Reese Witherspoon's Southern charm has lit up such hit comedies as Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama, and her skill and intensity brought her an Oscar for her role as country singer June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. But when she purchased a historic Wallace Neff ranch five years ago in Ojai — a bucolic village in the foothills north of Los Angeles that served as Shangri-La in the 1937 film Lost Horizon — Witherspoon took on a far less flashy role. "When you buy a beautiful piece of art, you don't really own it," the preservation-minded actress says of the hideaway, where her family spends weekends and holidays. "You're just the caretaker."
The property sits on seven acres that include a swimming pool, a barn, a horse paddock, and guest cottages. Originally built in 1923 as stables for Edward Drummond Libbey, who made his fortune in glassware, the hacienda is one of the earliest works by Neff, best known as the designer of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks's mansion, Pickfair. "His method was a subtle painterly approach that gently topples the design over into the world of romance and fairy tale," wrote historian David Gebhard in his foreword to Wallace Neff: Architect of California's Golden Age.
For Witherspoon, who grew up in a 1930s brick house in Nashville, the elaborate stonework, arches, soaring fireplaces, and turrets of the Libbey Ranch were magical. So were the sylvan surroundings.
In L.A., the actress lives in a Mediterranean-style home with her husband, talent agent Jim Toth, and Ava, 12, and Deacon, 8, her two children with ex-husband Ryan Phillippe. She and Toth are expecting their first child, even as she continues her busy schedule, playing fugitive Matthew McConaughey's true love in the upcoming thriller Mud, and preparing to star in Atom Egoyan's Devil's Knot, based on the trial of the West Memphis Three. So Libbey Ranch provides a serene setting to be with her family, and looms large in her approach to parenting. "It reminds me of growing up in Tennessee, where we spent all day outside," she says. "I wanted my children to have that experience, to get muddy and hang out with the animals."
Indeed, Witherspoon has turned Libbey Ranch into a menagerie. A Friesian horse and a chestnut pony share the paddock. There are donkeys, goats, pigs, chickens, and four whimsically named dogs: Hope, Nashville, Coco Chanel, and Hank Williams. Neff fashioned animal silhouettes that are perched on wooden fences around the property. Witherspoon's favorite, a dog and cat on a courtyard gate, serves as a gathering spot for family photos.
Landscape designer Jay Griffith added a new gravel drive and courtyard, and planted large swaths of fragrant lavender, jasmine, roses, and Mexican sage. "Reese is a Southern belle and wanted something poetic and feminine," he says. "I tried to capture the ethereal quality you see in plein-air paintings, the mythical California of Ojai, Bel Air, and Carmel-by-the-Sea."
Seeking traditional interiors with a modern edge, Witherspoon turned to her friend , a designer with experience decorating Spanish-style homes. (A fellow equestrian and mom, Buckingham is also adept at creating kid- and pet-friendly environments.) Neff's original architectural elements — brick and stucco walls, Spanish tiles, exposed beams, and elaborate iron light fixtures and hardware that were forged almost a century ago in a foundry on the property — had been well maintained over the years. So Buckingham searched for compatible pieces, including European antiques, rustic accessories, and animal-themed art, as well as custom-designed upholstery.
Buckingham has an affinity for Hollywood homes from the 1920s and '30s, and she transformed the long, two-story living room into two distinct spaces — an intimate sitting area by the massive fireplace and a more casual area with a games table and bar. A staircase with tile-accented risers leads to a loft den with deep-green and denim-blue seating, ikat pillows, and overlapping Turkish rugs. "It feels fresh and youthful even though it's traditional," says the designer.
The great room typifies Witherspoon's style. A simple country kitchen opens onto a dining area with a long table and a mix of Swedish chairs, tufted leather benches, and his-and-hers linen wing chairs. "We had 20 people here for Thanksgiving last year," says the actress, "so there has to be plenty of places to sit."
On a typical weekend, the grown-ups gather outside and watch their kids run around, or they play rummy indoors. "Everyone congregates around the stone fireplace in the great room. It's cozy and warm," says the actress. "In the summer, it's the coolest room, because of the stone."
To Witherspoon, the house is more than just a beautiful home. "It's meditative and restorative," she says. "As soon as I drive through the gate, I relax. The air is fresh, the phone isn't ringing, you can't access e-mail. Time slows down. Within an hour I'm lying on that couch taking a big fat nap. It's like having a little bit of Tennessee in California."