Transformation of Ojai: 1916-17

The Transformation of Ojai, by Richard Requa
San Diego Union 1925

One morning in early spring, some 10 years ago, two men were sitting on the edge of a raised rough plank sidewalk in front of a dilapidated shack.

A remnant of a sign over the battered, creaking door informed the curious visitor in letters hardly legible, that hte shanty housoed the Nordhoff postoffice. It was but one of a group of decaying structures that formed the business center of a small community all but hidden among the trees of a magnificent grove of liveoaks in one of the most picturesque of California’s foothill valleys.

Few people outside of Ventura county had ever heard of this beautiful little valley whose quaint name, Ojai, meaning nest, was given it by its original inhabitants, the Indians.


The two men were E. D. Libbey, glass manufacturer of Toledo, and his life-long friend, H.t. Sinclair. Both had found the valley quite by accident and had become so impressed and charmed with its beauty, they built winter homes there.

Seated on the plank walk they were silently contemplating the row of ramshackle shops across the road. On one corner was a livery stable in advanced stages of decay, and opposite stood the remains of the village blacksmith shop, both reminiscent of the days of horse-drawn vehicles. Suddently Mr. Libbey turned to his companion and remarked that he would like to do something for the community, something original and worthwhile.

“Why not make it over into a quaint Spanish town, in the spirit of the early California and Mexican settlements,” replied his friend. “A splendid idea,” rejoined Mr. Libbey.

In response to a telegram, I appeared on the scene the next day, and the feasibility of the scheme was discussed. After several days of study and sketching, the project was found to be entirely practicable and in addition, the transformation could be made at a surprisingly small cost considering results attainable. All but a few of the store buildings occupied one side of the main street and extended some 500 feet in almost a continuous line. The opposite side was given over largely to a spacious grove of oaks and sycamores in which stood the ruins of the old village hotel.


Mr. Libbey agreed to purchase this site and dedicate it to the community as a public park in addition to erecting a new postoffice and otherwise improving that side of the street, providlng the property owners in the valley would raise funds sufficient to make over the store buildings.

His generous offer was eagerly accepted and in less than a month the obscure village was a scene of boom-like activity.

On the site of the stable rapidly rose the walls of a modern garage, while the blacksmith shop gave way to the new postoffice with its picturesque Spanish tower. The stores were relieved of their ornate cornices, iron awnings and other incongruous embellishments, and brought into harmony and unity by means of the familiar Spanish arcades.

Six months from the date of its inception the wonder had been wrought and the transformation was complete. Brick, tile, concrete and wood, fashioned into arches, dressed and aged with stained warm-toned stucco had performed the modern miracle.

Critics and skeptics who had dubbed the venture an impractical, idealistic dream were soon to realize the error of their predictions. Hardly had the work been finished when the county of Ventura voted bonds to build at great expense a concrete highway into this mountain valley. The fame of this novel and worthy achievement spread with gratifying rapidity.

Newspapers and magazines pictured and extolled its charms and beauty. Even writers of popular fiction referred to it in their romantic tales.


As an inevitable result of such favorable advertising many visitors became property owners in the valley, materially stimulating and raising the values of real estate. Men of wealth have purchased estates and established winter residences there. The steady gain in population has been marked with increasing building activities. The majority of the new homes are fine examples of California architecture, designed to harmonize with the civic improvements. Lately a country club and golf course, one of the finest in America, has been added to the many recent attractions.

So successful has been this experiment of enhancing the natural advantages and beauty of a community with consistent and harmonious architectural development that the neighboring city of Santa Barbara has created a civic center designed in similar spirit of the early American ranchos.

This plucky, far-sighted and public-spirited little city is carry on a campaign of popular architectural education that is producing splendid results.

The reconstruction of their business street, made necessary by the earthquakes, is being done as far as possible in the harmonious architectural style of the civic center. Santa Barbara bids fair to emerge from her recent disaster one of the most interesting, picturesque and architecturally beautiful of American cities.

Almost at the threshold of the city of San Diego a most unique, ambitious, and successful and development project has been quietly under way for some two years. Ushered in without brass bands, tent meetings or other spectacular stunts and accomplishments, the work has gone steadily forward along a definite and practical though strikingly original, plan.


Greatly impressed with the success of the Ojai venture, the Santa Fe Railway company decided to attempt an even more novel and educational experiment in developing their extensive properties, an original Spanish grant, located some seven miles northeast of Del Mar.

Starting with a clean canvas, they determined to create there a business and civic center in the material form as well as the spirit of the early Spanish American ranchos. The surrounding property, some 900 acres, would be divided into small ranch tracts, served by an excellent system of highways leading from the civic center. Every house and other structural improvement must be designed to conform and harmonize with the general scheme.

The railroad’s dream is proving a reality. People seeking congenial homesites and environment, and the health-giving advantages of outdoor life are being attracted there from all over the nation. Building operations have been continuous since the start of the work and many fine homes in the beautiful southern California style are crowning the knolls and enlivening the landscape.

Perhaps you are wondering what the recital of these architectural exploits has to do with the subject of this article. It has indeed a most vital bearing on the particular point I want to make.

These illustrations are most pertinent in evidencing the fact that appropriate and harmonious architectural developments in any southern California community pays, and pays handsomely, to an extent that no other enterprise or amount of advertising can do.


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