Ventura-based architect Ed Campbell has designed five-star projects around the world, from space-age high-rises in China to a resort and spa in central Italy. Currently, he serves as the executive manager of the historic Pierpont Inn. His motto—Siempre Adelante (always forward)—keeps him focused as he tackles architectural design with distinguished elegance.
VENTANA: Your local roots run deep. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
ED CAMPBELL: My mother was born in Santa Barbara. She had a Mexican father and a Spanish mother. They were part of the original land grant families, called the Oliveras. One descendant, Sergeant Ignacio Olivera, came up from Loreto, Mexico with Father Serra and founded the Mission Ventura. He put up the first cross. When he retired, he had three ranchos, each one with over 100,000 acres: Los Olivos, Vandenberg, and Lake Cachuma.
When California became a state, [government officials] kicked everyone out. The last adobe we owned was sold to get money to build my father’s first grocery store, and the guy that bought it—an original adobe structure—tore it down.
VEN: I understand you joined the Air Force directly after high school. How did you get started in architecture?
EC: I must have been 14 or 15. Frank Lloyd Wright came to the Lobero Theater and I heard him lecture. That’s when I was totally convinced I wanted to be an architect. I took some drafting classes at the Catholic high school. Morelli, my coach at the time, was offering an architectural drafting course. He was really an inspiration to me. I’ve always been handy, and I knew how to fix things. I signed up for a correspondence course when I was 14 and learned how to build and repair radios. After that, I taught myself how to fix televisions. Then I bought a manual on electrical wiring; eventually I rewired my parent’s whole house. Later, I worked with the Santa Barbara Planning Commission as a junior planning aid. When I was 17, I had a key to the courthouse.
Skip 40 years to the future: I went to this reunion and saw my coach. He was coming towards me and, in typical coach fashion, he yells, “Hey, Campbell, is that you?” I said, “Morelli!” And the first thing out of his mouth was, “Did you become an architect?” I never saw him again after that. He died a few years later, but he was my greatest influence.
My first job after the air force was with Bechtel as a draftsman. … It wasn’t challenging enough. I was a designer, not a draftsman. I decided to go back in the Air Force. I went down to the recruiting office and asked for a drafting assignment: specifically, for Madrid, Spain, at Torrejón Air Force Base. I figured I could go to night school at the University of Madrid and get my degree in architecture. I presented this problem to the recruiters. I told them I’d sign up for eight years if they wanted, but I insisted on Madrid.
That same day, I took off for Big Sur. I ended up at this lodge, sitting at the bar next to a man. He was with a small party. Turns out he was an architect. It was fate. His name was Nat Owings, senior partner of the largest high-rise architectural firm in the world, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and he was in charge of the San Francisco office. We started talking, and he invited me to join the party. It was the engagement party for Kim Novak.
VEN: Did Owings offer you a job after that?
EC: No, he couldn’t give me a job. He told me to go back to my hometown and start over. So I came back to Santa Barbara and ended up finding a job in Ventura, with Andy Stevenson, who built apartment buildings. You see them all over; they were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s. When I got back to my room in Santa Barbara, I had a letter from the Air Force that my request for Madrid had been approved, so I had to weigh the two. I chose to stay in Ventura.
VEN: But many of the buildings you’ve designed are in Connecticut. Why is that?
EC: My former wife was from Stamford, and after our second daughter was born, she took the kids to visit her family. I never thought I’d want to move there, but we did. Seven architects offered me a job, and this one guy was spectacular. He was very futuristic and had lots of commissions. My first project was no longer a big house, or some fancy addition, it was a 66,000-square-foot, three-story world headquarters for Xerox.
VEN: The aquarium you designed for Ventura would have been one of your most impressive projects, if it had come to fruition. What did you envision?
EC: It would have been called Sea Star Vista. There would be sea life, aquaculture, and a planetarium to study the stars. We would have had two 400-seat theaters connected fiber-optically to the largest telescopes in the world, so you could watch. Adjacent to this would be an inter-model transport center. And of course, classes for children. It would be great.
VEN: Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean styles dominate our region. Does this work for you, or do you prefer a more varied approach to a city’s architectural landscape?
EC: In 1925, this area suffered a devastating earthquake and the local citizens said, “We have to fix this, and we have to do it right.” So the birth of Mediterranean style architecture came to Santa Barbara. When you look at the courthouse and the library, that’s how it got started. As far as I know, Santa Barbara had the very first design review board in the entire United States. They favored the red tile roof and stucco, call it what you want, the Mediterranean style. They created the law and board to be very strongly ruled. It wasn’t arbitrary.
Here in Ventura, we have the most Spartan type of design. There are very few well-designed buildings here. Most of it is like a Hollywood storefront. I mean, I could come in and tear out an entire block in about two hours. There’s no continuity, no meat and potatoes to the buildings. Santa Barbara has successfully [avoided] that.
VEN: As the newly appointed manager of the Pierpont Inn, what are your design plans for Ventura’s grand dame?
EC: I want people to know that the Inn is back. This is a great opportunity for the city. We now have a world-class chef, and we’re bringing the service back to a five-star level. You can’t improve on the sunset, but we are updating and sprucing up the building and the service. I am the executive director of the interim management company, and we’re here to bring the Pierpont back to its original high standards. I believe we are succeeding.