Edward Drummond Libbey had a vision. Now, 100 years later, we are living in it
By Mark Lewis
The Emperor Augustus famously boasted that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. The industrialist Edward Libbey might have said the same of Ojai — that he found it a village of sticks and left it a village of stucco. One hundred years ago, inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, Libbey created an idealized, Spanish-style pueblo here in the Ventura County backcountry. In the process, he established a template for all of Southern California to emulate.
For a prominent New York art dealer such as Henry Reinhardt, the speck on the map labeled Nordhoff, Calif., was about as far off the beaten trackt as a town could get. But a canny dealer must pursue his prey wherever it leads him, and Reinhardt was after big game: “Brook By Moonlight” by R.A. Blakelock, a painter for whom Reinhardt was organizing a major exhibit at his Fifth Avenue gallery.
The Ohio glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey recently had made national headlines by purchasing “Brook By Moonlight” for the astounding sum of $20,000 — the most money ever paid, to that point, for a work by a living American artist. Reinhardt wanted to borrow this famous painting for his exhibit. He knew Libbey well, having advised him during the creation of Libbey’s pet project, the Toledo Museum of Art. Now, early in 1916, Libbey was planning a major expansion of that museum, which presumably was the main reason he invited Reinhardt along on March 21, when he drove from Pasadena to his winter home in Nordhoff.
“E.D. Libbey Motors Into Town,” headlined The Ojai newspaper, over an item that identified Reinhardt as a passenger in the car. Libbey “had several important projects incubating,” the newspaper reported, without going into specifics.
Indeed he did. The biggest ones — by far — were back home in Ohio, where Libbey was in the process of setting up the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Co. (later known as Libbey-Owens-Ford). Another of his glass companies was perfecting the first fully automated system for manufacturing electric light bulbs, a system Libbey later would sell to General Electric for a handsome profit. Meanwhile, he was scheming to corner the glass-bottle market, which he already dominated.
Amid all this business wheeling and dealing, Libbey also maintained his focus on the Toledo Museum, where he continued to serve as president. He recently had pledged $400,000 for its endowment, and he had acquired “Brook By Moonlight” to enrich its collection. Nevertheless, he readily agreed to loan the painting to Reinhardt for the upcoming Blakelock exhibit in New York.
Having bagged his quarry, Reinhardt presumably did not tarry long in Nordhoff. The art dealer’s appraising eye would have found little to attract it in the town’s dowdy downtown business district, where a ramshackle collection of wood-frame storefronts lined the north side of the main drag. The south side was dominated by an equally ramshackle wood-frame hotel, the Ojai Inn, the town’s original building, then 42 years old and showing its age.
Reinhardt might have been surprised to learn that Libbey now owned this hotel, and several other strategic property parcels in the vicinity. As with his purchase of “Brook By Moonlight,” these real-estate purchases had more to do with art than with commerce. Libbey had a project in mind for which he himself would be the artist, and Nordhoff the canvas.
HOUSE OF GLASS
Edward Libbey was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1854. He followed his father into the cut-glass tableware business and eventually moved his firm to Toledo, establishing that Ohio town as a center of the American glass industry. In 1893, he boosted his business substantially by creating the very popular Libbey Glass exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Libbey took a personal hand in this project, moving into an apartment above the exhibit for much of the fair’s duration. As a result, he found himself a charter member of the City Beautiful Movement.
Some 27 million visitors passed through the fair’s gates from May 1 through October 30, at a time when the nation’s population totaled only 63 million. The main attraction was the White City, a fantastic, neoclassical metropolis made mostly of plaster and wood, and painted shiny white to look like marble.
This was a time when America’s fast-growing cities were ugly agglomerations of factories, tenements, row houses and mansions, thrown together on the fly as the nation mutated in the span of a single generation from a mostly rural, small-town society to an urbanized industrial powerhouse. The White City inspired the fair’s visitors with an alternative vision: a well-planned city composed of exquisitely designed buildings, carefully laid out in harmony with one another. It was an idealized mash-up of classical Rome and modern Paris, transported as if by magic to the shore of Lake Michigan south of Chicago’s fetid stockyards and slaughterhouses. It stunned people, and it inspired them.
Could America remake all its cities along these progressive lines, and create a better world? Not merely more beautiful, but better in every way? It was worth a try, anyway. Thus was born the City Beautiful Movement. The White City itself was only temporary, like a movie set; it burned down the following year and was gone. But many who had seen it in its glory went home determined to replicate it in their hometowns as best they could.
In Toledo, Libbey joined a group pushing for the city to host an Ohio Centennial and Northwest Territory Exposition in 1903. As head of the exhibits department, Libbey promised to outdo Chicago’s fair. Alas, Ohio’s state legislature declined to approve the necessary funds, so Toledo’s exposition never materialized. Undaunted, Libbey (with his wife, Florence, and their like-minded friends) went on to found the Toledo Museum of Art, and eventually to house it in a handsome neoclassical temple that would have looked right at home in the White City.
The Libbeys had done what they could to uplift Toledo, but the Ohio winters remained unimproved by their largesse, so they took to wintering in Pasadena. That California city had a lot to offer, but it was short on trout streams, and Edward Libbey loved to go trout fishing in bucolic locations. He also enjoyed riding horses in wide-open spaces. His Toledo friend Harry Sinclair recommended the Foothills Hotel in the Ojai Valley, where riding trails were plentiful, and the nearby Ventura River teemed with wily steelhead trout. And so in due course the Libbeys came here for a visit, sometime in the winter of 1907. Florence was not much for fishing; she continued to prefer Pasadena. But her husband fell hard for the Ojai Valley. In 1909, he hired the prominent Pasadena architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey to design a lovely Craftsman-style bungalow on Foothill Road south of the hotel. This would be his winter home for sixteen years, until his death.
He loved the view from his house across the valley toward the Topa Topa Bluffs. He was less fond of the unlovely village of Nordhoff down on the valley floor. Another man would simply have ignored it. After all, the homely little town was invisible from his house high up on Foothill Road. But Libbey was not disposed to endure an unsavory sight that blighted the landscape. Not if he could do something about it. And, as it happened, he could.
Toledo was too big a city for one man to beautify. Libbey had placed his stamp on it, first with his factories, then with his imposing West End mansion, and finally with his museum. But it was beyond his power to reinvent Toledo as an idealized White City on the shores of Lake Erie. Nordhoff was a very different proposition: a tiny winter resort dominated by far-sighted town boosters who welcomed improvements, aesthetic and otherwise. Here, Libbey could be confident that his reach would not exceed his grasp.
His timing was propitious. Sixteen years after its birth in Chicago, the City Beautiful Movement was still going strong, boosted periodically by new world’s fairs that tried to outdo the White City of beloved memory. St. Louis had made a particularly big splash in 1904 with its Louisiana Purchase Exposition, at which Libbey Glass exhibited the world’s largest punchbowl — all 143 pounds of it, which won a gold medal and made the cover of Scientific American. This fair was immortalized by the hit song that years later would be featured in the Judy Garland movie: “Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the Fair. Don’t tell me the sun is shining any place but there!” Ah, but California boosters knew where the sun really did most of its shining — in the Golden State, where in 1909, two cities were competing for the right to host the 1915 world’s fair celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal.
As Hunt and Grey were designing Libbey’s new Foothill Road house, other architects already were at work on San Diego’s proposed Spanish Colonial Revival version of the White City, scheduled to rise in Balboa Park. Then San Francisco jumped in with a rival vision, featuring a mostly neoclassical “Jewel City” to be built in what is now known as the Marina District.
As both cities proceeded with their planning, people elsewhere in the state began to catch the fever for creating planned communities with unified architectural themes. First out of the gate: developer J. Harvey McCarthy of Los Angeles, who acquired a thinly populated town site in Merced County in 1910 and renamed it Planada, “the City Beautiful.”
Perhaps because he originally was from San Diego, McCarthy favored the Spanish rather than the neoclassical motif for Planada. In California, and especially Southern California, people had been putting up Mission Revival buildings for decades, but no one had ever tried to design an entire community in that style. McCarthy was the first. He built a Spanish-style hotel, a bank, a department store, an apartment house and several other buildings in the same vernacular. At Planada’s grand opening in June 1912, a reported 10,000 people from all across the state trekked by train to the San Joaquin Valley to gawk at what McCarthy had wrought.
Edward Libbey presumably was not among them; June usually found him en route to Europe with Florence. But he must have been well aware of McCarthy’s heavily publicized project. Certainly Libbey knew what was going on in San Francisco, which by this point had won the right to host the federally approved Panama-Pacific International Exposition; and in San Diego, which had settled for holding a concurrent Panama-California Exposition on a more regional basis. Both cities were hustling to get their fair projects designed and built. At some point amid this statewide vogue for planned community building, Libbey began devising his own plan for little Nordhoff.
He made his first move in the late summer or fall of 1912 by buying the Ojai Inn. Soon the town was abuzz with rumors about what his plans might be. No announcement was forthcoming, so William L. Thacher, founder of The Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, wrote to Libbey to ask what he had in mind for the tennis courts behind the hotel, where the annual tournament was held. Thacher shared Libbey’s reply with The Ojai, which printed part of it on Page 1 on Oct. 11:
“Regarding the Inn, I shall probably make no changes for a year or two and in all probability it will remain open for guests until such changes are made.”
And indeed, not much happened for the next year or two. Then, in the spring of 1914, Libbey expanded his downtown holdings by buying the parcel at the southeast corner of Signal Street and Ojai Avenue, long occupied by a blacksmith shop. Shortly afterward, on April 17, Libbey hosted a banquet at the Ojai Inn during which the town’s leading citizens organized the Ojai Valley Men’s League to coordinate community improvement efforts in the wake of a disastrous flood. (The Men’s League would eventually change its name to the Chamber of Commerce.) According to The Ojai, Libbey had not been among the banquet’s scheduled speakers, but nevertheless he rose to the occasion:
“As a pleasant surprise to many, E.D. Libbey responded to a request from the Toastmaster, and gave a witty and entertaining talk, relative to his new interests in this place. He spoke of our great possibilities and of the future of the valley if we organized ourselves into a body for the advancement of the interests and enterprises of the community.”
In Planada, meanwhile, things were not going well. J. Harvey McCarthy had sold the project to a group of Los Angeles investors who soon found that they had bought themselves a Potemkin village — not a real town at all but a display town in the middle of nowhere, which showed few signs of growing into an actual community. In May 1914, the Los Angeles Times described McCarthy’s attempt to defend himself before a stockholders’ meeting:
“To 1,000 stockholders of the Los Angeles Development Co. he appeared in his old role as empire builder, out of whose creative genius was to spring a city in the midst of a desert, a prosperous, thriving community pulsating with traffic and industry and supported by a back country of orchard, field and garden; upon whose magnificent idea was to be constructed a new city to stud the crown of the Golden West and throw into the urban race of California a new rival, brimming with youth, glowing with promise, and throbbing with vital purpose.”
Instead, only two years after its grand opening, Planada already was a ghost town, “a deserted, but by no means forgotten village,” according to the Times account.
So Planada was a failure. But it was hardly California’s only planned-community project of that era. Others included Krotona, a Theosophical Society in America colony that was taking shape in Hollywood’s Beachwood Canyon. And the Socialist politician Job Harriman recently had announced plans to create Llano del Rio, a communal utopia in the Antelope Valley.
Moreover, the San Francisco and San Diego expositions had not even opened yet. When they did, in January 1915, fairgoers were dazzled by what they encountered in the Jewel City and Balboa Park. Here was palpable proof of what thoughtful urban planning and high-quality architecture could accomplish. Almost 19 million people visited San Francisco’s fair during its year-long run, and close to four million visited San Diego’s fair during its two-year run. And Edward Libbey was prominent among them. His reaction to the San Francisco fair was printed in a pamphlet titled “The Legacy of the Exposition,” published in 1916, for which the fair’s organizers solicited blurbs from “thinking men and women of national and international importance.” Libbey delivered a glowing endorsement:
“All citizens of the United States take pride in the great success of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, in that it typifies the highest ideals of all our people, east, west, north and south. We join in the toast to a greater America and a more enlightened world.”
The pamphlet identified him as “President, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio.” In intellectual and cultural circles, that was his claim to fame. But Libbey by this point was spending more time in Nordhoff than in Toledo. Inspired by what he had witnessed in San Francisco and San Diego, he was now ready to try his hand at creating his own idealized community — not in Ohio, but in the Ojai Valley.
FROM NORDHOFF TO OJAI
It was the first day of spring in 1916, and for Nordhoff it would truly be a season of rebirth.
When Libbey motored into town on March 21 with the art dealer Henry Reinhardt in tow, the glass magnate had a lot on his mind. As we have seen, his lengthy to-do list included cornering the American glass bottle market; creating a new Libbey-Owens company to exploit the glass sheet market; perfecting a fully automated way to manufacture light bulbs; expanding the Toledo Museum of Art; and contributing “Brook By Moonlight” to Reinhardt’s campaign to revive the painter R.A. Blakelock’s career. To this formidable agenda, Libbey soon added another item: “Reinventing Nordhoff.”
According to the architect Richard Requa, it was Harry Sinclair who provided the specific suggestion that finally kicked Libbey into gear on this project. Sinclair in 1914 had hired Requa and his partner, Frank Mead, to design a Mediterranean Revival-style house on Fairview Road, not far from Libbey’s house on Foothill. At the same time, Mead and Requa were designing Spanish-Moorish-style buildings at Krotona in Hollywood. So they were well qualified for Libbey’s Nordhoff project on two counts: They had demonstrated their mastery of the fast-evolving Spanish/Mediterranean Revival style of Southern California architecture, and they had participated in the development of a planned community.
Let Requa set the scene:
“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,” the architect wrote in a 1925 article for the San Diego Union. “A remnant of a sign over the battered, creaking door informed the curious visitor in letters hardly legible, that the shanty housed the Nordhoff post office. 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 live oaks in one of the most picturesque of California’s foothill valleys.”
The two men, of course, were Edward Libbey and Harry Sinclair.
“Seated on the plank walk they were silently contemplating the row of ramshackle shops across the road,” Requa continued. “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. Suddenly 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. … His generous offer was eagerly accepted and in less than a month the obscure village was a scene of boom-like activity.”
Clearly, Requa’s synopsis compressed the sequence of events for the sake of telling a good story. But overall, it seems to be a reasonably accurate summation. By June 1916, Libbey had acquired all the land that comprises today’s Libbey Park; torn down the venerable Ojai Inn and the Berry Villa; graded and paved South Signal Street from Ojai Avenue to the railroad tracks (today’s bike path); and hired Mead and Requa to bring his vision to fruition.
Libbey might instead have hired architects well versed in the Beaux Arts neoclassical style, as exemplified by San Francisco’s Jewel City. That was the style Chicago had used for the White City, and the one Libbey had chosen for the Toledo Museum. But he had seen Balboa Park, and he knew Sinclair was right: The Spanish/Mediterranean approach was the more natural choice for Southern California.
(It was also much cheaper to place a stucco arcade in front of the old buildings than to tear them all down and build an entirely new business block of brick and sandstone and marble.)
In the middle of all this activity, it seems likely that Libbey traveled to New York later that spring to view the R.A. Blakelock exhibit in Reinhardt’s Fifth Avenue gallery. This exhibit made national news due to its poignant circumstances: Blakelock for many years had been confined in a New York state hospital for the insane, leaving his wife and children impoverished. Libbey’s purchase of “Brook By Moonlight” for a record price had refocused the public’s attention on this painter and his tragic plight. Blakelock’s doctors gave him a one-day pass to travel to Manhattan to view the exhibit. “Yes, that’s the masterpiece,” he said, upon viewing “Brook” for the first time in 25 years.
As for Libbey, he was busy creating his own masterpiece, 3,000 miles away in Nordhoff. And people were noticing.
“Some morning, not far distant, the village of Nordhoff is going to wake up and find itself famous,” the Ventura Free Press commented in August.
Construction material was piling up on both sides of Ojai Avenue, the newspaper noted: “Something is surely doing. Ask what it is and the Nordhoffite will throw up his hands and mention the name of Libbey. ‘Why, it is going to be another Montecito,’ you are told.”
Surely “the very rich” would soon flock to the Ojai Valley, where they would “build fine houses and improve the valley to the limit of their limitless purses.” The Free Press congratulated Nordhoff on its good fortune.
Actually, Nordhoff would never be famous, at least not under that name. As Libbey’s project advanced, his local allies, who included Ventura County Supervisor Tom Clark, launched a campaign to change the town’s name to Ojai, a Chumash Indian-derived word that seemed more in keeping with the Spanish-style architecture that henceforth would define the town. In January 1917, the Board of Supervisors approved the name-change request and forwarded it to Washington.
“Mr. and Mrs. E.D. Libbey arrived here yesterday,” The Ojai reported on Jan. 26. “Mr. Libbey’s first salutation, upon meeting Supervisor Clark, was followed by the query: What town is this? ‘This is Ojai,’ replied Mr. Clark, and the gentleman from Ohio smiled quite happily. Now, all our home folks know that Mr. Libbey has fathered ‘the Ojai Beautiful,’ and it will be gratifying indeed, if his creation is accepted as the child of his dreams.”
Things were now moving fast. Mead and Requa had designed a Mission-style facade for the north side of the street, obscuring the ugly storefronts behind a handsome stucco arcade, modeled on one at the San Juan Capistrano Mission. On the south side, the former blacksmith shop at Signal Street gave way to an impressive new post office featuring a Spanish Colonial Revival bell tower 65 feet tall, modeled on the campanile of the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Havana, Cuba. East of the bell tower, a Mediterranean-style pergola lined the avenue, screening a newly installed plaza and park. (Libbey had retained the tennis courts, presumably to William Thacher’s relief).
The Arcade was finished first, and made an immediate impact. In February, San Francisco architect C.L. Cobbe visited the town and pronounced himself mightily impressed. Cobbe, whose specialty was municipal-improvement projects, predicted to the Ventura Post that Mead and Requa’s makeover would be widely emulated by other resort towns in the region:
“The work being done at Nordhoff at this time will make it one of the most charming cities in Southern California,” Cobbe told the Post. “The work there is such that it will be the source of valuable pointers to other localities similarly situated which hope to improve themselves as a summer resort.”
By spring the work was done, and the U.S. Post Office had approved the name change. During a community-wide party in the park on April 7, 1917 — the first Ojai Day — Libbey handed the deed for the property to Sherman Day Thacher, representing the newly formed Ojai Civic Association. Then Libbey marked the occasion with a speech in which he explicitly claimed Ojai for the City Beautiful Movement.
“Art is but visualized idealism,” Libbey told the crowd. “… 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 VILLAGE BEAUTIFUL MOVEMENT
That was only the first phase of Libbey’s plan. Subsequent phases produced the El Roblar Hotel (now the Oaks); the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel (now the Ojai Valley Museum); the Ojai Valley Country Club (now the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa); the Ojai Valley School; the Ojai Valley Library; and the Arbolada. The school district and local businesses jumped on the bandwagon, gradually filling out a mostly Spanish-style streetscape that now runs the length of Ojai Avenue within the city limits, and beyond. (Recent notable Spanish-style additions include the Topa Mountain Winery and the remodeled Ojai Valley Community Hospital.)
Libbey, who died in 1925 at the age of 71, is remembered in Toledo as a titan of industry and a patron of the arts. In Ojai, his name now graces the park he gave to the city and the outdoor theater within it, and local historians revere him as the man who gave the town its distinctive look. But few realize that what Libbey accomplished here reverberated far beyond the borders of this isolated valley.
Planada did eventually develop into an actual town, but it turned out nothing like the Spanish-style planned community envisioned by J. Harvey McCarthy. Llano del Rio, Job Harriman’s would-be socialist utopia in the Antelope Valley, went bust by 1918 and was abandoned. But Libbey’s Ojai experiment worked, and it endures. He set out to build a better town in every sense, and many would agree that he succeeded. His converts even included the Theosophists of Krotona, who in 1924 abandoned Hollywood for the Ojai Valley, where they created a Spanish-style campus that fit right in with Libbey’s concept.
Of course, it didn’t end with Ojai. As architect Cobbe had predicted, what Libbey did here touched off a Village Beautiful Movement with a specifically Southern California twist. Richard Requa went on to oversee the creation of Rancho Santa Fe, designed from scratch as a pseudo-Spanish community. The same model inspired planners and architects in Palos Verdes, in San Clemente, in Westwood — all across Southern California and even beyond (e.g., in Coral Gables, Fla.). The most famous example remains Santa Barbara, where in 1922 the civic activist Bernhard Hoffmann publicly proclaimed himself an admirer of Libbey’s Ojai project. Three years later, an earthquake cleared the way for Hoffmann to do for State Street what Libbey had done for Ojai Avenue.
Almost a century has passed since that epochal day when Libbey handed the park deed to Sherman Thacher. Over the years, Spanish-style business districts have become so commonplace in Southern California that they now comprise a visual cliché. But the original model retains its appeal in places like Santa Barbara — and here in Ojai, where it all began.
In April 2017, this town will come together as a community to celebrate the Libbey centennial in the park that bears his name. People who live beyond the valley’s borders are unlikely to take much notice of this anniversary — but they should, because they too are Libbey legatees, even if they’ve never heard of him.
Edward Drummond Libbey left his stamp on the world in more ways than one, and his Ojai centennial marks the milestone moment when a dusty, one-horse burg in the middle of nowhere became the unlikely model for a reimagined Southern California.
(Craig Walker contributed research to this article.)