By Misty Hall • Photo by Logan Hall
If you ask me, musician John Mayer puts it best: “Love ain’t a thing, love is a verb.” Let’s dive into the grammar behind that. A verb is an action word. So love, rather than something you possess, is something you DO. It’s something you give, that requires effort and care, and, yes, work.
The true beauty of love lies in the pure joy of giving it. That might sound a bit over-the-top, but it’s just that when you’re in the midst of this glorious, transcendent verb, you start to see it all over, in unexpected places. Like in the architecture of a building, or the exacting brushstroke on a Spanish tile, or even in a glance from a charming photographer.
Logan and I fell in love after working together for several years. We discovered we had a lot in common — and a lot of fun together. So when we said, “I do,” we wanted to spend our first nights as a married couple in a place that reflected our personalities and our commitment to those small but all-important details that demonstrate what “love” is really all about.
Although Ojai has many stunning places to stay, we ultimately decided on the Emerald Iguana.
Hidden away in a quiet neighborhood just above downtown Ojai, it is the product of love in many forms. Husband-and-wife team Marc and Julia Whitman combined their passion for art, architecture and Ojai to create this distinctive inn where mediocrity is nowhere to be found.
Just like I wasn’t necessarily looking for a husband in an office complex, the Whitmans weren’t looking to get into the hotel business when they first started out. Julia was an art-lover and mother, and Marc was already an accomplished architect with several high-end homes and public properties under his belt. Among them: the El Paseo Building adjacent to Libbey Park; the bandstand at Libbey Park; the Los Arboles condominiums on South Montgomery Street; the Trolley Stop and shade structures at Rotary Park; the façade for Ojai House on North Montgomery Street; and Suzanne’s Cuisine restaurant on Ojai Avenue.
The Whitmans were merely looking for another project for Marc when they bought what would become their first hotel, the Blue Iguana. It was an “abandoned, burnt-out cluster of buildings,” Julia said, which had for years been used as an apartment complex. When the Whitmans bought the foreclosed property, their intention was for Marc to work his architectural magic and create a new set of apartments, something similar to Marc’s building on the corner of Lion and Aliso Streets in Ojai.
But soon after the purchase, the County of Ventura gave them the news that would change the course of their lives: those rundown old apartments on the corner of Highway 33 and Loma Drive had never actually been permitted as apartments. Back when the property had been built in the ‘50s, it was a roadside motel. So if they wanted to do anything with the property, it would have to be under that existing permit.
The Whitmans were floored. “We had no hotel experience!” Julia said. “Well, I guess we’re in the hotel business now! … But it worked out great!”
It turns out the husband-and-wife pair were a perfect match for the project. Marc worked on the exteriors, and Julia took care of the interior details. When it came time to open, Julia’s small-town-girl sense of hospitality made it feel like home to guests.
It was such a natural fit, they decided to do it again three years later — this time, with a small group of buildings within the Ojai city limits. “The Emerald was the next natural step. We already had the Blue Iguana, and, well, it was working!” Julia laughed.
Like the Blue Iguana’s transformation from its humble beginnings, the Emerald property would change quite a bit from it origins. “It was a residential area, and the houses were there for the most part. But you wouldn’t have walked on to the property — rows of shacks, stone buildings — and I thought it was one property,” Julia recalled. But she knew to trust Marc’s vision. And, one had to admit, there was a certain charm about the area. It was near downtown Ojai but quiet, shaded by beautiful oaks, and had some history. A local historian confirmed that one of the stone buildings dated back to 1906.
Because the city of Ojai places a high value on its historic buildings, “we had to work around them (several buildings), you couldn’t tear everything down,” Julia said. Same goes for the ancient oak trees on the property. But they didn’t want to level everything and start from scratch. Just like Logan and me, Marc and Julia had both grown up in Ojai, and wanted to preserve and honor their roots. So they kept the old stone structure and the oaks, but added quite a bit around them to make the Emerald feel like one cohesive whole. Marc altered the rooflines so each building flowed into the next.
They put in a pool, and Marc added those sumptuous, Gaudi-esque arches and subtly sensuous curves that are unmistakably Marc Whitman. That style is hard to contain in one traditional term. There are suggestions of Morocco, Spain, old-world Europe; the lines are organic and natural, but seem to move in unexpected and refreshing ways. “Art Nouveau Craftsman,” Julia said. “That’s what Marc calls it.”
And working together just, well, worked. “I trusted Marc’s genius … He did the outside, I did the inside since he wasn’t really into that. He has all this training, design school, and he finished the outside and was like, ‘OK, I’m done,’” Julia laughed. “So our roles just defined themselves.” Julia didn’t have the formal training Marc had, but she grew up in a home with parents who loved good antiques and had a carefully curated style. That gave her an eye for detail and an appreciation for quality pieces.
Still, without her husband’s formal training, Julia was a bit unsure of her abilities — could she furnish this architectural gem in a way that brought it all together? The answer turned out to be a resounding “Yes.” Julia loved to travel, and often brought art and furniture back with her.
So off she went to Bali, with an artist friend in tow. “She’s a really great artist, and I was a bit terrified,” Julia admitted. “But she just told me, ‘Hey, just follow your instincts, just buy things you love. Even if it’s not the same style, they’ll work,’ So I bought things I loved; quality, gorgeous things.”
Three shipping containers full of “quality, gorgeous things” came back with her from Bali. “It wasn’t like going to Barker Brothers Furniture Store. It was like 1,000 bad garage sales, picking out the best pieces,” she remembered. “You know when you go to Mexico, and you bring something back home and you’re like, ‘Oh God, why did I buy this?!’ That’s what I thought might be in those containers. But it didn’t work out that way!”
The things she’d chosen were a mix of carved Balinese pieces, Asian pieces, and pieces with an old-world European influence. She added more furniture from other places around the world over the next several years. Some of her favorites are a “really fun bench from Bali that’s almost like a cart, with carved wheels and a seat,” Julia said.
It now lives on the Frog Suite patio. Another is a peacock mosaic outside the appropriately named Peacock Suite.
As lifelong Ojai residents, the Whitmans were also able to enlist the help of several area artists and highly skilled tradesmen. A local master stonemason, who had originally worked with the Whitmans at their own home, was able to match the style of the original 1906 stone house. “And whatever Marc could draw, he was able to do,” Julia enthused. “He’s a genius!” His entryway and pathways fit seamlessly with the Whitmans’ vision.
The property’s extensive tile work came largely from Richard Keit and Mary Kennedy of RTK Studios, whose work can also be seen around downtown Ojai and on Catalina Island, among many other places. Their hand-painted tiles blended well with Marc’s architectural style, and, of course, with the overall style of the community. Along with tile in the bathrooms and kitchens, they contributed larger mosaic pieces.
Among our RTK favorites: the tile “carpet” outside the Frog Suite, and the koi pond mosaic on the Treehouse Suite’s “Gaudi balcony.” The Whitmans also recruited help from Marc’s mother, artist Nancy Whitman, and her friends in the Ojai Studio Artists organization. Their pieces decorated the walls and paid tribute to the men and women who had also drawn inspiration from this community. Over the last year, many of the rooms have been featuring paintings by Marc Whitman himself, who has become “a very talented oil painter,” Julia said.
Jan Sanchez added more subtle but powerful accents with her masterful copper details. You can find more of her work in the bandstand in Libbey Park, the wisteria pergola at Cluff Vista Park, and the Trolley stops near Nordhoff High School and the “Y” Shopping Center.
Full Spectrum Landscaping worked with the existing oaks and eucalyptus trees and the one large palm as a foundation for the landscaping. The late Steven Jeffre, founder of Full Spectrum, created garden beds with different themes — Tuscan, Californian, Asian — all in keeping with the overall style of the Emerald Iguana. Though years of drought and water restrictions have been hard, many of the original plantings remain, Julia said. Last winter’s rains helped to revive the gardens. “And the soil here, we’re just blessed! It still looks nice … a lot of things survived and flourished,” Julia said.
The overall result of these efforts is a property that feels absolutely one-of-a-kind, because it is. The combination of two passionate local people who just happen to be in love has created something that is, dare I say, unique, here at the Emerald Iguana.
But it almost didn’t happen that way.
Although Marc and Julia both grew up in the rural Upper Ojai Valley, they were a few miles and eight years apart. They both went through the same local public schools: Summit Elementary, Matilija Junior High, Nordhoff High School. Julia knew Marc’s sister and family, but wouldn’t get to know her future husband until after she’d graduated. “Marc had moved to Santa Barbara because he wanted to find ‘bigger fish’ than Ojai girls,” Julia recalled. But then a mutual friend set him up on a blind date with a pretty girl he thought he’d like — Julia — and she just happened to be from his hometown. The two clicked, and, decades later, they have two grown children and two stunning properties to share with the community.
I like the serendipity of the Whitmans’ love story. It feels familiar, probably because Logan and I had a similar experience.
We both grew up in Ojai and attended some of the same public schools, but only got to know one another well after we started working together. Years later, we got married here in town, and, after dancing the night away, were whisked off to the Emerald Iguana. Once inside, we popped open a bottle of bubbly and explored our settings. A beautiful elephant painting on the wall served as a headboard above the cozy bed, which was framed by Marc’s trademark Art Nouveau archways. RTK tiles with lizards dotted the kitchen walls, and a long, beautifully-carved Balinese table — topped with local Casa Barranca wine and ridiculously delicious custom chocolates from Chocolats du CaliBressan — sat in the corner.
The bathroom, located up a handful of stairs, is spacious and airy, thanks to the vaulted ceilings and skylights. Out the front door, the private patio, surrounded by lush plants and a tall fence, was perfect for late-morning mimosas (and provides a nice place to take advantage of the couples’ massages offered by the Emerald). The eclectic blend of styles felt homey and accessible, yet exotic, and authentic, and entirely original. In short, the Emerald Iguana — like the best of romances — takes no shortcuts to perfection.