Downtown Ojai Renovation: 1919 Article

Civic Improvement Ojai, California
How an Old, Uninteresting Town Was Made Beautiful

Architect & Engineer August, 1919

LESS than three years ago what is now the quaint mission village of Ojai, California, was a ramshackle old town called Nordhoff in a mountain pocket forty miles south of Santa Barbara. It was an eyesore to the owners of the beautiful estates in the vicinity, and one of the owners, Mr. Edward D. Libbey, undertook to remedy the evil. His hopes for the town’s rehabilitation were grounded in a belief in the psychological effect of good clothes, translated in terms of architecture.

It happened that all of the stores stood on one side of the street, and Mr. Libbey’s first step was to purchase ten acres of ground on the other side, which included a number of dilapidated old shacks. This accomplished, the task of beautification was begun. The old buildings were torn down and in their place appeared a garden and tennis courts. A grandstand was erected, and along the edge of the park which fronted the street was built a Spanish pergola. But before this work was completed it began to be borne in upon the store keepers that their buildings looked disreputable in contrast, and at the psychological moment Mr. Libbey proposed that he would give them the park and tennis courts, and a new post office building, if they would join together and freshen up the appearance of their store buildings. The offer was accepted and Mr. Libbey thereupon engaged the services of Messrs. Mead and Requa, architects of San Diego, to plan a new business thoroughfare for the town. It was discovered that by a slight expenditure on the part of each store owner, a uniform front could he built on all the stores. So the workmen were called in and the task was begun. The store buildings themselves were not disturbed, but an arcaded plaster front was built on all of them. The transformation was complete. Each store owner put up a few hundred dollars, and in return became the possessor of a building enhanced in value and beauty beyond all proportion to the amount of money spent.

But the idea which created the transformation, the idea of giving a man¬†good clothes and seeing him live up to them, did not stop there. Ojai’s fame as a village has spread. Committees of citizens have visited it from various places in the state, and already half a dozen small villages are planning to do what Ojai has done.

Writing of civic improvements in general and the Ojai community in particular, Mr. Richard S. Requa says:

“A great deal of attention has been given during recent years to the matter of Civic Improvements. Volumes have been written on the subject, committees and conventions have frequently met for its discussion, and almost every progressive American city has either its city planning commission or has under consideration plans prepared by authorities on city planning and beautification.

“In almost every instance, however, the larger cities only have agitated or attempted plans or work along these lines.

“The village or small town has received slight encouragement and has shown little disposition to initiate the movement. This is not because the resident of small communities does not appreciate or enjoy well-planned and beautiful surroundings, but because the expense entailed is usually considered far beyond the amount they could raise for such purposes. The small town is usually burdened to the breaking point providing funds for the erection and maintenance of schools, fire stations and other administrative and public buildings. In a large majority of cases, however, a careful study of the situation would demonstrate that a great deal could he done in the way of unifying and transforming the ugly and jarring elements of a village street into a harmonious and pleasing group at a cost no greater than would be necessary to remodel and modernize the individual store fronts. Public service corporations, banks, realtv firms and other firms and individuals interested in the growth and development of the community will be found most willing to contribute to the undertaking.

“So far as I know, the credit for initiating the movement for small town improvements should be given the village of Ojai (formerly Nordhoff) in the Ojai Valley, Ventura¬†County, California. This community is so small it is not incorporated, has no local government and no means of raising money except by voluntary contributions. Fortunately it is most favorably situated in a beautiful valley at the terminus of a concrete highway, fifteen miles from the sea and the city of Ventura. Lofty and picturesque mountains hem it in on all sides and nature has embellished it with running brooks, giant oaks and semi-tropical flora. The only discordant note in the valley, the one blot on the landscape, was the business section of the village, a collection of nondescript and ramshackle buildings with ugly metal awnings, disjointed sidewalks and crude, staring signs. A partially wrecked livery stable and a dilapidated blacksmith shop occupied the two most prominent corners of the town.

“Mr. E. D. Libbey of Toledo, Ohio, a winter resident of the valley, possessed the foresight and imagination to realize the possibilities of unifying and beautifying the conglomeration at a surprisingly small expense compared with the result obtained, fie appealed to the public-spirited residents and property owners to aid in the undertaking and by way of encouragement proposed to buy and deed to the community a beautiful tract of ten acres (an old hotel site) in the center of the business section, as a civic and recreation center and also to erect a post office on the site. The appeal met with instant cooperation and success. Each shop owner agreed to pay a certain pro-rata share of the expense, and the balance of the amount required for the improvements was contributed by property owners and business interests in the valley.

“The Spanish Colonial, or the so-called Mission style was decided upon as the logical and best adapted treatment for the regeneration. Within three months after the idea was proposed, the money was raised, the plans were completed and the actual work commenced. The construction is fireproof and permanent; hollow tile, reinforced concrete and stucco being the materials used.

“The local benefits, however, are insignificant compared with the example set and the incentive given other towns to improve and beautify their surroundings.”

In designing and planning the village hotel or tavern for Ojai, the special problems to be given careful and special consideration and study were: a building thoroughly modern and up to date and meeting the requirements of the discriminating traveler; a plan and arrangement that will furnish suitable accommodations “for the commercial man, the casual visitor and the tourist, and also provide a pleasant, restful home for the guest who desires to extend his sojourn over weeks or months; a structure that will be sunny, warm and comfortable during the cool days of winter and also be cool, airy and restful during the heat of summer; a’ design conforming and harmonizing with the present civic improvements, of which it forms a part ; and providing by means of treillage, pergolas and broad, plain wall surfaces the greatest facility for the growth and development of the vines, plants and shrubs so essential for maintaining the verdant charm and country atmosphere of the village.

Before the plans were started, the most successful Southern California hotels were visited and hotel men of experience and authority were consulted, and the practical knowledge thus gained was used in developing a plan which meets in the highest degree possible, in a building of its modest size and cost, the needs and desires of the traveling public.

The very essential matters of light, heat, ventilation and view were carefully considered and adequately worked out. A large, comfortable, homelike lobby and out-door sitting room have been provided to tempt the guest to prolong his stay. The dining room has been made especially airy and attractive. The two sides of the room facing east and south are practically all glass, looking out upon an interesting California garden and commanding a most fortunate view of the post office tower, the park, the pergolas and arcades of the main street and the wooded hills beyond. The entire east side opens, by means of French windows, onto a generous pergola-covered terrace, shaded and sheltered by a large spreading live oak.

The building and the enclosing garden walls have been designed in the spirit of the early Spanish Colonial and California Mission architecture to fit into and form a part of the already completed civic improvement scheme. The main features are the plain, modeled, plastered wall surfaces, dull varicolored roofing tiles; quaint, overhanging balconies, interesting window lattices and grilles and rustic log-covered pergolas, all so reminiscent of the early Spanish inhabitants and fitting so harmoniously into its semi-tropical environment. A simple, vet imposing Mission arch breaks and relieves the straight lines of the enclosing garden walls and serves as the main entrance to the grounds and the tavern.

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