Art, Art Everywhere

From stenciled ceilings to Fauvist paintings, Ojai’s Rancho del Oso brims with brilliant hues and the expressive imprints of an art-fueled family.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by Debra DiPaolo


ack in spring of 1939, guests were invited to the opening of Arroyo Del Oso Guest Ranch to experience “Hospitality, Rest, Peace and Contentment” under the spreading oaks at the foot of Ojai’s majestic Topa Topa Mountains. Owners Mr. and Mrs. M.C. Harvey offered lunch for a dollar and a four-course dinner for just 50 cents more. A swimming pool, horseback riding ($2.50 per day for a saddle horse to explore the back country), tennis, and badminton, as well as tree-shaded patios and gardens cooled by fountains, added to the creature comforts on the then-160-acre parcel.

The Harvey’s son, Thad, crooned songs of the day, and there was plenty for guests to see—like Mrs. Harvey’s collection of cacti and succulents, or her pet birds: pheasants, finches, lovebirds, canaries, and a parrot. If you stayed too long or drank something stronger than the Jersey milk on the menu, you could even bed down for the night. The rate for a cottage with shower was, at the most, 12 dollars per day for two people on the American Plan; a deluxe cottage or room with bath was considerably less. Rumor has it that Hollywood celebrities like Clark Gable trekked to the retreat.

A rustic setting has been part of the draw since the 1920s

But five years after it opened, the guest ranch was shuttered. From that time on it became a private residence, although the current owners and longtime caretakers, John and Nancy Whitman and their family, know a thing or two about hospitality.

These days, all is quiet on the home front surrounded by rock walls, both old and new, and gardens, both wild and planted. The original stone arched entrance still welcomes visitors—only now they step into a hallway lined with artist Nancy Whitman’s lyrical and colorful paintings of local landscapes, both real and imagined, scenes of parties, flowers, and birds painted in a whimsical manner reminiscent of Matisse and other Fauvist artists from last century.

Old-growth yardscape yardscape shades a quiet patio.

The Whitmans purchased the property (reduced to 10 acres), tweaked the name to Rancho del Oso, and moved in “the day after Christmas in 1969,” recalled their son Fred, a sculptor who was just 13 at the time. “Once the school bus dropped us off, we turned out backs on the rest of the world. We built dams in the creek, created fishing and swimming holes, and rolled big boulders off the mountain.”

All five of the Whitman children are now grown, and John and Nancy, married for 60 years, seemingly enjoy the solitude of their canyon retreat and family compound. The rest of the brood includes Charlie, Mark, Andy, and daughter Carrie, along with their various spouses and grandchildren, all of whom have memories of their own.

The matriarch of one of Ojai’s most artistic families, Nancy Whitman imbues Rancho del Oso with the same exuberance that characterizes her painting style.

The walls of the two-story house are covered with matriarch Nancy’s original acrylic paintings. Three bedrooms and three bathrooms are located downstairs, and a charming original master bedroom and bath aerie are up a steep staircase in the original part of the house. The den, with resident stuffed moose above a stone fireplace, was once carpeted wall-to-wall in pink, Nancy’s favorite color, and she stenciled the ceiling using the same Fauvist sense of vibrant hues.

The kitchen evokes a feeling of happiness, with cabinets painted salmon (few surfaces escape Nancy’s brush) and a table large enough to accommodate friends and family. The formal dining room features original ceiling stenciling and light fixtures, and a small library has a hidden bar behind a bookshelf door. A stunning great room was recently added, with plenty of windows that bring the outdoors in and a patio where son Fred’s marble sculptures hold court.

In the dining room, stenciled ceilings and light fixtures set off Nancy's vibrant paintings.

Nancy’s studio is a charming, rustic cottage with a stone fireplace built by John and their sons from rocks collected on the property. If you’d like to experience it, and the rest of Rancho del Oso, save the dates of October 12 and 13 for the 2013 Ojai Studio Artists Tour.

Meandering paths have led generations of Whitmans to nearby swimming holes and trailheads.

“We have to kick people out; they don’t want to leave!” laughs John Whitman, referring to the rash of visits from art aficionados, fans, and looky-loos.

Indeed, I hated to end my recent Sunday afternoon visit, which stretched into early evening. Good company and a dinner of homemade pasta (from son Andy), frosty beer, and hot fudge sundaes made for a delightful respite.

Artistic details abound at Rancho del Oso.

The Native Americans who once used this canyon as a retreat obviously knew a thing or two. Like the guests of yesteryear, I experienced that promised “Hospitality, Rest, Peace and Contentment”—as well as some quality time in the studio, painting with Nancy.

The next time I visit my friends the Whitmans, I’d like to search for arrowheads or fishing holes from days gone by. Especially if they are willing to honor the original rate card price of $7.50 per night.


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