El Roblar History (before we were The Oaks at Ojai!)
Written by David Mason, a local historian and vice-chairman of the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board.
“In a country of many beautiful hotels this one stands out in a striking and picturesque manner. Furnishings and appointments are in the best of taste, and the cuisine and service are of the highest standard of excellence.” – Country Life Magazine, September 1924.
Because of the removal of an old hotel to make way for the creation of the downtown park, E.D. Libbey, Ojai benefactor, saw the need for a hotel that would be open year-round. He once again contacted Richard S. Requa, the Arcade’s architect, about planning such a place.
The block just west of Signal Street (earlier known as See Saw Street) was available because the large white Victorian house that had been the P.K. Miller family home for many years had burnt to the ground in the fire of 1917.
To finance this hotel, Libbey donated $10,000, and two prominent Ojai citizens, Judge Boyd Gabbert and J.J. Burke of the Ojai Realty Co., took it upon themselves to sell stock for the projected amount of $30,000.
Building commenced in the summer of 1919, with Robert Winfield, a noted builder from Pasadena, overseeing the construction. Here again, the very best features of Spanish architecture were used, and the results were beautiful.
After much discussion and suggestions, the name was decided on, The Hotel El Roblar.
The hotel was opened under the direction of the Ojai Hotel Co. and managed by Frank J. Barrington. Born in Ireland, Barrington came to American in 1897 and went into the catering business in Philadelphia, Pa. In 1906, he came to California and entered into the same business in Santa Barbara until he obtained the position of manager of the new Hotel El Roblar in 1920.
By 1924, Barrington had managed to buy up all the shares of company stock and became the sole owner of the hotel. He continued to make improvements that gave it a home-type atmosphere that appealed to the guests. He also started the planning and development of 20 additional rooms.
Jeanie Mc Ilhatton became Barrington’s wife in 1924, and they were the ideal team for the hotel’s management. Barrington was known by all to be honest, a friend to all the children of the community and, above all, a splendid citizen.
In 1926, Sol N. Sheridan wrote, “He has by his enterprising and progressive methods not only advanced his own interests but has in a very definite way contributed to the welfare and prestige of the community in which he lives.”
Walter W. Bristol in 1946 referred to Barrington as “a diamond in the rough.”
The death of Frank Barrington in 1942 brought his wife into a greater service of management, and for the next few years, she continued to run a successful hostelry.
The Canfield Enterprises of Santa Barbara purchased the hotel from Mrs. Barrington and had very little success in the business. Eventually, Canfield committed suicide. The hotel then went into the hands of Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell of San Francisco, and it looked like the hotel might once again become successful. But it was not to be, and, like Canfield, Cromwell also committed suicide.
Mrs. Barrington took back the hotel and leased it to Richard Paige and Morgan Baker, two very capable and prominent Ojai citizens.
Under their management, a large swimming pool and the cocktail lounge were constructed. The hotel was finally alive with activity until Paige and Baker became so involved in other community activities that they returned the hotel to the Barrington estate.
The coming of Frank Keenan to the ownership of the hotel in 1952 changed the course and direction of this local landmark. Keenan was well-known in Chicago and had big plans for the hotel. He built the separate cottages, changed the dinning room to a swank restaurant and renamed it the Chicago Room and removed the Spanish wall and plantings in front and built a 1950s modern porte cochere and circular drive.
The rooms were filled with glamorous names form Hollywood, New York and Chicago. Even Gangster Bugsy Siegal could be seen lounging around the pool.
Keenan brought his brother, Jim Keenan, to the hotel to help run the place and act as the dining room host. Things appeared to be going along smoothly for about four years. During that time the Keenan brothers applied to the city for a Las Vegas type casino permit, but they were turned down.
The hotel was to have another setback: The brothers were arrested for income tax evasion, convicted and sent to prison. Jim Keenan died while in prison. The hotel’s future was now anyone’s guess.
Next came Lolita Armour, the Armour Meat Packing heiress. She traded the lovely Armour Estate in Lake Forest, Ill., for the hotel and gave the management to her husband, Charles Madrin.
The hotel continued to attract the Hollywood crowd, but a different variety of guests. The halls and lobby were decorated with museum-quality works of art, undoubtedly from the Armour estate, and once again there was laughter and gaiety. After the breakup of their marriage, the hotel was once again closed for over a year during 1962 and 1963. Years later, Madrin also would commit suicide while living in the Virgin Islands.
From Santa Barbara came Vernon Johnson as the next owner of the hotel, which, by now, was no longer known as the Hotel El Roblar, but by a more modern name, The Oaks Hotel. Johnson retained ownership for a year and lost the hotel in a bankruptcy filing. The running of the hotel then fell to the bankruptcy court, which managed to keep it open.
The Oaks was bought in 1966 by a group of local residents who were afraid the building might be in danger of being destroyed. The leaders of the group were two fine and respected gentlemen, Rodney Walker, a noted builder and designer, and Jerald Peterson, a prominent Ojai developer.
The two very capable men managed the hotel for some time, until the popularity of the place required them to hire a proper manager. The one chosen was Keith Lloyd, cousin of comedian, Harold Lloyd.
Many local residents remember these times as the best, always a full house and live music streaming from the Flamingo Room as the murals of tropical birds painted by Jessie Arms Botke watched silently.
The hotel is now under the guidance of Sheila Cluff, television personality, who in 1977 opened The Oaks at Ojai health spa.
It has consistently received raves as one of the most successful businesses in town and is highly regarded by guests who have traveled the world over and still return to this bit of Shangri-La in the Ojai Valley.