 17,000-piece pencil collection. She collected discarded beer bottles from her alcoholic husband and pieced them together, one by one, to make the first building. But that was only the beginning. Eventually, her creations grew to include 13 full-size structures, an impressive mosaic walkway, and several shrines and wishing wells. Grandma Prisbrey’s sculptures were made from found and discarded objects, mostly collected on her daily trips to the local dump.
From the early days of the Bottle Village until she was forced to leave the site due to ill health in 1982, Grandma Prisbrey gave walking tours of the buildings and sculptures. From the huge Round House to the Rumpus Room to Cleopatra’s Bedroom, the tours would always end in the meditation room with Grandma Prisbrey playing piano songs for her guests.
The old bottles that form the walls of the buildings make the air shimmer and dance with color, while the items embedded in the walkway create a sort of time capsule from the 1950s. It’s a magical place, made all the more impressive when you remember that it was all built by one woman. Sadly, Bottle Village was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1994. Caretakers are still trying to raise the funds necessary to restore the site.
Today, only seven of the original 13 structures still stand. The Bottle Village was declared an official landmark of Simi Valley in 1979, and a California State Historical Landmark in 1981. It still draws supporters and visitors from around the world, but it remains in need of restoration. The Preserve Bottle Village Committee continue to work to secure grant money for the project, but as of yet the massive restoration has not been able to take place.
While Grandma Prisbrey didn’t think of herself as an artist, she did some extremely remarkable things. She was recycling and upcycling before those words were even in use. She led a difficult life, yet managed to find joy and beauty in the things that most of us simply throw away without a second thought. And through her unique creations, she may have healed herself: making treasure from trash is such a therapeutic thing. Her legacy will continue to endure as long as people are mesmerized by her colorful bottle buildings and off-the-wall trash sculptures.