Reviving the Golden Age : Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club Hopes to Live Up to : Its History, Achieve 5-Star Status With Huge Renovation

Times Staff Writer

In 1917, two fires devastated a dusty Western settlement named after travel writer Charles Nordhoff. From the ashes rose the sort of picturesque mission town that his East Coast readers had come to expect of Southern California.

Under the cultivation of Midwestern glass tycoon Edward Drummond Libbey, the settlement, newly renamed Ojai, sprouted a Spanish Colonial arcade, an adobe post office with a bell tower and a Catholic chapel that appeared to be taken straight from California's Spanish past.

In 1923, Libbey built a country club whose golf course, crossed by brooks and dotted with century-old trees, was designed to look as if it had been there forever.

Nearly 70 years later, the Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club is still trying to improve on history.

After closing for construction a year ago, the inn is completing a $35-million renovation and expansion financed by its owners, Jim Crown and Paula Crown, grandchildren of Chicago industrialist Henry Crown.

Tomorrow, guests are to check in to rooms in the inn's main 65-year-old Mexican-style hacienda building for the first time since last January. The entire inn--including 102 new rooms, a new conference center, and an updated golf course--will be open by June.

"What you're talking about is renovating a landmark," said general manager John Sharp. "When you talk to people, you find that everyone in Ventura County has been here at one time or another."

Many people have visited the inn without realizing it. Parts of Frank Capra's movie "Lost Horizon" were filmed on the 220-acre property in 1937. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn engaged in their characteristic banter as cameras rolled for "Pat and Mike" on the inn's terrace in 1952.

Pickfair's Architect

Celebrity is built into its walls. The inn's architect, Wallace Neff, also designed Pickfair, the estate of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Over the years, Clark Gable, Irene Dunne, Walt Disney, Lana Turner, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Nancy and Ronald Reagan have signed the inn's guest register, a hotel official said.

But the locals also maintain a fondness for the resort. "It's always been the place for people in Ojai," said David Mason, an Ojai florist who worked at the inn as a bellhop in his teens and has dined there weekly for nearly 25 years.

"If you got invited to the inn for dinner, it was always, 'Oh, isn't that wonderful!' It's always been one of our local treasures."

But even treasures fall into disrepair. The Crowns had fleetingly considered demolishing the place and starting anew, Sharp said. Instead, they chose the more expensive route of refurbishing structures and adding five buildings.

Ramshackle additions to Neff's hacienda were demolished and their vintage pieces--bathroom tile, floor boards, handmade roof tiles--reassembled in the historic structure. Adobe was patched and trussed wood beams were scoured of years' worth of paint.

Besides the hacienda, a new building with 35 guest rooms and a pro shop are set to open for business this week.

A new swimming pool and a cluster of cottages dating to the late 1940s and early 1950s are scheduled to open by the end of January. The hacienda's sitting and dining rooms, for years the social hub of Ojai, will also open soon, along with the inn's original flagstone terrace, which is now covered with cement.

Two new buildings with a total of 61 rooms opened in July, and two others, housing a conference center, the inn's reception area, a fitness center and 40 guest rooms, opened last month.

Renovation of the golf course will continue through June, but a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the inn is scheduled Feb. 27. By that time, the inn will boast the largest standing exhibition of works by Ojai artists, including a 20-foot mohair tapestry of the Ojai Valley by local weaver Lynda Brothers.

With 250 employees, the re-opened inn will be second only to the local school district as Ojai's largest employer, hotel officials said.

Long the city's largest taxpayer, the inn expects the remodeling to increase its collected bed taxes from about $70,000 annually to as much as $500,000.

In the process, the inn, now listed with three stars in the Mobil Travel Guide, hopes to raise its reputation to compete with such five-star hotels as Quail Lodge in Carmel and Rancho Bernardo in San Diego, Sharp said.

Plans include improving the dining room's cuisine. An herb garden has been planted off the golf course and a newly hired, classically trained French chef says he will use it in preparing dishes that spotlight local produce and Central Coast seafood.

In its quest for a five-star rating, the inn will enforce a measure of tranquility by forbidding guests to drive their cars on the roads that lace the grounds. Golf carts and buses with small, two-cycle engines that hotel management call "People Carriers" will ferry guests from end to end of the campus-style complex.

"We're creating an atmosphere of peace and tranquility," Sharp said. "There isn't enough of it."

It was not so tranquil at the hacienda last week. A table saw whined in the middle of a sitting room. Workers scurried from project to project, here putting the final touches on a pine-panelled bar, there patching the clay tile that until recently had been hidden by a sea-green carpet.

In a dining room, a floor sander smoothed the surface of newly uncovered parquet floors bearing the herringbone pattern that was Neff's trademark.

But quiet reigned in other parts of the resort.

Across from a flickering fireplace in the lobby of the Topa Court, guests sipped tea and played bridge on a marble table, their chatter swallowed by a three-story vaulted ceiling in exposed oak decorated with a massive wrought iron chandelier.

"We were impressed with the traditional Spanish flavor of the old inn and the way the buildings are spread over the landscape like a campus," said supervising architect Tom Graul. "We tried to maintain the same kinds of design motifs."

Graul, of the Los Angeles firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, said the project represents new territory for his company, which is known more for its technological expertise.

At the inn, touches of a past age abound. Hallways and entryways are laid in rustic clay tile. Tile roofs cover all the new buildings. Stucco simulates adobe. Replicas of old-fashioned street lamps ring the fountain at the resort's entrance. One building is constructed around a courtyard, rancho style.

Although some of the new structures reach three stories, their elongated lines mimic the lines of the clubhouse Neff nestled on the crest of a wooded hill, a touch that drew kudos from the American Institute of Architects in 1924.

But the additions, Graul said, are not meant as "slavish reproduction" of the old resort complex, but rather as a "reinterpretation" designed "to bring it into a new era."

Such exterior details as wagon-wheel windows and fluted stucco suggest the grab-bag spirit of the post-modernist 1980s. Inside, spare, unpretentious furnishings are upholstered in American Indian patterns in watercolor hues that mirror the Ojai Valley.

But the real gem of the inn still remains the nature that surrounds it. Behind the hotel lie the bluish-green Sulfur Mountains. On the grounds, sage-colored stands of oak and eucalyptus frame maple trees with flaming leaves. And, to the east, the rocky Topa Topas provides a foil for Ojai's "Pink Moment," the minutes of reflected sunset that bathe the valley in a rosy color before dusk.

Cater to the Elite

After all, it was the hilltop's sweeping, 360-degree view that is supposed to have decided Libbey on the spot. Having already transformed the town's wooden storefronts, he envisioned a country club that would cater to the Eastern elite who made Ojai their summer playground.

It didn't hurt that the glass manufacturer also was working on the Arbolada, a nearby subdivision that sought to spur "a renaissance of Spanish rural architecture," according to a brochure of the day. Libbey hired Neff, who had built the Libbey estate a stable so rustic and Spanish that it looked as though it had been plucked from La Mancha.

Libbey also hired George C. Thomas Jr., the foremost golf course architect of his day, whose links still rank among the world's best. Using the natural lay of the land to provide for sand traps and other hazards, Thomas built a naturalistic nine-hole course that a Los Angeles newspaper called "the cream of our Southern California courses."

But, during the Depression, the inn closed. The military took it over during World War II and built barracks for enlisted men on the golf course.

After the war, the inn enjoyed a second golden age under a consortium of Hollywood owners that included Loretta Young and Hoagy Carmichael. The golf course was reopened and redesigned for 18 holes.

And, along the way, the inn dropped its exclusive aura. Local civic groups began meeting in its dining rooms and the terrace became the site of weddings, birthdays and anniversaries.

But by the time the Crown family completed its acquisition of the hotel last year, it had begun to show signs of decay and disarray.

"You'd have an Art Deco chrome lamp on a Queen Anne desk next to a chartreuse chair from the 1950s," said Jack McClenahan, a public relations consultant for the inn and secretary of a local Rotary Club, which last year emptied the inn for a garage sale. "The furniture was all good stuff in its own way, but it didn't go together."

Vista International, the U.S. arm of Hilton International, was hired to manage the hotel and oversee the restoration. Sharp, who supervised a multimillion-dollar renovation of another Hilton International Hotel in Canada, was assigned to the project.

Groundwork had been laid for what the owners hoped would become the inn's third golden age.

Then the city of Ojai threw up a roadblock.

Architects originally planned to consolidate the additions in one multistoried building. But height limitations and directives from the planning commission resulted in a design that scatters five new buildings along the crest of the hill. One building was divided in two to preserve a thicket of trees that hotel management now refers to as "the million-dollar oaks."

But, if you ask Ojai resident Isabel Coleman, who sneaked past workmen last week to take a look at the new inn, the renovation was worth it.

"It's so perfect," she said, "I can't remember what it used to look like."

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