The Allure of Ojai

This California town, and its distinctive Mission Revival architecture, may be the state’s most colorful preservation tale

A gleaming arcade and central park honor Ojai’s Spanish heritage.

Credit: Krista Walton

On a hot, dry evening in Ojai, Calif., I am hiking through the Los Padres National Forest, winding my way past orange and avocado trees. Ojai is known for its fruit groves and historic buildings, but  I am in search of a more modern attraction: a 21st-century bench. The sunsets here are celebrated, and in the preceding hour, droves of locals and tourists angle toward benches and other favorite lookouts with an anticipation that borders on obsession.

I find my bench just in time for the so-called Pink Moment—when the sun hits the surrounding Topa Topa Mountains, bathing everything in an amaranthine glow. Peeling an orange picked on the hike up, I watch a dusky rose shadow descend on the mountains. The town spreads out below, bound to the east by rows of citrus trees and softened by twilight—a tableau so serene, it could be framed and hung on my living room wall.

In this moment, I am far from the snarling traffic and smog-shrouded skyline of Los Angeles, which sits a little more than an hour to the south. Ojai, a town of 8,000, has always possessed an otherworldly calm, and it has vigorously held on to its historic roots. Amble through the evocative, Mission Revival downtown and you feel steeped in a storied past. Unlike sprawling Los Angeles, Ojai has managed to slow time down and preserve the essence of California.

The Chumash Indians were the Ojai Valley's first residents. White settlers followed in the 1870s, convinced that the air held supernatural, curative powers. In his book California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence, the late-19th-century journalist Charles Nordhoff described the state as a place where "summers are endless" and maladies cured. "The air of the [Ojai] valley," he wrote, "has been found especially favorable."

The idyllic, Mediterranean climate soon lured plenty of tourists, among them Edward Drummond Libbey, a glass manufacturing magnate and arts patron from Toledo. When Libbey and his wife, Florence, arrived for the winter in 1908, Ojai's downtown consisted of a dusty main street lined with a few small shops. To Libbey, the town looked sloppy and unremarkable, reflecting the haphazard planning typical of a frontier outpost. But he also saw tremendous potential in the enchanting valley and soon became Ojai's greatest benefactor, forever altering the town's layout and architecture.

"There has been too little attention paid to things aesthetic in our communities and in our homes," Libbey told the local paper, The Ojai, in 1914. "The time has come when we should encourage in ourselves, thoughts of things beautiful, and the higher ideals which art encourages and promotes."

Libbey hired architect Richard Requa, renowned for his Old World Spanish buildings in San Diego's Balboa Park, to redesign the town square. The result was a graceful Mission Revival arcade, a matching pergola and arbor, and as a centerpiece, a 65-foot-tall tower for the town post office, dotted with tile details inspired by Mexican cathedrals. Libbey also purchased the land south of the existing shops and turned it into a public park.

Rooms With a View

In 1923, Edward Drummond Libbey went all out to create a relaxing, leisurely retreat in Ojai. He commissioned Wallace Neff to design a Mission-style country club amid the valley's rolling hills. The resulting Ojai Valley Inn (it had a few guest rooms) featured sweeping lines, terra-cotta tile roofs and floors, and magnificent views of the surrounding landscape. The Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects gave Neff its Honor Award in 1924, calling the clubhouse a fine example of modern Spanish architecture in California.

In 1935, after a brief closure, the Ojai Valley Inn reopened as a hotel with 17 rooms. Then, during World War II, the inn and surrounding golf course were converted into a military camp, temporarily housing some 1,000 troops. In 1944, the Navy used the site as a rest facility for recuperating soldiers.

In 2005, the Ojai Valley Inn underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration and expansion. The original guest rooms and clubhouse are now part of the expanded, 308-room Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, an elegant resort with an award-winning golf course and spa facilities. "We referred to Neff's original drawings during the expansion," says Veronica Cole, the inn's public relations manager. "We wanted the renovations to feel seamless, from Neff's buildings to the newer ones."

The Ojai Valley Inn is a Historic Hotel of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Click here for a list of Historic Hotels around the country

Walking through Libbey Park one afternoon, I pass beneath a wisteria-covered arbor and centuries-old oak trees, and admire Libbey's master plan: the pergola, arcade, and post office tower, all set against the backdrop of the Los Padres National Forest and the Topa Topas, the Mission Revival buildings extending seamlessly from the surrounding terrain. No other architectural style would have worked here—not Art Deco, not Classical Revival. The arresting white structures somehow call to mind the mythic California that resides in the popular imagination: the early Spanish missionaries, the desert climate, the casual elegance.

Indeed, Ojai's downtown buildings are an essential part of the valley's allure. "Ojai as a whole is actually very distinctive architecturally," says architect David Bury, who served as the town's mayor from 2002 to 2006. He points out that just as Pasadena is known for its Craftsman buildings and Santa Barbara for its Spanish Revival landmarks, Ojai has its own look. "We have this unique Mission Revival style of architecture that needs to be maintained," he says.

That hasn't always been easy, however. In the 1960s and '70s, Bury says, several historic Ojai buildings were demolished. And though the town square's original arcade still stands, keen-eyed visitors to the adjacent pergola might notice a small circular emblem with the year "1999" carved into the plaster. In the 1960s, much to the chagrin of many Ojaians, the pergola became a popular hangout for hippies and vandals, who chipped away at the concrete and loitered across from the storefronts. On Dec. 30, 1967, someone bombed the west end of the arbor and destroyed the pergola; whether it was done by hippies or to keep hippies away remains one of the town's great mysteries. In 1999, thanks to an effort led by Bury and David Mason (a lifelong Ojai resident who runs the Village Florist, located in the historic arcade), a replica of the pergola was reconstructed just a half-inch off the foundations of the original.

Ojai Valley Inn

Credit: Krista Walton

At noon, I pick up lunch at Ruben's, a tiny Mexican restaurant behind the arcade that sells thigh-sized burritos. It's blazing hot, and a bike race is going on, with crowds lining the arcade and Libbey Park to cheer on the cyclists. Kids play near the park's arched entrance while their parents lounge under trees to watch the action, trying to grab what shade they can. That the downtown is well-loved is at once apparent. Libbey would have admired the small-town feeling that remains.

"There's a long-standing attitude here to preserve what people think of as 'Ojai,' " says Patricia Clark Doerner, a fourth-generation resident and the chair of the town's historic preservation commission. "There's an interesting combination of rusticity and sophistication, and people want to keep it as is."

Nothing embodies that combination better than my next destination: Edward Libbey's house, built by Southern California architect Myron Hunt in 1908. Kathy and Bill Couturié have lived in the Arts and Crafts residence since 1993. The place is stunning—luxurious but still cozy, with dark wood, original leaded-glass windows (from Libbey's own company), and a wide porch with an overhead trellis dripping with succulents. Natural light pours in through the windows, illuminating the exposed roof beams and hand-painted front door (thought to be the work of a Chumash friend of Libbey's).

 "There used to be bears wandering around back there," Kathy Couturié says, pointing to the woods beyond. "It was really the Wild West; I think that's why Mrs. Libbey didn't like it here." (Florence Libbey was known to favor the more rarefied air of Pasadena.) How, I ask, has the house, located on such valuable land—in an age of teardowns and rampant development—managed to remain largely untouched? "People value their old houses and know they are special," Couturié says. "People here seem to appreciate what they have."

Over the years, this spirit has helped fuel opposition to numerous projects that would have brought development to Ojai. In the 1960s, for example, residents stopped the construction of a four-lane freeway that would have run right through the valley. The city has also approved ordinances that limit residential construction to fewer than 20 homes a year, and the planning commission has adopted a regulation that requires all new downtown buildings to reflect the Mission Revival style. Even the gas stations are painted white, their roofs adorned with rust-colored adobe tile.

"People move here because of its bucolic nature, and they don't want that to be ruined in any way," says Katrina Schmidt, Ojai's city planner. "Overdevelopment and overpopulation can threaten that lifestyle, so people are very passionate about protecting the character of the town."

Indeed, you won't find a Starbucks in downtown Ojai. (Nor will you drive past rows of big-box stores. Last year, with a Subway sandwich shop set to open behind the historic arcade, residents complained and the city passed an ordinance limiting the presence of downtown chain stores.) What you will find are art galleries, yoga studios, and locally owned coffee shops in the commercial district. The streetscape is charming, eclectic, and at a time when mom-and-pop stores are struggling more than ever, entirely remarkable. "Ojai hasn't changed much," David Mason says. "There's just more traffic."

Just outside of town, however, in the region's prized citrus groves, change might be inevitable. Farmers have been growing oranges in Ojai since 1880; now, pixie tangerines and Valencia oranges (not to mention avocados) flourish on nearly 10,000 acres of agricultural land in the Ojai Valley. Though orchards along Ojai Avenue and the surrounding mountains are a crucial part of the valley's scenery, skyrocketing land values and limited water resources have made farming less profitable—even, in many cases, unaffordable. Jim Churchill has grown tangerines and avocados in the valley since 1978. "The cost of doing business here," he says, "is greater than the profits you can make as a farmer. It's not an economic use of the land." Churchill and other farmers are trying to find ways to maintain Ojai's agricultural tradition, including planting new crops and selling to new, local markets. Still, the future looks uncertain. "I grew up here," Churchill says, "and I have an irrational fondness for the farming town of my childhood. But if farmland isn't used to farm, I don't know what's going to happen here."

As I drive a few miles east on Ojai Avenue, I leave the town behind, the road bordered by mountains and dense orange groves. I happen to notice something curious: a woman on a vintage bicycle riding toward me, a piece of white linen barely wrapped around her. She keeps a perfect posture while pedaling, her hands in the air, her palms folding to form the om sign. As we pass each other, I peek into my rearview mirror and see a handwritten sign hanging from the back of her bike: EVERY DAY IS EARTH DAY.

Ojai's hippie spirit has never really gone away. Many New Ageists, it turns out, believe that the valley's east-west configuration makes it a vortex of good vibrations. Spiritualists and meditation gurus have flocked here, establishing centers in the valley. What they seek, I realize, is no different from what any other resident here desires: a timeless, mystical place rooted in history, an extension of the natural world.

In his 1937 film Lost Horizon, director Frank Capra used Ojai as a stand-in for Shangri-La—perpetually blooming, peaceful, a place in which to forget your troubles. Now I know why Capra chose the Ojai Valley as the earthly substitute for a mythical paradise. In the movie, protagonist Robert Conway is lured away from Shangri-La, then spends years trying desperately to return. "When I was a kid, I always heard that if you ever lived in Ojai and moved away, you'd always move back. And I've seen it happen so many times," David Mason told me when I visited his flower shop. "During the Chumash days they never had battles in the Ojai Valley, because they wanted to keep the peaceful feeling here. I think that's still how it feels. It's a comfortable place."

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