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

January 07, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | 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."

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