WHAT’S NEW DOWNTOWN?

The following story was printed in the book “Portrait of a Community (Ojai – Yesterdays and Todays)” by Ellen Malino James in 1984. It is reprinted here with the permission of  publisher Ojai Valley News.

WHAT’S NEW DOWNTOWN [in 1984]?
By Ellen Malino James

When Edward Drummond Libbey started the Arcade in 1917, he agreed to share the cost of upgrading the front footage with Ojai merchants. Nobody considered the rear of the Arcade. While the street fronts of the Ojai Avenue stores were united by the Mission style of architects Mead and Requa’s original plan, the back doors stood for fifty years in a haphazard jumble of old wood shacks, some dating back to the original 1870’s town of Nordhoff. The front arches continued to grace the picture postcards, the Arcade having become a kind of façade, like a Hollywood set. Behind it, lay a deteriorating shambles of old Western clapboard buildings.

In January, 1954, Mayor Ken Praire, City Engineer Major John Dron, and another official watch workers fix the parking lot drainage behind the Arcade. (Bill Klamser, Jr,, photo, OVN)
In January, 1954, Mayor Ken Praire, City Engineer Major John Dron, and another official watch workers fix the parking lot drainage behind the Arcade. (Bill Klamser, Jr. photo, OVN)

Architect Zelma Wilson and others foresaw that, with imagination and planning, the rear of the Arcade could become a “focal point of community life” – a village where residents and tourists alike could shop and socialize. The original plans of the Downtown Business Committee in 1971 called for plazas, fountains, covered walkways, and new shops and offices, all blending into a relaxed village atmosphere spanning the block from Signal to Montgomery Street behind the Arcade. Now, a decade later [1984], the Arcade Plaza is a local project, paid for without state or federal money. An ingenious application of the state law allowed for increased tax revenues within the redevelopment area to go exclusively for the benefit of this project.

When John Johnston came to Ojai as city manager in 1971, he recalls, “my great concern at that time was to prevent Ojai from turning into another San Fernando Valley.” Johnston, then in his late twenties, had just completed a term as City Manager of Artesia and Cerritos, where uncontrolled growth had transformed dairy farms into what was then the world’s largest indoor shopping mall.

“In Ojai,” says Johnston, “I ran into a city council that stopped this sort of development on its heels.” With Councilman Hal Mitrany and others, Johnston met with Ojai’s downtown merchants to explore ways to redevelop a “shambles” of old structures. In the back alley behind the Arcade, buildings were collapsing, Johnston recalls, “but what could we do? The city was too poor to do it on their own.”

AS A FIRST step, Johnston urged the city to form a parking and improvement district. The merchants then went to Architect Zelma Wilson, A.I.A. to design an expanded Arcade. Johnston then, in early 1972, asked Robert Hill of the California Department of Housing and Community Development to visit Ojai and to outline for the city council how the state redevelopment law could be applied specifically to Ojai’s needs.

Plans were laid for upgrading the downtown core and putting in public improvements with money from tax increments. Each time a property owner increased the value of his land and buildings within the 135-acre boundary of the agency, local tax money flowed into the coffers of the new redevelopment agency.

“So the project came out as originally hoped for,” said Johnston. “It just took a lot longer.” Ten years, in fact, from the original conception in 1972 to the dedication in April, 1982.

OJAI REMAINS one of the few towns to apply the state law on redevelopment in this novel and constructive way to its downtown area. The amount of money available to the redevelopment agency proved to be more than originally hoped for, because property values increased during the past decade beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. Yet with Proposition 13 and the inevitable decline in real estate values, the redevelopment agency idea is not as desirable as a tool as it once was.

Crucial to the redevelopment plan was the timing and local leadership in Ojai. “It is unlikely that the project would have taken place,” says Johnston, “if the interest and support were not there.”

Johnston particularly recalls the role of Clifford Hey and James Loebl: “When things got tough, they didn’t back down.” But there were many others. “Hundreds of people from all walks of life made this happen.” Just one example: Alan Rains invested in sidewalks outside his store long before the plans for the surrounding area took shape. What the redevelopment agency did was to create confidence in the community.

 

Behind the Arcade:  Before

Walk-through at Matilija Street Plaza in 1938, Floodwaters running through the street. (photo courtesy of the late Lois Heaton)
Walk-through at Matilija Street Plaza in 1938, Floodwaters running through the street. (Photo courtesy of the late Lois Heaton)

 

Back door of Ojai Realty, to the left of The Hub, on this same site since 1917 when the front of the Arcade was begun. Previously, the Ojai State Bank stood here. (photo, circa 1950s, courtesy of Alan Rains)
Back door of Ojai Realty [Love Heals in 2017, at 260 E. Ojai Ave], to the left of The Hub, on this same site since 1917 when the front of the Arcade was begun. Previously, the Ojai State Bank stood here. (Photo, circa 1950s, courtesy of Alan Rains)
When David Mason, owner of the Village Florist, opened his store more than a decade ago, he remembered how he used to play on that spot as a toddler. The Village Florist stands on the site of Doug Jordan's next to Ed Benton's. The mural on the wall of the Village Florist dates from the 1950s when David Mason would accompany his mother, Maxine Miller Mason, to work in the store.
When David Mason, owner of the Village Florist, opened his store more than a decade ago, he remembered how he used to play on that spot as a toddler. The Village Florist stands on the site of Doug Jordan’s next to Ed Benton’s. The mural on the wall of the Village Florist dates from the 1950s when David Mason would accompany his mother, Maxine Miller Mason, to work in the store. [The Village Florist was located at 242 E. Ojai Ave; in 2017 it is Osteria Monte Grappa.]
Rear view of Ojai Gift store with outhouse as it looked in the 1950s. (photo courtesy of Alan Rains)
Rear view of Ojai Gift store with outhouse as it looked in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Alan Rains)

Behind the Arcade:  After

Merchant Alan Rains recalls:  “Our concern was that we did not want to see Ojai follow the same route as the San Fernando Valley with shops starting at Woodland Hills and running fifteen miles to wherever.  Ojai had not been growing in a healthy pattern for several years and it was felt something needed to be done to revitalize the original shopping area.”

The plaza looking east with new lanterns and landscaping. (OVN staff photo)
The plaza looking east with new lanterns and landscaping. (OVN staff photo)

 

Attractive benches, flowers, and places to rest, much in the tradition of a European town square. (OVN staff photo)
Attractive benches, flowers, and places to rest, much in the tradition of a European town square. (OVN staff photo)

 

The area behind the Arcade is no longer an eyesore, but an attractive showplace. (OVN staff photo)
The area behind the Arcade is no longer an eyesore, but an attractive showplace. (OVN staff photo) [This fountain was removed in the late 1990s.]
No more false fronts, no more shambles at the rear.

 

Library was the Focus of Community 100 Years Ago

This article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News on April 9, 1999. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Library was the focus of the community 100 years ago
by David Mason

“Ventura house-mover John Brahey is busy moving the Nordhoff Library onto the library (owned) lot south of the present location.”
— Ventura Signal, October 1908

Between 1897 and 1917 philanthropist Andrew Carnegie endowed more than 1,400 public libraries.

He could very well have been inspired by the Ojai Valley’s Library, for by the time Carnegie’s lengthy series of endowments got underway, the town of Nordhoff, now Ojai, had been enjoying a public library for five years.

The library in Nordhoff may not have been a Carnegie library, and Carnegie probably never knew it existed, but the Ojai Valley’s residents were proud of what they had, for they had worked hard to establish this bit of culture in their community.

When the library committee first met in October 1892, it was to discuss plans to raise money to start a library in the town. The people of the valley were so excited about the idea of having a local library that they volunteered many hours to bring it to a reality.

By March 1893 Sherman D. Thacher, founder of The Thacher School, announced that the Thacher family and some friends were willing to donate $500 toward the purchase of books if the people of the little valley could come up with the money for the building and its maintenance. This kind and generous gesture would be the inspiration for an all-out campaign to raise the rest of the needed funds.

After many lawn parties, ice cream socials and teas, the money was raised in a very short time. Construction of the library started in July 1893 and was completed in August, nearly 30 days later.

In 1937 Zaidee Soule, longtime local librarian writing on the history of the library for the community’s newspaper, The Ojai, wrote, “The building was constructed 100 feet south of Ojai Avenue and just east of (Stewart) creek on the Barrow property.”

The building, a single room, was only 16 feet by 24 feet, with a porch running along the east side.

The library was named The George Thacher Memorial Free Library. The name came from one of the Thacher boys who had died at an early age and the people of the valley were proud to honor this boy who had touched the hearts of so many.

Nordhoff LibraryCOP 2016.163

The first librarian was Mrs. J.K. Newton and the library was open from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Sunday.

The library was a success from the first day as the people of the valley were anxious to gain new knowledge.

The success of the library became even more evident in 1904. Since the library did not own the land on which it sat, the library board of directors purchased the lot next door, further south on Montgomery Street, and had the building moved onto their own property and added another room.

In January 1916 the library officially became a branch of the Ventura County Library system, the first in the county. The operating expenses, maintenance and upkeep became the responsibility of the county.

After many years, it was apparent that the library was going to outgrow its building and changes would have to be considered. A number of buildings were being built on the south side of the main street, hiding the library from view, so the library board felt that the location would also have to be changed.

The town was growing rapidly, and with Ojai’s greatest benefactor Mr. E.D. Libbey changing the appearance of the downtown, it was only natural that a new library, designed with the same flair as the rest of the town, would be in keeping with the general plan.

The new library committee was headed by Sherman D. Thacher, who had also been instrumental in the founding of the original library in 1893, and it fell to the Ojai Civic Center Association in 1920 to find a buyer for the existing library property.

After some time, part of the library lot was sold to the Ventura County Fire Department for a new fire station, now [the Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room], and a new group in town called The Ojai Community Players, now the Ojai Art Center, took an option on the remaining portion of the land.

The city had come in possession of a lot on the corner of Aliso and Lion streets through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Smith. The city agreed to pay the Smiths $312.50 for the lot because the city had installed new sewers and widened the streets and had ruined the lot for building a house.

However, Mrs. Smith deemed it in the town’s best interest to accept only a $10 gold piece for the property, an amount she said would “make it legal.” The little old library building was then moved onto the small city-owned lot.

With the pending sale of the library property, the committee put the fundraising efforts into full force and the first person to donate was Mr. Libbey who donated $10,000 worth of stock to the fund. Many others joined Libbey with donations in various amounts. Finally, when enough money was raised, definite plans were started. By the time the committee had raised all the needed funds, Mr. Libbey had passed away and his estate owned the land that the library committee had decided upon for their new building. It was a beautiful corner lot at South Ventura Street and Ojai Avenue. The library committee contacted the Libbey estate to ask if the lot could be purchased for the new library. The answer came back from the trustees of the estate saying, “It had always been Mr. Libbey’s dream to have a library at that site, so they wished to present the lot, worth $10,000, as a free gift to the Ojai Community.”

The architect selected by the library committee was the famous Carleton Winslow. Winslow was 42 and well-respected in the state of California. He had first studied architecture at the Chicago Art Institute, and for more advanced training, he spent time at the Beaux Arts Academy of Paris.

Upon graduating, Winslow found employment with the architectural firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson in New York City. The company became responsible for the construction of the buildings for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and sent Winslow to supervise the job.

After the exposition, Winslow remained in California and opened an architectural office in Los Angeles and later in Santa Barbara. He was one of the most influential figures in the realization of the Spanish Colonial Revival and Mediterranean styles of architecture in the state of California.

It was only natural that the Ojai Library Committee would select such a man to design a building that would not only match the downtown architectural style, but would complement and add uniformity to the town center.

Samuel J. Hudiburg was the building contractor. Hudiburg was born in Santa Paula and received his schooling in Ojai. In 1906, he learned the carpenter’s trade from J.C. Leslie, a pioneer contractor in Ojai, and Hudiburg worked for Leslie until 1919, when he went into contracting for himself. During Hudiburg’s years as a contractor, he built many of the finest residences and commercial buildings in the valley.

On Dec. 1, 1927, the plans for the new library were approved and construction started. The building was to include a reading room, 23 feet by 62 feet, and additional small rooms for magazines, a work room, etc.  An 8-foot porch was planned for the front of the building.

On April 15, 1928, the new library was officially opened. Many books being published that year undoubtedly helped to fill the shelves – among them were “West-Running Brook” by Robert Frost, “The Man Who Knew Coolidge” by Sinclair Lewis, “Good Morning America” by Carl Sandburg and “Boston” by Upton Sinclair.

Ojai LibraryCOP 1978.028

By 1979 the need for an additional room to the library was brought to the attention of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors and J.K. “Ken” MacDonald, supervisor from Ojai, would spend the next few years working diligently to accomplish the goal of a new wing.

With the cooperation of John Van Dyke, who owned the vacant lot between his travel agency and the library, the land was secured at a reasonable price.

MacDonald was able to persuade the Board of Supervisors to finance a portion of the project and Friends of the Library, with assistance from librarian Ellen Harmon, were able to secure the needed funds for completion.

The addition was completed in May 1981 and, by a resolution from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, the new wing was named the “J.K. ‘Ken’ MacDonald Annex.”

LibraryAddition

The original 1893 library building became the clubhouse for the Boy Scouts and they used it for their meetings until 1949, when it was deeded to the Girl Scouts for their use.

In 1989 the Girl Scouts were forced to abandon the building as it was found to be unsafe and would have required a lot of changes to bring it up to health and safety codes.

The majority of the building is still in its original condition, and today, more than 100 years later, the building is preserved and maintained in a fashion worthy of its dignity.

Orchid Town was an attraction in the ’40s and ’50s

This article was written for an appeared in the Ojai Valley News on June 11, 1999.  It is reprinted here with their permission.

Orchid Town was an attraction in the ’40s and ’50s

by David Mason

“Gardening is one of the best things in the world to make you forget your troubles, so as you go along, take a little time out and relax in your garden amongst the flowers.”
                — Louis Boyle, Out West, 1952

The lavish two-story hotel with its sweeping veranda would have no overnight guests. The post office has not postmaster, the Orchid Café couldn’t serve a decent cup of coffee and there were no children learning their ABC’s at the Deer Little School.

The blacksmith shop was silent and no hymns were heard coming from the Community Church. The Last Chance Saloon never served liquor; the jail never held a prisoner; and the justice of the peace? Well, he never married a single couple.

This may sound like a very dull town, but on the contrary, it was probably one of the most exciting old beautiful towns in all of Southern California.

El Rancho Rinconada, Orchid Town, was the dream of a wealthy man.

Overview of Orchid Town on the El Rancho Rinconada.
Overview of Orchid Town on the El Rancho Rinconada.

When Louis Boyle purchased the 77-acre ranch in the Ojai Valley in March of 1939, it consisted of a small house, garage and barn. Within a year, the land would start to spring forth with an array of exotic plants, for Mr. Boyle’s dream was to develop his ranch into a paradise of flowers.

Mr. Boyle was not raised in the flower business. His father had come to California with his family in the 1890s and had obtained employment in the iron and steel business, which he did quite successfully. His company manufactured barrels, canteens, camp stoves, tin cans and garbage cans.

The elder Boyle eventually took over the Pacific Stove Company, which made heaters and stoves; one popular line of heaters sold for 90 cents each.

One employee was an ambitious man by the name of Parkie O’ Keefe, the plant superintendent and salesman, who would sell stoves, write up the orders, come back to the plant, change clothes and work to make the stoves.

In 1913, Bob Merritt came to work for the Pacific Stove Company. After a few years, Mr. Merritt, longing to go into business for himself, convinced Mr. O’ Keefe to join him. The elder Boyle sold the stove manufacturing end of his business to them and retained a financial interest in their business, which came to be known as O’ Keefe and Merritt.

The Boyle manufacturing company was sold to the United States Steel Company in 1939 and it was then that Louis Boyle came to the Ojai Valley and bought El Rancho Rinconada.

He was not the first man to see the possibilities in this secluded ranch in the little valley. The previous owner, Loring Farnum, had attended Thacher School from 1898 until 1900 and was so impressed with the Ojai Valley that in 1908 he purchased the ranch and named it El Ranch Rinconada. He built a white farm house, planted a prune orchard and raised horses.

The original Farnum house was one of the 60 buildings in the valley that was lost in the great 1917 fire. Mr. Farnum was on the Boyd Club Board of Trustees and he was the first person to introduce radio to the Ojai Valley citizens.

Louis Boyle was enthusiastic about creating a sprawling ranch of orchids and other unique plans. He had attended the 1938 Pasadena Flower Show, where a large display of cymbidium orchids had caught his eye.

The Orchid Ranch would have to be unique, the land encircled by the mountains was too magnificent to construct just ordinary rows of lath and greenhouses.

The idea of creating a western town as a front for the flower beds was decided upon as an attractive way to conceal the lath house structures. Mr. Boyle and his helpers spent months going through junk yards, picking up old doors, windows and lumber.

The first building was the hotel. The imposing structure would stand out from the rest of the town. The windows were actually shadow boxes that held a variety of treasures. Each window box told a different story of the history of the Old West. They included old guns, powder horns, lamps and spectacles. Some contained wooden tools, music boxes, branding irons and straight razors.

 La Casa de Las Orquideas (the old Hotel) and wishing-well.
La Casa de Las Orquideas (the old Hotel) and wishing-well.

 

Shadow box of antiques.
Shadow box of antiques.

 

Upon entering the front door of the hotel, your first view was of hundreds of orchid plants growing in attractive gardens –- a spectacular sight.

Inside of a Lath House.
Inside of a Lath House.

The rear side of the false front was also a treasure trove. Hung on the walls were old western pictures and newspapers. Out front stood a wishing well.

Further down the street, other false fronts continued to be built on both sides, until the town had almost all of the conveniences one would expect in a small town.

There was the drug store, church, hardware and general store. Then they had the little school, assayer’s office, the town hall and bank, the opera house and Last Chance Saloon –- and the largest building, Kate’s House, was named for one of the ladies of early San Francisco.

There was also the Chinese Laundry, King’s Harness Shop, Wells Fargo, Pony Express and The Picture Gallery.

The Picture Gallery was extraordinary. The walls were covered with beautiful pictures of orchids, the handiwork of many artists, who years ago contributed in their greatest ways to symbolizing the beautiful flowers.

The gallery consisted of more than 1,000 prints of orchids, offset in their placement on the walls to make room for the collection of museum quality antiques that were also neatly arranged in the gallery.

An office building and library were built on a low rise at the base of the mountains, so as to afford a panoramic view of the ranch. The atmosphere of the office was more like a home instead of a place of business. The library contained a large collection of rare botanical books, collected from around the world.

Over the years, the Orchid Ranch would become one of the main sources of elaborate displays at flower shows, winning many awards.

Lath House which shaded plants at Orchid Town.
Lath House which shaded plants at Orchid Town.

The various displays that Mr. Boyle entered in the shows were replicas of his greenhouses that were showplaces within themselves, adorned with exquisite garden statuary that added charm to the meandering rock-lined walks that encircled the beautiful beds of graceful orchids.

The camellia plants would add another source of color and beauty to the ranch. Planted throughout the property were more than 7,000 camellia bushes, consisting of 150 different varieties. Many of them were rare and unusual.

The 1948 forest fire would take its toll on the Orchid Ranch, as well as the entire Ojai Valley. At El Rancho Rinconada, lath houses burned to the ground, destroying the precious plants and flowers that the lath had been protecting. The camellias that were planted along the outskirts of the ranch, closer to the surrounding hills, were lost when the fire swept into the little valley.

The ranch was repaired of all fire damage and, in short time, was back in full operation. As though to add insult to injury, the next year it snowed on the little town. To protect the orchids, which were only covered by lath, smudge pots had to be moved in.

By 1952 there were more than 50,000 cymbidium plants growing on the ranch. Mr. Boyle learned all he could about the flowers, mostly through trial and error. His passion for cymbidiums was a major contributor to the flower’s popularity.

During the years that the ranch was in operation, the cymbidium orchid became the most popular flower for stylish corsages. Florists from around the world were supplied with the blooms shipped from El Rancho Rinconada.

There was no lovelier orchid than the cymbidium and there was no finer selection in the United States than those grown at Orchid Town, El Rancho Rinconada. Many different varieties of cymbidiums were propagated there in the many specially designed greenhouses built for the young seedlings.

The names of the cymbidiums read like a list from “Who’s Who,” including: Anne Boleyn, Bach, Mozart, Beau Brummel, Cleopatra, Godiva, Goldilocks, Hiawatha, Pocahontas, Paul Revere, Joan of Arc and Marco Polo. The royal family was not forgotten; plants were named for Queen Elizatbeth I, Queen Mary, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles and Windsor Castle. President Lincoln and President Wilson were also included in the list.

Many other unusual flowers filled the ranch greenhouses, among them the waxy red Hawaiian anthuriums and the cypripedium orchids, also known as the Slipper Orchid.

The ranch would continue to delight people from around the world, whether it be those fortunate enough to have been invited to the many private parties and official affairs that were held there, down to the excitement felt by the smallest florists across the country who received their shipments of the exquisite flowers from the ranch.

Orchid Town's main entrance.
Orchid Town’s main entrance.

When Mr. Boyle died in August of 1954 the glory of El Rancho Rinconada began to fade, but not to the memories. I’m sure the many hours I spent as a child, admiring the quaint place and the beautiful creations of God, had a lot to do with influencing my life.

The property was eventually sold to Camp Ramah and there aren’t many of the original structures left. The office and library, the main house and guest house remain. The western town is gone and the one sign of an earlier day is the wishing well.

Camp Ramah has maintained the land with spacious lawns, tree and flowers, and the serene atmosphere remains. Today, the former El Rancho Rinconada is used for the health and enrichment of young people’s lives, not unlike what it did for the flowers many years ago.

 

The Meaning of Ojai Day

The Meaning of Ojai Day, by Mark Lewis

Reprinted from The Ojai Quarterly

Downtown Ojai in 1920s. Courtesy Ojai Valley Museum

Ojai Day celebrates the 1917 transformation of Ojai from a dusty, ramshackle collection of old West shops into unified design of public architecture and parks, with converging perspectives of arches and towers. What inspired Edward Libbey to transform Ojai into an architectural jewel? Mark Lewis interviewed Craig Walker, who revived the Ojai Day celebration in 1991, for this in-depth look at the origins of Ojai Day. Craig traces the impetus to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, an epochal event that launched the City Beautiful Movement, made Libbey a vast fortune and introduced him to Mission Revival architecture.

The original plan was to call it Libbey Day, to honor the man who had transformed the dusty, dowdy, backwater burg of Nordhoff into the model Mission Revival village of Ojai. But Edward Drummond Libbey was having none of it. He was proud of his role as Ojai’s guardian angel, but he preferred to celebrate the town itself on the occasion of its rechristening, rather than focus on his role in the process. As usual, Libbey got his way. And so, on April 7, 1917, some 2,000 people crammed themselves into the town’s brand-new Civic Park to celebrate Ojai Day.

“We are celebrating here today the fulfillment of a conception,” Libbey told the crowd. On every side stood examples of his handiwork: The Arcade, the Pergola and the Post Office Tower, all immaculately sheathed in sparkling white stucco or plaster.

“There has been too little attention paid to things aesthetic in our communities and in our homes,” Libbey said. “The time has come when we should encourage in ourselves thoughts of things beautiful, and the higher ideals which art encourages and promotes must awaken in the people the fostering of the love of that which is beautiful and inspiring. We must today decry with contempt and aversion all that is cheap, vulgar and degrading.”

That night the new buildings were illuminated with white light, rendering them incandescent. The effect must have reminded some onlookers of similar illuminations they had witnessed at the Panama-California Exposition, a world’s fair of sorts that had just closed on January 1, after a successful two-year run in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

Looking back at these events across a distance of 95 years, it seems clear that Libbey’s Ojai project was heavily influenced by the San Diego fair. The Panama-California Exposition had popularized the new Spanish Colonial Revival style, a baroque offshoot of the Mission style and Ojai’s Post Office Tower would have looked right at home in Balboa Park. But one local history maven, Craig Walker, traces Libbey’s original inspiration further back, to an earlier world’s fair: Chicago’s legendary World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, better known as the White City.

White City at 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Photo: Chicago History Museum Collection

The Chicago fair had an enormous impact, and still lingers in the national memory. It is the subject of Erik Larson’s hugely popular nonfiction book The Devil in the White City, first published in 2004 and still going strong on the paperback bestseller lists almost a decade later. The book focuses on a serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, the eponymous “Devil” of Larson’s title, who preyed upon fairgoers. But for most people who visited the White City, it looked more like heaven than hell.

It was there, on the shore of Lake Michigan, that Edward Libbey witnessed a testing of the hypothesis he would propagate in Ojai two decades later: that beautiful buildings inspire people to become better citizens. To judge by Chicago’s less-than-sterling reputation over the years as a bastion of civic virtue, the original experiment was rather a bust. Ojai would turn out to be a different story.

MAKE NO LITTLE PLANS

The World’s Columbian Exposition originally was scheduled to open in 1892, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World. But its organizers got carried away. Led by the architect Daniel Burnham, they turned the fair into an epic celebration of modern America and its apparently limitless potential. “Make no little plans,” Burnham famously said; “They have no magic to stir men’s blood, and probably themselves will not be realized.”

Big plans take time to develop. As a result, the fair did not open until May 1893. But it was worth the wait. Burnham & Co. had built an entire model city in Jackson Park. This was in effect a Hollywood set, made up of temporary buildings molded out of a kind of stucco and painted white to look like marble. Nevertheless, the effect was stunning especially at night, when they were bathed in electric light. Collectively they comprised the White City, and people looked upon them in wonder.

Some 27 million people visited the fair that year, the equivalent of a third of the country’s population. Among them was the future author L. Frank Baum, for whom the White City would serve as the model for the Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Another onlooker was Elias Disney, a carpenter who had helped to build the White City; his son Walt would one day build his own White City in Anaheim and call it Disneyland. Even the notoriously cynical historian Henry Adams was impressed with what Burnham had wrought.

“Chicago in 1893 asked for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving,” Adams later wrote. The answer was still unclear, but at least the question was framed intelligently. The White City, Adams wrote, “was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there.”

All sorts of people beat a path to Chicago in 1893, including the theosophist Annie Besant, who was on her way from Britain to India. She stopped off in Chicago long enough to attend the fair’s Parliament of Religions, during which Swami Vivekananda introduced America (and the West in general) to Vedanta and yoga. Such epochal goings-on were routine at the Chicago World’s Fair, which also introduced America to the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack candy and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. But its most far-reaching legacy was the City Beautiful Movement, which the White City embodied.

“The industrial cities of the 1870s and ’80s had little planning “they evolved as crowded, ugly, haphazard affairs,” Craig Walker said. Burnham built the White City to show that there was a better way. “The belief was that cities built as a unified, planned development, with beautiful public buildings and parks, would inspire civic pride and moral virtues that would bring social reform,” Walker said. “The exposition was the blueprint for modern America; it had a major influence on art, architecture, city planning, business and industry.”

Ah yes, business and industry. The exposition was not entirely about art and moral uplift. Commerce also was highlighted, and many manufacturers built exhibits to showcase their wares. Among them was a certain glass manufacturer from Toledo, who saw the fair as his chance to hit the big time.

Edward Drummond Libbey was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1854. He followed his father into the glass business and by 1892 was the head of Libbey Glass. The firm had moved in 1888 from New England to Ohio, where it struggled for a few years before finding its footing. Now Libbey saw the World’s Columbian Exposition as opportunity to establish his firm as the premier national brand for high-quality cut glass tableware. But his board of directors balked at investing big bucks to build a first-class exhibit. So Libbey borrowed the money himself and built it anyway. It was a full-scale glass factory situated on the Midway Plaisance, west of the fairgrounds proper. Libbey’s gamble paid off: The Libbey Glass pavilion was a huge success with fairgoers.

Libbey spent a lot of the time at the fair, living above the store, so to speak, in an apartment built into the pavilion’s second floor. The building was located half a mile east of the Ferris Wheel and just short walk west from Stony Island Avenue. On the other side of the avenue lay the shimmering White City.

Most of the fair’s buildings showcased the neo-classical Beaux Arts style, which America’s leading architects had studied in Paris. Among the more notable exceptions was the California Building, which stood less than a quarter of a mile away from the Libbey Glass exhibit. Paris had never seen its like. Nor had Chicago, for that matter. The California Building introduced America, and Edward Libbey, to a new architectural style called Mission Revival.

ENTER RAMONA

California had not always celebrated its Mission Era heritage. After the gold rush petered out, the state’s boosters needed to give people from back East a different reason to migrate west, and California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage did not seem like a selling point for white Protestant Americans. On the contrary, the state’s boosters feared that all those Spanish-style churches and forts made California seem too foreign and too Catholic. “From the 1840s to the early 1880s, the American immigrants did everything they could to eradicate the state’s Old World Spanish architecture,” Craig Walker said. “The missions and presidios were abandoned and destroyed.”

Casting about for a viable marketing angle, California’s railroad barons brought in the travel writer Charles Nordhoff to publicize the state’s natural beauty and healthy climate. Nordhoff hit the mark with his book California for Health, Pleasure and Residence (1872), an enormous success that induced thousands of Americans to move west. Some of them ended up in the sparsely Ojai Valley, where a real estate promoter named Royce Surdam was promoting a new town site. The settlers decided to name this town Nordhoff, to honor the man whose book had lured so many of them to California.

Nordhoff’s founders took no cues from the few remaining adobe structures they encountered in the vicinity. Their new town was built out of wood, and looked like it had been plucked from Kansas or Iowa and replanted in the Ojai Valley. But not every visitor from the East was averse to adobe. When the author Helen Hunt Jackson passed through Ventura County in 1882, she ignored Nordhoff but made a point of lingering in Rancho Camulo, a Spanish-style ranch near the present-day town of Piru. Rancho Camulo served Jackson as a model setting for Ramona (1884), her melodramatic novel about a young Indian woman who lives on a California ranch during the early years of statehood.

Ramona changed everything. A runaway bestseller, it sparked a national fascination with California’s Mission Era. The state’s boosters reversed course and embraced the old missions as iconic symbols of a romantic (and mostly spurious) past. “They just rode this Ramona thing,” Walker said. In the end, Jackson’s book lured even more people to California than Charles Nordhoff’s had.

Meanwhile, California architects concocted the Mission Revival style to create new buildings that harked back to the period in which Ramona was set. Naturally, when it came time to design a California exhibit building for the World’s Columbian Exposition, state officials chose a Mission Revival motif. The California Building was hardly the first example of this new style, but it was the first one to win nationwide acclaim. It made a big splash at the fair.

“It really was the building that got America’s attention,” Walker said.

Did it get Edward Libbey’s attention? He could hardly have missed it, given its close proximity to the Libbey Glass pavilion. Was he impressed? There is no way of knowing. All one can say with confidence is that Ojai’s future benefactor first encountered the Mission Revival style in Chicago in 1893.

The World’s Columbian Exposition also put Libbey on the path to extraordinary wealth, due to the success of his glass-making exhibit. “His whole glass empire just took off,” Walker said. “It propelled him to the top of America’s glass manufacturers, and he became one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country.”

And, crucially, the fair exposed Libbey to the full effect of the City Beautiful Movement. Before long he began applying its precepts to Toledo, where in 1901 he co-founded the Toledo Museum of Art. But Toledo turned out to be too big a city for one man to beautify. Libbey continued to support the museum, but he spent more and more of his time in Southern California. In 1908 he discovered Nordhoff, and built himself a winter home high up on Foothill Road. He loved the valley’s climate and mountain scenery, but was less impressed by its tacky architecture. Eventually, it occurred to him that Nordhoff, too, could benefit from the Libbey touch.

 

The town of Nordhoff before Mr. Libbey’s improvements.

THE VILLAGE BEAUTIFUL MOVEMENT

Nordhoff’s ramshackle business district did not amount to much: a forgettable stretch of uninspired wooden storefronts, indistinguishable from a thousand other hick towns languishing in the boondocks. In short, Nordhoff was homely. Libbey had a remedy. He had internalized the great lesson of Chicago, which was that art and human progress were inextricably linked. And among the arts, architecture was especially effective at creating a physical context for uplift. What had been true of Athens and Rome could become true of Nordhoff: Beautiful buildings would inspire civic virtue among the inhabitants, and make the town a better place in every sense. In April 1914, Libbey called a meeting of Nordoff’s leading citizens to offer a suggestion: They should essentially scrap the town they had, and build a new one.

“Make no little plans!” That was Daniel Burnham’s advice to the city planners of America, and it was Edward Libbey’s advice to the burghers of Nordhoff. His wildly ambitious proposal evidently stirred the blood of every man at that meeting, for they voted unanimously to embrace it. Why would they not, given that Libbey and his rich friends would provide most of the funds? And so the great experiment began.

There were still a few details to fill in. First and foremost, who would be Libbey’s architect, and what style would he employ? The choice ultimately fell upon Richard Requa of San Diego, whose firm, Mead and Requa, did some work for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. Libbey evidently visited the San Diego fair, was impressed by its Spanish Colonial Revival motif, and hired Requa to create something similar in Nordhoff.

But the sequence of events suggests that Libbey already had settled on the Mission style for Nordhoff, well before he ever set foot in Balboa Park. After all, he had been familiar with the style at least since 1893, when he first clapped eyes on the California Building at the Chicago World’s Fair. And he no doubt had admired the Thacher School’s administration building, a Mission-style structure built in 1911. Significantly, the first major new building erected in Nordhoff in the immediate aftermath of that April 1914 meeting was a Mission-style movie theater, the Isis. (It’s still there, almost a century later, only now it’s called the Ojai Playhouse.) Given the town’s enthusiastic embrace of Libbey’s plan, it seems most unlikely that someone would have built a major new building in the downtown district without first vetting the design with the man from Toledo.

Libbey did have other architectural choices. The most impressive-looking building in downtown Nordhoff in 1914 was the Ojai State Bank, a stately brick pile in the neoclassical mode, complete with Doric columns. Theoretically, Libbey could have put up a neoclassical village to match the bank. But that would have looked bizarre, given the region’s historical context. The closest points of reference were Ventura and Santa Barbara, each of which dated back to the Mission Era and boasted an authentic mission building. Mission Revival was the obvious choice for Nordhoff. It seems likely that Libbey had made that decision even before he called that meeting.

Libbey of course was no architect. He left the design details to Requa, who used a mixture of Mission style (e.g., the Arcade) and Spanish Colonial Revival style (the Post Office Tower) to bring Libbey’s vision to life. Meanwhile, in March 1917, the town completed its Ramona makeover by changing its name to Ojai. Now it had a Spanish-sounding name to complement its new look. (The name, like the architecture, is not actually Spanish; it’s derived from the name of one of the Chumash Indian villages that once dotted the valley.) Thus it was Ojai Day, rather than Nordhoff Day, that the town celebrated a few weeks later on April 7.

At the opening ceremony, Libbey handed the deed to Civic Park to Sherman Day Thacher, who accepted it on behalf of the newly formed Ojai Civic Association. A reporter for The Ojai newspaper recorded Libbey’s speech, an earnest paean to the power of art:

“Art is but visualized idealism, and is expressed in all surroundings and conditions of society,” he told the crowd. “From the earliest age to the present time, art has been to the races of men one of the greatest incentives toward progress, refinement and the aesthetic missionary to the peoples of the world.”

Did the townspeople take Libbey seriously, with all his high-falutin’ rhetoric about Greece and Rome and beauty and virtue? Relatively few people in the crowd knew him well. He was only a part-time resident, after all. But clearly he was sincere, and most of his listeners were grateful that he had taken Ojai under his wing. Heads nodded in agreement as he launched into his peroration:

“Thus we are today celebrating, in the expression of this little example of Spanish architecture in Ojai Park, a culmination of an idea and the response to that spark of idealism which demands from us a resolution to cultivate, encourage and promote those things which go to make the beautiful in life, and bring to all happiness and pleasure.”

The crowd gave Libbey a huge ovation. And then the party began.

“Last Saturday a new epoch in the social and industrial life of the rejuvenated and resuscitated ancient Nordhoff, under a new title and new conditions, was ushered in and welcomed with joyous acclaim and much felicitation,” The Ojai reported in its next issue. “It was the most memorable day in the history of the Valley. New life, new ambitions and greater accomplishments will date from April 7, 1917.”

THE LIBBEY LEGACY

Ojai Day was not celebrated in 1918, due to America’s participation in World War I. But it returned in 1919 and became an annual event, as Libbey’s influence provided the town with more new buildings to celebrate: The St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel (now the Ojai Valley Museum) in 1918, the El Roblar Hotel (now the Oaks at Ojai) in 1920, the Ojai Valley School in 1923, the original Ojai Valley Inn clubhouse in 1924. Then Libbey died in 1925. The town continued to celebrate Ojai Day until at least 1928, but at some point after that, the tradition was abandoned.

The buildings, of course, remained. But as the decades passed, some of them fell into disrepair. The original Pergola was demolished in 1971, the same year Civic Park was renamed Libbey Park. “And we almost lost the Arcade in 1989,” Walker said.

Walker is a retired Nordhoff High School history teacher and an expert on the valley’s architectural history. (He inherited some of that expertise from his late father, the noted architect and longtime Ojai resident Rodney Walker.) He was a member of the citizens group that saved the Arcade, by raising funds to refurbish it and bring it up to code. In the wake of that effort, Walker led a move to bring back Ojai Day. The event was revived in 1991, and now is celebrated each year on the third Saturday of October.

Craig Walker. Photo: Raijmakers Photography

Walker also was among the people who brought back the Pergola in 1999. As a member of the Ojai Valley Museum board, he continues to lend his expertise to the museum’s projects. It was while researching a talk about Ojai architecture that Walker learned that Libbey had been an exhibitor at the World’s Columbian Exposition, where he would have been exposed to both the Mission Revival style and the City Beautiful Movement. Walker already was familiar with Libbey’s Ojai Day speech from 1917, but now he viewed those words in a new light.

“The words just echoed the real heart of what the City Beautiful Movement was all about,” Walker said. “On that day in 1917, the architectural and social ideals of the World’s Columbian Exposition were expressed in a beautiful new civic center that was created by a man who owed his own success in large part to that same Chicago exposition.”

Did Libbey achieve his dream for Ojai? Certainly his influence on the look of the town has been enormous. Walker points to all the beautiful Mission- or Spanish-style buildings that other people erected in the valley after Libbey worked his magic downtown. These include the Krotona Institute of Theosophy, Villanova Preparatory School, the Ojai Presbyterian Church, the Ojai Unified School District headquarters (formerly Ojai Elementary), the Chaparral Auditorium, and many, many others.

But an Ojai building need not be Mission style or Spanish style to reflect Libbey’s legacy; it need only be beautiful. Nor is his influence limited to architecture. Today the town is known as a mecca for artists, and Libbey, in a sense, was their prophet. He called for the community to pay more attention “to things aesthetic,” and his call has been heeded.

“It all goes to show, first of all, that one man can make a difference,” Walker said. “Libbey’s ideas must have infected the people of Ojai.”

In one way, Libbey outdid Daniel Burnham. The glorious White City burned down in 1894; only one of its buildings remains standing in Jackson Park. But Libbey’s buildings still stand along Ojai Avenue, and still perform their intended function. Burnham’s lost masterpiece was a blueprint for future cities that were never built, except, perhaps, by L. Frank Baum and Walt Disney. But the Emerald City is imaginary, and Disneyland is a theme park. Ojai is a real town, where people live. If today Ojai prides itself on its beauty and on its highly developed sense of civic virtue, then much of the credit must go to Edward Drummond Libbey, who set out to build a better town, and succeeded.

“I think it helped people realize that they live in someplace special,” Walker said. “This was Libbey’s stated intention “to inspire people to these higher ideals of civic involvement. One could say that his intention has been borne out.”

(Originally published in the Ojai Quarterly’s Fall 2012 issue. Republished with permission.)

Walker Built Homes on Cutting Edge of Day’s Design

Walker Built Homes on Cutting Edge of Day’s Design by David Mason

“What man has learned about himself in the last five years will, we are sure, express itself in the way he will want to be housed in the future.”
Arts & Architecture – January 1945

After World War II, the newspaper and magazine were full of advertisements for new homes being built for the returning servicemen. They were often written to where it seemed as if the postwar houses were, ultimately, what the war had been all about. Only rarely did they use the old, cozy imagery of home and hearth. The magazine, House and Garden wrote in 1945 that modern architecture was “a continuing struggle for growing liberty.” They felt that “For some, if soldiers were to return to old-fashioned houses and enclosed rooms, the fight would have been as good as lost.”

In 1945, the publication; House Beautiful presented a house in Beverly Hills, and wrote that “it was the house to which Johnny dreams of marching home to,” and that this was, “one of the ideals these veterans have fought for and which they can now look forward to attaining.”

The same year, the popular magazine; Arts & Architecture, thinking it might stimulate the sale of their publication and promote house sales, they announced their Case Study program. It was the California sun rather than the hearth that was at the base of the program. A five-acre piece of land was acquired, a site overlooking the ocean on the palisades above Santa Monica Canyon, and nine architects were invited to join the program. There were no restrictions on what type of houses they designed. The Case Study houses were open to the public and introduced experimental materials and the new modern forms. One of the finest designers of this important postwar program was the 35 year old, Rodney Walker.

Although he was born in Salt Lake City in 1910, Rodney was mostly raised in the town of Ely, Nevada.

Rodney & Dorothea Walker in 1952

In his younger school years, he showed a great interest in music, dramatics and sports. Walker went to the Pasadena City College to study engineering with the hopes of eventually transferring to Cal Tech. These ideas were changed when he was lucky enough to receive an athletic scholarship to UCLA. At UCLA, Walker studied the arts and during his senior year, he met and married his wife, Dorothea, who was also a UCLA student.

They built their first Los Angeles home in 1937. Rodney Walker did the design, and together with his new wife, they did all the construction work themselves, except for the electrical and plumbing. The satisfaction of completing that first house instilled in Walker that this would be the perfect occupation for him.

By the time America entered into World War II, Walker had designed and built a dozen houses around Los Angeles for his clients. During the war, with construction at a stand still, he worked for an airplane company and continued his architectural studies. Every spare moment was used visiting prominent buildings in the Los Angeles area to familiarize himself with the style and techniques of the city’s major architects.

When the war ended, the young couple were able to purchase a parcel of land in the hills above Beverly Hills, and built a new house for themselves on this important piece of real estate. The house was extremely modern and had over 2000 square foot of floor space with a sweeping view from the city to the sea. It was a striking home.

When the Walkers were asked by Arts & Architecture if their home could be used as one of the original

Rodney Walker’s CSH #18

Case Study houses, they consented. The idea of the Case Study houses was that people would not really understand modern architecture unless they saw it, and they weren’t going to see it unless it was built. The Walker’s house would become the first house to be shown to the public and to be covered exclusively in publications. The Walkers enjoyed being in on the ground floor of such an exciting time in California architecture. Within a short time, their home was featured on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Home Section, and the narrow mountain road leading to their home, was congested with an estimated 4000 people driving into the hills to catch a view of this spectacular home.

Walker designed two more of the Case Study houses. He used his own construction crew and he joined them in the actual building of these fine houses.

For the next 10 years, Walker continued to work in the Los Angeles area, mostly building the houses that he had designed, however, occasionally, he would do the design and just supervise the construction. Most of the time, he preferred to do the actual building himself.

One of Rodney Walker’s policies was the construction of two houses at the same time. One would be for the client, and they got top priority, while the second house would be built for spec, and was primarily to keep his crew busy while waiting for the plumber and electricians to finish their jobs.

Walker refused to accept more than two jobs at a time. He enjoyed his time; “in overalls on the job,”

Walker’s Case Study House #16

for it was during these construction times that he felt that he was really able to work out the details of his designs. During this period in time, it wasn’t considered professional for architects to do the actual building themselves, so rather than give up the construction end, which he felt was such an important part of his final architectural product, he chose to remain a builder-designer.

Walker continued to work on various ways to make his houses truly outstanding in design and by using the latest products he was able to make the houses more reasonably priced so that everyone could own and enjoy his art.

UCLA had a gallery showing of his works in 1948 and it brought this designer to the attention of the Southern California media. Home magazines were noticing this very talented designer and many publications were featuring his work. House Beautiful worked for a solid year, photographing the Walker house in the various seasons and holidays in order to devote an entire issue of their magazine to this modern home. After the publication hit the stands, the Walkers received mail from all over the world. The people of the country were ready for a change, and this new modern design was very exciting to them.

In 1955, the Walkers took time off to travel north to Ojai. Their first visit would cause them both to fall in love with the serenity of this valley. The thoughts of purchasing property here became a reality in a very short time.

Walker added this modern addition onto the old farmhouse at 308 Signal.

Their first Ojai property, bought with the idea that it would be used for a week-end house, was an older Victorian on North Signal Street. The remodeling job of this house, featured in Better Homes and Gardens brought the artistic family even more recognition. Their love of the valley was so strong that in 1956, they decided to make Ojai their permanent home. They felt that it was a perfect place to raise their 5 children, and they wanted to get involved in keeping the Ojai Valley the wonderful place that welcomed them when they first arrived.

During the next two years, Walker finished up the commitments he had started in the Los Angeles area, and started accepting a few designing jobs in the Ojai Valley.

One of his early designs was a Thacher Road weekend house for Elsa Pehrson, a resident and doctor of San Francisco, built in 1957. The house is an L shape with wide overhangs. It is constructed of concrete block and floor to ceiling glass walls. The house was oriented on the lot to take advantage of the mountain views and magically, it captured the excitement of the period.

The Walker home in Ojai

Walker then decided to build another house for his own family on a large parcel of land on the west side of the Arbolada. The house would be his masterpiece. It set on top of a low hill that had a breathtaking view of the Ojai Valley. Hexagon in shape, it was constructed of steel and glass. The exterior walls were totally made of glass to provide for an uninterrupted flow from the interior rooms to the outdoor living areas. It is truly a modern palace.

At the same time, another commissions had come his way, the 1959 Ojai Valley home for Dr. David Harvey and his family. This house was also constructed of steel and glass, and featured a prominent projecting roofline on both the front and back. Full-length glass walls produce an open effect. This spectacular building was featured in Sunset Magazine and the Los Angeles Times.

Anther Ojai home was for Dr. Kurt Semmel. This single-story building featured a modern massive pointed roof that sweeps upward and out, extending over a raised wood balcony. The wide brick chimney provides a corner feature, with tall glass walls on either side, so that a view of the Ojai Valley and the rugged landscape below can be enjoyed from inside the house. Walker’s attempts at drawing the outside in, through the use of glass walls, were very successful.

Once Walker’s own personal home and the commissions were completed, he decided to take a rest. The

The Kurt Semel House.

family departed the valley for a year’s trip around the world. During this time that the family was together, Rodney Walker decided to retire from the business of designing houses and work more toward protecting the quality of life that he had come to enjoy in the Ojai Valley.

One of his local projects was the re-opening of The Oaks Hotel. He spearheaded the idea of getting 200 local citizens to chip in and purchase the hotel block that was standing in the center of town, closed. He served as chairman of the board of the hotel for several years, until 1971, when he decided to retire from civic affairs.

In 1971, Mr. and Mrs. Walker opened The Cello Collection, a unique and interesting gift shop in the downtown section of Ojai. Rodney had become an expert at the art of designing gold and silver jewelry, and his works were featured in their stores, here and in Montecito.

The Walkers purchased condominiums in the Hawaiian Islands and with the yearly decorating and other maintenance of the condominiums, and the exquisite jewelry that he was designing, Walker was able to fulfill that wonderful creative and artistic desire that had been the love of this talented man’s life.

The beautiful homes in Southern California, constructed by this famous designer are highly respected by their owners as the great creation of art that they are. One yearly reminder of this highly respected gentleman, are the beautiful Christmas lanterns hanging in the arcade, which were designed by Rodney Walker.

From the Ojai Valley News, Dec. 10, 1999

The Age of Reformation: The founding of AARP in Ojai

The Age of Reformation: Ethel Andrus and the Founding of AARP
by Craig Walker and Bret Bradigan
from The Ojai Quarterly

As Jack Fay remembers it, it was just a quiet business dinner with six people in a small meeting room at the Ojai Valley Inn. The air wasn’t charged with the momentous changes about to take place. Instead, they discussed legal incorporation issues and health insurance premiums.

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus organized the meeting. She represented the Grey Gables in Ojai on behalf of the National Retired Teachers Association, and Fay was her lawyer. The others at the meeting were Ruth Lana, Andrus’ long-time lieutenant; Dorothy Crippen, Andrus’ cousin; Leonard Fialco, the assistant to the sixth person present, Leonard Davis, an ambitious if yet only modestly successful insurance broker from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

During that Ojai evening in 1958, the American Association of Retired Persons was born. And what it meant to grow old in this country changed dramatically. At first, the AARP was structured as a mechanism by which the National Retired Teachers Association, founded in 1947 by Andrus, could sell health insurance to the general public. The NRTA had been selling policies to retired teachers since 1956, and it had proven both profitable and popular. Insurance companies had turned Andrus down 40 times in the past 11 years. Yet in those pre-Medicare days she knew that people over 65 deserved the security and dignity that comes from knowing that they could rely on a doctor’s care.

When Andrus started the NRTA in 1947, 75 percent of people over the age of 65 lived with their relatives and 55 percent lived below the poverty line, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 1940, life expectancy was 60.8 years for men, 65.2 for females. In 2007, life expectancy figures were 75.4 and 80.4 respectively.

Some of the increase in lifespan can be attributed to medical advances, which the AARP has advocated and funded. Some could also be plausibly attributed to the dynamic lifestyle that Dr. Andrus pioneered and of which she was a living example: a lifestyle based on exercise, travel, lifetime learning, second careers, political and social activism, volunteering and community service.

Despite its modest origins in Ojai, the AARP now has 40 million members and is considered one of the most powerful nonprofit organizations in the United States. Its magazine has the largest circulation of any periodical. Its lobbying arm in Washington, D.C, is considered the most formidable. The organization extends into every area of aging, from leading-edge research to group travel discounts.

Fay, a former Ojai mayor and city councilman, is still practicing law. He is the sole survivor of that meeting since the death of Davis in 2001.

“As the meeting broke up, Davis took me by the shoulder and whispered to me, “You’ll never get anywhere in life if you don’t think big,” Fay recalls. “And I thought that was a heck of a good idea. So, I started thinking big. It didn’t work for me, but it did work for Davis.”

Leonard Davis convinced Continental Casualty to start up a pilot program for selling policies to everyone over the age of 65, not just retired teachers. It proved an immediate success. It went nationwide, with Davis as the sole broker. “He had the whole country as a fertile field to sell his health insurance,” Fay says. “So he made the best of it.”

Davis put up $50,000 in startup money. Dr. Andrus founded Modern Maturity magazine, now AARP Magazine, which lobbied for the interests of the elderly and, perhaps not coincidentally, served as an excellent marketing vehicle for the health insurance policies in those pre- Medicare years.

Within a year, the number of policies written went from 5,000 to 15,000. Within a few decades, Forbes magazine listed Davis as one of its 400 wealthiest Americans, with a personal fortune estimated at $230 million at the time he sold his Philadelphia-based Colonial Penn Group in 1984.

“I remember that evening vividly,” Fay says, “But I don’t think any one of us realized the import. Who could have predicted it?”

If anyone could have predicted it, it would likely have been Dr. Andrus, who founded the NRTA in 1947 before moving to Ojai from Glendale in 1954 to open a revolutionary new retirement home for teachers at Grey Gables.

A daughter of the progressive movement
She was born in San Francisco in 1884, the daughter of what she described as “a struggling young attorney” and “his proud and admiring helpmate.” She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1903 and began her long and storied teaching career at the Lewis Institute, the first junior college in the country, now the Illinois Institute of Technology.

She volunteered regularly at the nearby Hull House, founded by prominent reformer Jane Addams, who in 1930 became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. At the time of Andrus’ volunteer service, however, the Hull House, founded just a few years earlier in 1897, was still an open experiment in social democracy, providing spiritual and educational uplift for its neighborhood of newly arrived immigrants in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Each week, as many as 2,000 people came to the settlement house for night school classes, kindergarten classes, its famed public kitchen, its art gallery, gym, bookbindery, drama groups and library.

Dr. Andrus might be seen as a product of the Progressive Movement, which arose in the late 19th century as a socially responsible response to the abject poverty in which many of the new wave of immigrants lived, as well as against the greed of the Gilded Age of robber barons and growing economic inequality. Crusading journalists like Ida Tarbell and Frank Norris brought attention to the dangers and humiliations faced by factory workers and farmers. In 1906, during Dr. Andrus’ service at the Hull House, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about Chicago’s meatpacking plants and stockyards, was published. With its nauseating descriptions of filthy practices and labor abuse, it led to such reforms as the Pure Food and Drug Act. The story of a Lithuanian immigrant and his family living in squalor and abuse, The Jungle intimately described many of the people for whom Addams, and Andrus, sought to provide a ladder out of poverty.

“I learned there to know life intimately and to value folks of different races and creeds,” Dr. Andrus wrote. “I saw there wonderful examples, not only of rehabilitation but of resurrection as well.”

Return to California
Her father’s failing health and eyesight brought her back to California. She took a teaching position at Santa Paula High School, which may have been her first exposure to Ojai, though she is said to have selected Ojai for her endeavors after giving a talk at Nordhoff High School in 1953.

In 1916, she was offered the assistant principal position at East Los Angeles High School. The following year, the principal retired and she was offered the job. At age 32, Ethel Percy Andrus had become the first female principal of a large, urban high school in the state of California.

With her flaming red hair and intense purpose, Andrus cut a memorable figure. One of her students, the actor Robert Preston of The Music Man fame, said, “The big iron scroll at Abraham Lincoln High School through which we passed said “Opportunity.” Isn’t it amazing that we didn’t know until we walked out: Opportunity had red hair!”

The lessons Ethel Percy Andrus learned at Hull House would serve her well over the next 28 years.

The school was notorious for its high rates of social dysfunction and juvenile delinquency. Despite the grand homes on the bluff overlooking the Los Angeles River, the district was also crowded with coldwater flats and tarpaper shacks from immigrant influxes: Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Mexican families particularly.

Lincoln Heights, considered the oldest neighborhood in Los Angeles, was always ethnically diverse, and racial clashes were common. It was the setting for the infamous Zoot Suit Riots, which began in 1942 because a Hispanic youth named Jose Diaz was allegedly murdered in Sleepy Lagoon in nearby Williams Ranch.

Asians, Latinos and Italians mixed with affluent founding families as well as Russian refugees from a Christian sect. Andrus wrote, “They lived in the flats near City Hall. They were an interesting people, led by an epileptic and financed by the elder Leo Tolstoi.”

Lincoln’s Legacy
Dr. Andrus’ first task was to find some concepts to unify these immigrants and starchy patricians into a community. “Our faith became an obsession,” she wrote. “We must keep our many nationalities conscious and proud of their racial and national background, of the contributions made to the American dream, and to the insistent obligation they, the youngsters, must themselves accept in raising their own coming families with a double loyalty; respecting their own roots and the traditions alike of America and the land and faith of their forefathers.”

Every school day, at auditorium call, the students repeated these words: “I hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. God hath made of one blood all races of men, and we are his children, brothers and sisters all.”

Her father’s hero was Abraham Lincoln. Her nephew was named Lincoln. Lincoln was also the hero of her mentor, Jane Addams, whose father was one of the founders of the Republican Party and a personal friend of the Great Emancipator. In 1919, Dr. Andrus was instrumental in having the neighborhood renamed from East Los Angeles to Lincoln Heights, and the 2,000-student school renamed Abraham Lincoln High School.

One of the anecdotes told about Lincoln was that after he gave a conciliatory speech about the Confederacy, a woman in the audience said, “But Mr. President, we must destroy our enemies!” Lincoln replied, “Yes, ma’am. But do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Dr. Andrus took that story to heart, always working to defuse tensions in the multiethnic community and build a shared sense of purpose. She forged strong connections. She worked with Los Angeles County Community Hospital to train nurses at the school. She encouraged civic associations like the Optimists to sponsor education awards and scholarships. Former athletes came back as coaches. Standout students went to college and came back as teachers. Besides Robert Preston, among her renowned alumni were actor Robert Young (who played Marcus Welby, M.D.) and Cardinal Robert Mahoney.

It didn’t take long before Dr. Andrus’ reforming zeal stirred up controversy, and delivered results. For example, she dropped Latin and Greek, and added vocational courses. “The discipline and faith routinely ingrained by the school reduced juvenile delinquency and brought a citation from the Superior Court,” wrote Scott Hart in “The Power of Years,” an Andrus biography commissioned by the NRTA and the AARP.

Among her proudest achievements was founding the Opportunity School with but one other certificated teacher, but with a staff of vital teachers: engineers, salesmen, preachers and the like. It later became the Lincoln Heights Adult Evening School,” she wrote. It served as a focal point for a community fractured along ethnic and economic lines.

Dr. Andrus said, “It was not a revolutionary idea–except in practice–to realize that the sons and daughters of folk pouring in from every corner of the globe had now some kind of common background, something to hold them together, a community pride.”

A lifelong learner, Dr. Andrus received her M.A. in 1928, and, in 1930, became one of the first women to receive her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

She also brought her faculty together into a tight-knit team. Ed Wenig, her drama teacher, moved to Ojai after his retirement to help her with the NRTA. Wenig became an esteemed local historian as well as a columnist for Modern Maturity magazine.

Wenig’s daughter, Patty Atkinson, was five in 1956 when the family moved to Ojai. “She was an imposing woman–she commanded a lot of authority,” Atkinson says of Andrus. Atkinson says her father adored Dr. Andrus, serving on many boards with her, including the NRTA, and helping with her many writing and publishing ventures after moving to Ojai.

Atkinson remembers her father, who had quite a peripatetic career including a stint teaching in the Philippines before joining forces with Dr. Andrus, talking about the day in 1942 that the Japanese students were rounded up to go to internment camps. “As the buses passed the school, the entire student body stood outside and waved,” she recalls. That measure of human respect was directly due to Andrus’ influence.

She also says her father would herd the students into assemblies and stage radio plays while the faculty held meetings. Often, Wenig would have to frisk students for weapons as they filed into the auditorium.

Even as Lincoln High School became nationally recognized for excellence, Dr. Andrus’ methods were studied and encouraged by the National Educational Association, her priorities changed to the very local near the end of the school year in 1944.

“My resignation came to Lincoln and myself as a sudden surprise,” she said. That morning the nurse attending my mother told me of her belief that my mother was to be a hopeless invalid. On the way to school, I determined that I could give to her the loving care she had given to my father during his blindness.”

Dr. Andrus was 60 years old, with a full life of significant achievements. But it was while caring for her mother that she became acutely aware of the problems faced by aging people. And so she launched the second, and most enduring, role of her career.

The Chicken Coop
In the AARP’s current television ads, the camera lens takes in a decrepit chicken coop, with the narration: “The unlikely birth place of a fundamental idea… Ethel couldn’t ignore the clear need for health and financial security, and it inspired her to found AARP.”

The chicken coop incident came not long after her retirement. While she was caring for her mother, Dr. Andrus kept busy with professional associations. She was named director of welfare for the Southern Section of the California Teachers Association, charged with seeing to the material needs of thousands of retirees.

It was a job she took personally, having learned that her pension, after 40 years in education, was $61.49 a month plus another $23.93 a month in an annuity, barely even a living wage. While she could rely on family money and other sources of income, she realized that very few teachers had such privileges waiting for them after their careers were over. Most retired teachers in those days were women, who were left especially destitute when widowed.

One day a local grocer asked Dr. Andrus if she would check on an old woman he hadn’t seen in several days. He gave Ethel the woman’s address. The people who lived there didn’t recognize the name, but then said, “Oh, you must mean the old woman living out back.” That’s when Andrus discovered that one of her retired teachers was living in a chicken coop. The woman was gravely ill, but had no money to visit a doctor. It was a moment that would charge Ethel Percy Andrus’ life with a new purpose.

She set about this new mission with great deliberation. The first step was to organize teachers nationwide in an effort to boost their collective clout. On Oct. 13, 1947, the 125 members of the California Retired Teachers Association present in Berkeley voted unanimously to form the National Retired Teachers Association.

That long journey eventually led to Ojai. Dr. Andrus began stumping the country, giving talks about the issues of aging, about the great gifts that elderly people could contribute to society, and about the means and mechanisms by which that pent-up potential would be realized. She brought an evangelical zeal to the task, repudiating the well-meaning social workers, retirement home activity directors, and even retirees themselves who fill the days of retired people with recreational activities like bingo or shuffleboard.

Older people need purpose in their life, meaningful and productive work, Dr. Andrus said. She objected to the term ‘senior citizen’ as isolating and demeaning. “We wouldn’t call 45-year-olds junior citizens,” she would say.

Friends and associates noticed a marked difference in Dr. Andrus. “She might talk with nostalgia of

Model of Grey Gables used at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.the halls of ivy, and hours later with iron firmness about a business matter. Her ability to listen equaled her gift for quick brisk speech, everyone left her company feeling good about themselves, according to Power of Years.

the halls of ivy, and hours later with iron firmness about a business matter. Her ability to listen equaled her gift for quick brisk speech, everyone left her company feeling good about themselves,” according to The Power of Years.

Fay says that being in her presence “was an amazing feeling. She was an idealist and a visionary, and her lieutenants, Dorothy and Ruth, did the nuts and bolts work, and I did the legal work. She was a leader in the true sense of the word. She had great charisma, very articulate, although soft-spoken. She had such an aura about her, that I’ve been with her on several occasions when as soon as she walked into a room, silence came over it, and they looked at her in awe.”

One of the goals she set for the NRTA was to provide a model facility for active retirement. As she began casting about for a location, she might have remembered Ojai for its warm, dry air and bright sunshine from her days as a teacher in nearby Santa Paula; or she might have had conversations with local residents about the idea after giving a talk at Nordhoff High School, then located on El Paseo Drive.

 

 

 

Grey Gables of Ojai

 

 

Quiet Town, Big Changes
The morning after her Nordhoff talk in 1953, she saw two buildings for sale; a house on the corner of Montgomery Street and Grand Avenue, and a three-story building behind it. The property, Grey Gables, already had several small apartments, common living areas, a library and a large music hall. The NRTA put in an offer.

She had a grander vision of what retirement living could be than anything that had come before. Dr. Andrus foresaw a nursing home where the elderly might receive 24-hour care, and where they would actively work, volunteer and participate in the life of their community.

The city was skeptical. There were two other applicants for the site: Sam Sklar, who had recently bought Wheeler Hot Springs, and planned to operate the Gables in conjunction with his resort; and Alcoholics Anonymous, looking for a rest home for people in recovery. “The City was also not eager for us, grudgingly granting us the license which was essential to the sale only after being forced to decide between the claims of Alcohol[ics] Anonymous, a resort of uncertain moral standards and a retirement home. Finally, at long last, the City Council felt our institution was the least worst, and Grey Gables was in the forming,” Andrus wrote. Obstacles loomed, however.

The previous owners proved difficult. “The Sanfords were unpredictable; they wanted badly to sell, but

Grey Gables in 1954

they hated the necessity of foregoing their dream,” Andrus wrote.
But the sale was a necessity. The Sanfords were about to be foreclosed on, owing $80,000 on the property. (Alee Sanford had her own, parallel vision for the property when she built it in the late 1940s, as a resident teachers’ club and library, with subsidized housing for local teachers.)

The first five years were a whirlwind of activity. Dr. Andrus brought Lana to Ojai as her trusted advisor, and they set to work “often substituting sheer energy for cash, and nervous energy for cash,” she later wrote. They created the menus, arranged the activities and attended the phones 24 hours a day.

The first resident, Emma McRedie Turner, from Chicago, arrived on July 17, 1954. “I was absolutely alone here, but the patrol car came by regularly,” she was quoted as saying in The Power of Years. Within 10 years, it had 85 residents.

“We of Grey Gables are certain that this project will be a pilot one, the first perhaps of many to prove to the world that retirement can be a dynamic adventure in gracious living,” Andrus wrote.

Dr. Andrus at her desk in Ojai

Jack Fay remembers his initial encounter with the red-haired dynamo. “In 1955, I first met Dr. Andrus at a City Council meeting, where I was representing an applicant for a land-use proposition, and she was there with her attorney, opposing my client, and it was a very contentious hearing, but not with her. I was just fine with her. I lost that case. She won it. Within a week, Andrus called me and said, ‘I wish you’d be my attorney.’ So I said, ‘Fine!'”

Little did I know what I was getting into. Dr. Andrus brought a large crew of people with her to Ojai from her former home in Glendale, including Ruth Lana, herself a former teacher. Ruth’s daughter, Lora, spent several years in Ojai, first as a student at Happy Valley School, then as an employee of the NRTA and AARP. “I remember opening these countless envelopes and shaking out the $2 [AARP membership fees] inside,” she said. The AARP grew from its first member in 1958 to about 400,000 in 1962, when the membership office was moved to Long Beach. The organization continued to be headquartered in Ojai until 1965, when the entire operation was moved first to Long Beach, then to Washington D.C.

Early residents of Grey Gables were attracted by Ethel’s vision of an active life of service, and so the Gables soon became an important asset to the community. Its residents served on local boards, tutored in the schools, taught classes at the Art Center and volunteered throughout the valley.

In 1959 the Ojai City Council, which had originally balked at the project, awarded Ethel Andrus and her Grey Gables residents a city proclamation honoring their many contributions to the community.

While she was busy lobbying politicians in Washington, D.C. (Lora Lana remembers her mother and Andrus living out of suitcases for weeks at a time), she also kept close touch with her people in Ojai. When a Nordhoff teacher, Herb Smith, and his wife were stricken with polio, Ethel spearheaded the fund-raising effort that paid for their house to be retrofitted for the wheelchair-bound couple.

Andrus cut quite a figure around town, says Anne Friend Thacher, who began working for both the NRTA and the AARP maintaining membership files. “No one called her Ethel. She had this striking red hair and was a very smart person.”

Dr. Andrus also brought her nephew, Lincoln Service, along with his young daughters, Barbara and Suzanne (Sandy) Andrus Service, to Ojai in 1954. The girls were seven and eight. Dr. Service served as the Gables’ medical staff. “We just loved Ojai,” Barbara says. “It was rural, and very beautiful, and very different from Glendale.” Even with Ojai’s laid-back country feel, Dr. Andrus insisted on proper decorum in dress and bearing. “One time she drove me down to Long Beach to go clothes shopping,” Sandy Service says. “We went into several stores where I would sit on the sofa and they brought out clothes for me to try. She would always pick these fancy silk suits. I said, ‘Nana, people in Ojai don’t dress like that.” She said, “A lady is a lady no matter where she lives.”

Thacher was a student at Happy Valley School at the time. Lora Lana was a year ahead of her. Thacher was promoted to secretary and continued to work for both organizations while a student at Berkeley. “They employed a lot of local people. The pay was pretty terrible,” she says. “One of my jobs was to correspond with people who had questions. One of the questions was, “How do you pronounce Ojai?”

Dr. Andrus was known for hiring young people. both to keep the former teachers in touch with youth, and also to allow the residents to use their wisdom and experience to guide young people. “Youth can and should be courted,” she wrote. “Youth will, in dividends of gratitude, pay high for the investment of the oldster’s time, interest and thoughtful attention.”

As the NRTA and AARP grew into national powerhouses, the local offices expanded. In 1954, the NRTA purchased Sycamore Lodge, a motel next to Grey Gables that fronted Grand Avenue; later, several apartments were added on the back and west side of the property. The Acacias nursing home was built in 1959.

Dr. Andrus set out the vision for the Acacias in an article for Modern Maturity in 1959, shortly after its purchase:

“The Acacias hopes to be more than a nursing facility, more than a convalescent home; it is a health center that will demonstrate the potency of helping older people discover the basis of their trouble and through care, friendly concern, and expert service find the right channels to recovery. The Acacias in its freshness and beauty of building and setting is in itself a strong factor in the attainment of this goal; its lines are restful; its colors refreshing; its furnishing modern and effective.”

Though she was instrumental in many causes of the day–working to end mandatory retirement and age-related discrimination, and to establish the now ubiquitous senior discounts–Dr. Andrus did so in an entirely non-adversarial manner. She didn’t lead marches, sit-ins, political campaigns, etc. It was all done through education, research, advocacy and programs by her own membership organizations.

Through the research arm of AARP, she exploded many commonly held myths, stereotypes and assumptions about aging. She used this new knowledge about aging to promote a new image of growing older and retirement … from the end of one’s creative life to the beginning, from isolation to involvement, from deterioration to continued growth, from a time to be feared to a time of opportunity and renewed productivity.

Leonard Davis and Dr. Andrus made a formidable team, lobbying tirelessly for the passage of Medicare in 1965.

Davis died at age 76 in 2001. Despite a few scrapes with regulators and Congressional investigative arms (he lost his lock on being the sole insurance broker for the AARP during the 1970s), he was a generous benefactor to many causes. In addition to the many millions he and his wife Sophie gave to universities, museums and cultural centers, he endowed the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, the first center in the country devoted to training medical staff to treat elderly patients.

Dr. Andrus died July 13, 1967, active to the end, mourned by many and replaced by none. Though she had unlocked the vast wealth held by retired people as they were brought out of isolation and into the mainstream of America, her personal fortune, according to Fay, was valued at less than $100,000.

She was eulogized by President Lyndon Johnson as well as by Ojai friends and neighbors. “In Ethel Percy Andrus,” he wrote, “humanity had a trusted and untiring friend. She has left us all poorer by her death. But by her enduring accomplishments, she has enriched not only us, but all succeeding generations of Americans.”

Ethel_Andrus_story in PDF.

Harwell Hamilton Harris Design Overlooks Ojai Valley

Harris’ Design Sits Atop a Hill Overlooking the Ojai Valley by David Mason

“Wood, swells, burns and rots. It is as variable, unpredictable and unreliable as the human creature it shelters or warms not so permanent as stone perhaps, yet permanent enough as human lives go.” Harwell Hamilton Harris, California Arts and Architecture, May 1939

The Clarence H Wylie home designed by Harwell Hamilton Harris, overlooked the Ojai Valley – 1948.

California at the dawning of the 20th century was a time of unhurried changes. The Victorian era had survived the close of the 19th century, and the sentimental tastes that had defined it continued to prevail for some time into the new century. In 1903, a baby was born in Riverside, Calif. who would grow up and do a great deal to change the nation’s thoughts from Victorian to modernism. Harwell Hamilton Harris’ mother was a schoolteacher, and his father was an architect. In talking about his father years later, Harris would say that, “He was a good architect, but he wasn’t an outstanding one in any way. He never thought of it as being something that you could be outstanding in. I don’t think that it was a subject that he was very strongly interested in.”

Graduating from San Bernardino High School, and then attending Pomona College, Harris enrolled in the Otis Art Institute. Sculpture would hold his interest for sometime. He had a desire to lose himself in his art. Harris had ruled out architecture as a life interest for it did not constitute a work of art, it was for practical purposes and too impure to be called art.

The Wylie House porte cochere reaching to the drive with its exposed roof overhead – 1948.

However, while at the Otis Art Institute, he was treated to a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Hollyhock” house and was spellbound. The house had low walls and wings that came toward you and away from you and were paralleled with bands of hollyhock ornamentation, which was repeated above the window line and ledges. Harris felt that the house was, indeed, a sculpture, but on a completely different scale.

With a new desire to now join the architectural world, Harris was introduced to the well-known architects Rudolph M. Schindler and Richard Neutra. Neutra was in need of some help in the office and persuaded Harris to join them; his first desk was a drawing board resting on an old trunk in the corner of their drafting room.

In 1928, Harris helped Neutra with one of his first modern buildings, the Lovell Health House. The experience gave him the true aspiration to become an architect and, clearly, Harris was taken by the modern style of architecture.

It was in 1932 that Harris received his first architectural commission – from an old friend and classmate at the Otis Art Institute. He hired Harris to design a house for him and his wife. The plan was L-shaped with a courtyard, steel-framed, with wall panels and a flat roof, much like the clear shapes and clean spaces of the Japanese houses – a quality that became characteristic of all later Harris’ designs.

Harris had seen many houses in California constructed with board-and-batten exterior walls, and to him they did not appear cheap, but rather an inexpensive form of construction. Left unpainted, they appeared even more Japanese.

In 1933, Harris noticed beautiful houses around the Pasadena area that were low, one-stories constructed of redwood boards and battens. On inquiring as to who the designer was, he was informed that they were done by brothers named Greene. Harris had not heard of the brothers, but certainly admired their work.

Jean Murray Bangs would become Mrs. Harwell Hamilton Harris in 1937. With her interest in architecture, she had quit her job and became Harris’ full-time assistant. The Greene brothers would hold a fascination for her as well, and she set out to view as many of the Greene brothers’ buildings as possible – and she was interested in learning if the architects were even still alive.

Jean Harris studied every publication that she found on the Greene brothers and uncovered all the information she could. She searched for any trace of the brothers, looking through all the telephone books and directories for any listing, but she found no help. Even the American Institute of Architects could not give her any information on the brothers; apparently, they had given up their membership in 1915.

Not giving up, Jean Harris was finally able to locate Henry Greene’s daughter, and she drove to her house. There, she also found the architect. She inquired as to the whereabouts of the many drawings that he and his brother had done over their years in business and was told that they had left them all, perhaps as many as 400, in the garage of the last house in which they had lived.

Inquiring with the owner of the house, she found that he had no objections to her searching the garage for the drawings. And, so it was that in a run-down cabinet in a rat-infested area of the garage, she found the many drawings.

Jean Harris then had their friend Henry Eggers (the architect of the Ojai home of historian and author David Lavender) photograph all of the Greene and Greene houses and organized a traveling exhibition. She documented the lives of these forgotten men and, subsequently, the information is available to everyone. Through her efforts, the American Institute of Architects bestowed a special award upon the now-famous Greene and Greene brothers.

In 1946, Harwell Harris received a commission for a hilltop home in Ojai Valley for Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Wyle. In the Wyle house, Harris found that it would be more interesting to reveal the structure of the house and, for this reason, the gable roof became a favorite new element. “I like not having the boxed-in eaves that I usually had with the hipped roof,” Harris said. By using rafters that were 2 inches deeper in the open sections, he assured himself that they would never appear as if part of the roof had been “blown off in a storm.” The 2 inches would make the extension appear bold and intentional. The extended rafters were dramatically exploited in the Ojai house, which was being constructed in a mountainous region.

Harris presented a plan with four wings going out from the center of the house into the graceful landscaping to afford each room a spectacular view of the Ojai Valley. The plan also allowed for the major rooms to have glass walls on three sides.

The living room was inviting with its built-in sofa, a modern inglenook, and a warming fireplace. The built-in bookcases would add to the informality of the great room, and the master bedroom with its brick fireplace helped to recreate intimate spaces within the house.

One gabled wing, a porte cochere reaching to the drive, had an exposed roof construction overhead and a rock wall with built-in bench below. It was a clear homage to the Greene brothers.

After World War II, the Harrises decided to make a change in their lives. Harris accepted a position as director of the newly formed School of Architecture at the University of Texas. He had taught at a number of schools, but the thought of teaching on a permanent basis had never entered his mind. Now, he was not only an architect, he was to be the director of the entire school.

Jean Harris became involved with the magazine House Beautiful. She wrote many articles for the publication and, for a time, was even listed as food editor. Many of her pieces were about architecture and the modern home.

The last years of Harwell Hamilton Harris’ life were spent educating young architects, and his art continues to draw the respect that it so deserves.

“With its form the building satisfies the user’s wants – conscious and unconscious. It anticipates, it invites, it implements those wants. So whatever the indweller now does he does effortlessly, harmoniously – doing what great art does in music, in literature, in mathematics, in painting, in sculpture: creating a great unity. Doing this is what makes architecture worthwhile.” – Harwell Hamilton Harris, 1977.

Early Stories of Ojai, Part III (Chinese in Ojai)

Early Stories of Ojai, Part III (Chinese in Ojai) by Howard Bald

Note: Howard Bald was an early Ojai resident. His reminiscences were written in the early 1970s.

Many Chinese as well as Italians were employed in wood cutting operations in the valley around the first of the century. Some Chinese lingered on as domestics or in other capacities for a decade or so.

My grandmother had one who baked delicious bread. The loaves were always a beautiful deep brown. But the Chinese and my grandmother suddenly parted company when it was discovered that he would fill his mouth with water and squirt it over the loaves during the baking.

There was always a Chinese vegetable wagon pulled by two horses, or sometimes one horse, that came around once a week. (There were never fresh vegetables in the grocery story that I remember.) A carrot or a turnip to each of us youngsters was always a treat, but the Chinese vendor didn’t always have them.

At this period no one can tell me where the vegetables were grown, probably near Ventura. A special treat that we youngsters looked forward to about Christmas time was Chinese nuts, or litchi nuts. They were delicious.

And there was the Chinese laundry that at one time was operated by Wah Lee. It was located east on Ojai Avenue just west of the bridge, and on the north side of the property on Mrs. Gally’s property, mother of Howard Gally. Wah Lee went about with a covered wagon drawn by one horse. His business survived on into the second decade. In fact, during prohibition times, he probably made more money bootlegging than doing laundry. I faintly remember a little stir that was caused by Mrs. Gally refusing to put him out when the local officers were unable to catch him.

Chinese were said to have built the first stone walls in east Ojai valley. It seems to me that the walls looked as old at the turn of the century as they look now. Those walls don’t include the ones on east Ojai Avenue, east Grand, north Carne and the one on the Twin Peaks Ranch. I have been told that these Chinese received 50 cents a day.

There was not too much law enforcement in that day, and the poor Chinese sometimes had a pretty rough time of it. I have heard my mother tell of her brother Tom roping (lassoing) one as he plodded along the dusty road. Tom was riding a colt and couldn’t manage the rope and the colt at the same time, with the result the Chinaman climbed up the rope and took it away from him. Tom dismounted, my mother (Katie) held the colt, while Tom tussled with the man and retrieved the rope.

Later the fellow returned with a shotgun, but Tom had ridden off to the Upper Ojai, while Katie’s mother hid her in a clothes closet and locked all of the doors. That house was the two story, yellow building south and east of the Ojai lumber company yard, a mile and a half east of Ojai.

Well, that fellow had the last laugh. Some time later the boys who had taken his laundry were swimming in the creek beyond what was Clausen’s dairy on the Pirie ranch. This same laundryman slipped up and stole all of their clothes. Needless to say, they were not returned nicely laundered.

There were many other incidents of that nature, some funny, some not so funny, dependent largely on one’s point of view. But just one more Chinese anecdote: A group of rowdies one dark night surrounded the wash house and began firing guns into the air. The occupant of the house opened the door and returned the fire. In the rowdies haste to clear out, one was almost decapitated on a clothes line.

“Reminiscences of Early Ojai” by Howard Bald, 1973

Postcard: Pierpont-Ginn House

The Pierpont-Ginn House. After the death of her husband in 1905, Josephine Pierpont married the San Francisco publisher Frederick Ginn. She commissioned the famous California architect Julia Morgan to design a house for her in 1908, shown in this picture, one of Julia Morgan’s first residential works. The family’s first home then became the main house for Pierpont Cottages.

Note: This was one of Julia Morgan’s first residences.  She is best known for designing Hearst Castle in San Simeon.


The above is an excerpt from Ojai: A Postcard History, by Richard Hoye, Tom Moore, Craig Walker, and available at Ojai Valley Museum or at Amazon.com.

History of the Ojai Theatre

History of the Ojai Theatre by Elise DePuydt

Ojai Theatre, 1954; playing Elizabeth Taylor in Elephant Walk

The Isis–isn’t this an exotic sounding name? How about Bijou, Rialto, Majestic, Palace, or Regency? What images do these names bring to mind?

Movie theater owners in the 1910s thru the ’20s wished to evoke the mystery of the exotic or the pomp and privilege of royalty in both the name and design of their theaters. Names such as “Bijou”, the French word for jewel; “Granada”, a city in Spain; or “Rialto”, an Italian island, stimulated the imagination, convincing the public that when they passed through those theater doors, they were embarking on a thrilling adventure. Movie theaters became garish, dazzling and grand palaces.

Those were exciting times for the fledgling film industry. Americans fell in love with moving pictures right from the start. But the earliest cinemas, in a period from about 1905 to 1912, were small neighborhood store fronts. A movie theater opened in Pittsburgh in 1905 that was cleverly called The Nickelodeon. The name is a combination of nickel (the amount charged to get in) and “odeon”, the Greek word for theater. By 1907, about 4,000 of these small nickelodeon cinemas were scattered around the U.S. The shows were a series of individual movies each only several minutes long, cobbled together to fill a half hour program accompanied by music. People flocked to these shows, almost in a frenzy. From eight in the morning until midnight visitors streamed in and out as nickels filled the box office coffers. Viewers were spellbound.

Isis was the name give to the mission-style, single-screen theater built on the southwest corner of Ojai Avenue and Signal Street in the town of Nordhoff in 1914 (Nordhoff’s name was changed to Ojai in 1917.) Isis is an Egyptian goddess, and for reasons unknown her name became a popular one for movie theaters in the United States. Cinema Treasures, a non-profit group dedicated to recording the history of American theaters and providing a forum for their preservation, lists on their website over 20 theaters named Isis in the United States built during this period. However, most are now closed or demolished. Others, like Ojai’s, may have undergone a name change. A newspaper ad indicates there was an Isis Theatre in Ventura.

During World War I, the U. S. film industry began to dominate as European countries were preoccupied with war. The development of the studio system in California, with its center in Hollywood, and the promotion of actors and actresses as movie stars further propelled the United States into the lead in the 1920s. Silent film era stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks became known around the world. With the advent of “talkies”, Hollywood entered into the “golden era” of film-making during the 1930s and ’40s.

Every town in America had to have a movie theater and the towns of Ventura County were no different. Oxnard, Santa Paula, and Ventura had quite a few over the years – most of them now long gone. The oldest remaining theater in Ventura is the downtown Majestic Ventura Theatre that opened to great fanfare in 1928 and now is a concert venue. Ojai and Fillmore today have the oldest movie theaters in the county. The single-screen Fillmore Towne Theatre opened as the Barnes in 1916 and is now owned by the City of Fillmore.

The Isis Theatre was built by John Joseph (known as J.J.) Burke on the corner occupied for twenty years by The Ojai newspaper office and print shop. Houk’s ice plant and butcher shop were also on this corner. The newspaper building was moved a short distance south on Signal Street (across from where the post office parking lot is today) to make room for the new theater. According to an article in The Ojai of May 1, 1914, the redevelopment of the corner was considered a remodeling of the entire building, though in fact the building was practically new and enlarged. Walter Houk also built a new ice plant at this time. According to the article, a large oak tree at the site was cut down to make room for the expanded project.

The finished building contained the new theater and Houk’s meat market and ice plant. The Ojai of May 29, 1914 describes the project, “The new building will be 32 feet on Ojai Avenue and 75 feet long on Signal Street. The style of architecture is to be Mission. A big Mission front will cover this and W.E. Houk’s meat market. The outside of the walls will be plastered, and the interior finish will be pressed tin–very ornamental and attractive, and will make the building practically fire proof. A polished maple floor has been decided upon, so that with moveable chairs, the place will make an ideal hall for dances.” The theater was built for vaudeville shows, dances, lectures and to show movies.

Ojai’s 1914 Isis edges out the Fillmore Towne Theatre in age by two years. The Isis wasn’t grand but for this small, rural village it was a triumph. The first film shown was The Valley of the Moon on August 19, 1914 based on the Jack London novel. The Ojai, August 14, describes the event, “This will be the first showing of this photoplay in any small town in California, and being one of the most expensive productions, our people should congratulate themselves upon being able to see it. All the scenes in this picture are taken in California, around San Francisco Bay and beautiful Carmel by the Sea.” Admission prices were: adults 20 cents and children 10 cents.

E.A. Runkle managed the theater in the early years and presented two regular shows a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. After the Saturday show the chairs were moved aside for dancing. Claude Munger cranked the primitive projector while the impromptu piano player kept pace by watching the film. The piano players were E.A Runkle’s wife Ethel and Claude’s sister Marion Munger. Movie ads in the local paper were profuse and filled a half page at times.

The Isis quickly became the happening spot in town. The headlines for an article in The Ojai dated April 1, 1921 exclaim “Yama Yama Dance Attracts Large Crowd”. The first paragraph reads, “For unadulterated terpsichorean pleasures and harmless hilarity, the Yama Yama Yum Yum dance given Tuesday evening by the Runkles, the musical wizards of the Isis Theatre, was a replica of the recent hard-times dance of pleasant memory given by the same management, under similar inspiring conditions and surroundings–faultless music, a big crowd and entrancing decorative effects.”

Fred and Lidie Hart bought the Isis from J.J. Burke in 1926 and reopened it as the Ojai Theatre.

The Hart’s renovated the building inside and out. The Ojai on May 7, 1926 describes the
changes: “The walls have been redecorated and now present a beautiful and harmonious appearance. Soft shades of pink have been used on the walls, attractive boxes decorated with designs of flowers and ferns have been made for the indirect lights and additional side light with soft shades. For the greater comfort of guests Mr. Hart has installed 42 of the finest divans obtainable. There are three rows of them and they have been installed on raised platforms to give entirely unobstructed vision. The two new projecting machines are giving great satisfaction and will add considerably to the enjoyment of patrons.” Shows were given on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with Mrs. McCaleb providing the music. Prices were: divans 50 cents, other seats: adults 30 cents and children 15 cents.

Talkies came to Ojai in 1930. “Ojai turned out in force Saturday night to greet the talkies just installed in the Ojai Theatre and indications were that the innovation will be popular with the film fans,” reports The Ojai on Feb. 14, 1930. In October of 1930, Fred Hart leased the theater to Oliver Prickett and George Damon, Jr., owners and operators of the Alcazar Theatre in Carpinteria. Prickett and Damon installed new lamps in the projection room making it possible to change reels without interruption on the screen.

It is fortunate for Ojai that over these many years, theater owners sold the building only to buyers who were committed to keeping it as a movie theater. When theater manager William Swanson bought the building from Hart in 1935 an article in The Ojai dated July 23, 1935 reports, “The sale was made to Mr. Swanson in preference to other prospective purchasers who wanted the property, in order to make possible continuance of the theater which Mr. Swanson has operated so successfully for two years, and to prevent any other line of business–possibly of a nature which would compete with established concerns–getting possession of the corner.”

At this time the property included the theatre, Dr. King’s offices and the Busch grocery that were part of the property sale. Swanson proceeded to renovate the theater which included a new floor with a slope of five feet from back to front so better visibility is assured. The stage was removed making room for more seats, and a new enlarged screen of an improved beaded material was installed, along with rest rooms and a new box office. The first film shown in the newly renovated theater was Shirley Temple’s newest film, Curly Top.

The Flesher Family bought the Ojai Theatre from Swanson in 1949 and owned it for several decades with the Lawrences. Also in 1949, it was reported in the local paper that Wilbur Jerger presented a series of silent films he called the Great Films Series but the attendance was low. He endeavored to get an annual film festival started in the valley that he wanted to call the Great Film Festival. It is unknown what became of Jerger’s idea but in 1988, a group of locals formed the Ojai Film Society that has now been showing independent and foreign films on Sunday for over twenty years. In 2000 the group launched the Ojai Film Festival, which after several years became its own entity and celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2009.

Through the years new owners upgraded and renovated the Ojai gem. One of the most dramatic renovations took place in 1966 when Wayne Glasgow took over the closed theater, changing the name to the Glasgow Playhouse and completely renovating the inside and out in an elaborate Scottish motif. Glasgow’s wife Anne traveled all the way to Scotland to acquire Scottish antiques. Billed as a theater that would only show movies for adults, the Glasgow Playhouse opened on June 15 and 16 with a premiere screening of Shakespeare Wallah–four months before its West Coast debut in Los Angeles. The first night’s screening was followed by a sumptuous champagne buffet supper served in the gardens of the historic Oaks Hotel (now the Oaks at Ojai.).

Glasgow’s grand plans soon faltered. By June of 1967 the theater was already closed and didn’t reopen until January of 1970, according to the Ojai Valley News. The theater, not entirely out of Glasgow’s hands, opened under the management of Ted and Ruth Morris, owners and operators of the Los Robles Theatre on Maricopa Highway (open from 1964-1972, now Rabobank) and the Fox Theatre in Santa Paula. Ted Morris comments in the Ojai Valley News of January 28, 1970, “This is the most extravagant theater I’ve ever seen in a town this size.” Morris pointed out the handsome cabinets and soft reclining seats.

Glasgow can best be described as a character and was dubbed Ojai’s “bad boy” in the 1970s, though friends considered him smart and entertaining. He was often in the newspaper for one reason or another. Glasgow eventually retired in Hawaii and died there in 2005.

After a number of defaults, Glasgow eventually gained title to the theater. Ventura County records show a deed transfer from Ted and Betty Flesher to Wayne Glasgow in 1975. His troubles continued, however, and with numerous liens on the property, Glasgow was under court order in the 1980s to sell the property. The financially troubled Glasgow era ended in 1983 when Khaled Al-Awar, who weathered long and difficult negotiations with Glasgow, finally succeeded in purchasing the theater. In spite of his shaky reputation, Glasgow demonstrated his love for the theater by making sure it sold to someone committed to running the movie theater, something Al-Awar promised to do. Al-Awar, owner of the Primavera Gallery in Ojai, made repairs and improvements to the building and changed the name to the Ojai Playhouse. He also worked hard to get first-run films in to town as the theater’s reputation had been badly damaged. Al-Awar was also one of the founders of the Ojai Film Society.

The Al-Awar family successfully operated the Ojai Playhouse until 2007 when Mark and Kathy Hartley took over the historic place and financed a major renovation, restoring the Isis to the glory of its early years in what they call an “early Hollywood” style. During the renovations the false ceiling in the lobby was removed and the original ceiling of ornate tin was uncovered. This may be the same ornamental tin mentioned in the May 29, 1914 article (paragraph 8 above.) The Hartleys changed the name back to the Ojai Theatre though the marquee still says Ojai Playhouse.

What you see today as the theater lobby may not have existed in the early years and there are few around to remember. Old newspaper articles mention two other businesses occupying spaces in the same building. Helen Peterson, who worked at the theater from 1945 to 1950, describes a ticket booth that jutted out from the face of the building with double entrance doors on either side. The entrance was further east than today. Inside was a hall area with curtained doors to the right and left that entered the theater proper. Off to the right were restrooms and the Flesher’s theater office. She sold candy from the booth and there was no popcorn concession. Local historian, Terry Hill remembers in the 1950s a ticket window to the right of two double doors (see the post card photo from 1954.) He recalls a popcorn concession that was directly behind the seats on the other side of a wall. The Flesher & Lawrence Insurance business and Roy Roberts, Realtor were both listed in the Ojai Directory of 1954 as being located next door at 139 E Ojai Avenue (where The Jester is today.) Historian David Mason remembers that there was a waiting room with chairs inside to the right of the entrance. According to Hill, Wayne Glasgow constructed the new entrance and big lobby during his1966 renovation.

Americans love for movies has only grown over the decades and thanks to the Hartley’s, and all the previous owners, Ojai residents have a unique opportunity to view first-run films in one of the oldest single-screen theaters in the country. And though the theater was closed for periods, it has been continuously run as a movie theater for close to 100 years. Kathy Hartley comments in the Ojai Valley News in May of 2008, “One-screen movie theaters are dying all over the United States. The only way we can make it is with the help of the community. I’m hoping they’ll come back and support us.” Support our Ojai treasure–see a movie in Ojai. Keep the Isis alive!

Ojai Theater Inside, Mark and Kathy Hartley renovated the historic theater installing comfortable new seats, new carpeting, wainscoting and other beautiful touches.

Note: Old photos of the Ojai Theatre are rare so if you have any please contact the Ojai Valley Museum at 646-1390. You can either donate the photos to the museum or loan them for scanning.

Elise DePuydt is the Office Manager of the Ojai Film Society and author of A Photo Guide to Fountains and Sculptures of Ojai: Art, History & Architecture.

 

Elise can be reached at redepuydt@att.net.

Published in the Ojai Valley Visitors Guide, Spring 2010

Update: June 2011

The Ojai Theatre reverted to Khaled Al-Awar in 2010. He returned the name of the theater to the Ojai Playhouse.

The city-owned Fillmore Towne Theatre is currently closed.