by Walker A. Tompkins
In the spring of 1769, while Spanish soldiers were busy erecting a Royal Presidio on the site of Santa Barbara, their spiritual leader, Padre Junipero Serra OFM, was scouting for a place to put his tenth California mission. He selected a spot in Montecito’s beautiful East Valley, where an Indian trail snaked up a canyon. That trail is known today as Hot Springs Road.
But Father Serra died shortly thereafter, and in 1786 it was his successor, Fermin Lasuen, who arrived to establish Mission Santa Barbara. Fr. Lasuen rejected Montecito as a mission site, believing it to be too far removed from the protection of the presidio. The roundabout oak groves – Montecito means “little woods” – swarmed with grizzly bears, wolf packs, and human renegades. Prudently, Lasuen located Santa Barbara Mission four miles west, thus depriving Montecito of what would have been an historical landmark of the first magnitude.
During the Hispanic era, 1782-1846, the soldiers of the presidio fell as much as twenty years behind in their salaries. Hence, to compensate soldiers reaching retirement age, free parcels of the “Santa Barbara Pueblo Lands” were awarded them. These lands, granted by the King of Spain for the support of Santa Barbara, extended from Tucker’s Grove to the Rincon, between the foothills and the beach. Most of the soldiers chose 50-acre plots in what became known as “Old Spanish Town,” starting on the west where Hot Springs and Cold Spring Creeks join to form Montecito Creek, and extending along East Valley Road, then an ox-cart trail, as far as today’s Montecito Village.
Montecito was thus founded by some of Santa Barbara’s “first families,” bearing such proud names as Jaurez, Romero, Olivas, Robles, Dominguez, Lopez and Lorenzana. Many of their descendants still live on land owned by their forebears nearly 200 years ago.
The matriarch of one such family, Dona Marcellina Feliz de Dominguez, planted a grapevine slip near her adobe at what is now 850 Parra Grande Lane. She irrigated it with water carried in an olla from the nearby creek. The vine thrived. Its trunk grew to 14 inches in diameter; its arbor covered one acre; it produced six tons of grapes per year. In 1876 it was shipped to Philadelphia for the California exhibit at the Centennial Exposition.
In prehistoric times, the Indians discovered a group of hot mineral springs in a canyon above Montecito, the waters of which had magical powers to heal the sick. This was verified by sailors of a later day, and by members of the American regiment which occupied Santa Barbara at the end of the Mexican War.
In 1855 an ailing ’49er named Wilbur Curtiss came to Santa Barbara with a life expectancy of six months. A 100-year-old Chumash Indian led Curtiss up Hot Springs Canyon to the ancient spa. The “miracle waters” restored Curtiss to such robust health that in 1862 he filed a homestead claim on the Hot Springs and thus became Montecito’s first American settler. He built the first of four wooden hotels at the springs, each destroyed by the periodic forest fires which swept the mountains. The last Montecito Hot Springs Resort hotel was lost in the Coyote Fire of 1964. Still privately owned, the springs remain today an important water source, although no longer exploited for their therapeutic value.
East Valley Catholics, seeking to avoid the long walk to worship at the Old Mission, in 1857 joined with workmen from San Ysidro Ranch to build an adobe chapel on the Jaurez property at 53 East Valley Road. Known as Carmelo Mission, it served until a wooden church was built in 1898, the predecessor to the spectacular modern edifice of 1936, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, built as a pueblo.
Montecito’s first public school was built in 1858 on land given by Nemecio Dominguez. There was no money for a roof, so the school children studied that first winter with the blue sky overhead.
July 16 used to be celebrated as “Montecito Day” by the old-time Spanish residents, and was always marked by a gala fandango and fiesta at the Lorenzana adobe on Parra Grande Lane. This fete died out around 1886 due to the rapid Americanization of Montecito.
Newton M. Coats was in the vanguard of that American wave of settlers, arriving by covered wagon in 1858. He bought a farm from the Santa Barbara Common Council for 75 cents an acre. A building lot on that same land, now part of the Birnam Wood Golf Course, in 1979 costs $300,000 and up. The price of Montecito land had risen to $50 an acre by 1867 when Montecito’s “three colonels” arrived: Silas Bond, William Alston Hayne, and B. T. Dinsmore. Col. Bond established Montecito’s first large horticultural nursery on Hot Springs Road. His neighbor, Col. Hayne, a Confederate veteran, built a Southern style plantation house and laid out the first of Montecito’s famous formal gardens. Col. Dinsmore, a native of Maine, bought the historic San Ysidro Ranch from its Mexican owners and planted Montecito’s first orange grove. He also acquired the Jaurez adobe, built in 1830 at 461 San Ysidro Road, which is now called the “Hosmer Adobe” for Dinsmore’s son-in-law. Tom Hosmer who purchased the Jaurez farm in 1871. (The Hosmer Adobe, the San Ysidro Adobe, and the Massini Adobe at 29 Sheffield Drive, are the principal historic landmarks remaining from Montecito’s old Spanish days.)
When the first Americans began arriving, Montecito was still a raw frontier. Outlaws of the turbulent 1850s lurked in its bosques. California grizzly bears, now extinct, were so numerous in Montecito that as recently as 1869 a 550 bounty was offered for every beast slain inside the community. One specimen weighed over 1,000 pounds.
Among early Yankee arrivals was a silver miner from Nevada, William M. Eddy, who founded the Santa Barbara County National Bank in 1875. The following year an Englishman, Josiah Doulton, scion of the royal chinaware family, bought 20 acres on the Montecito waterfront. He named his place “Ocean View.” When hard times forced his wife to take in boarders, the place became popular with tourists and the name was changed to the Spanish “Miramar” – the forerunner of today’s far-famed Miramar Hotel and Convention Center. Its neighbor, the Biltmore Hotel, came on the scene in 1927.
The Yankee population increased steadily, leading to the establishment of a U.S. post office in the summer of 1886. An American village had taken root around the intersection of East Valley and San Ysidro Roads, where a country store was run by Percy Buell. In the fall of 1887, El Montecito Presbyterian Church was built there, following another Protestant Church, All-Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal, which had been started in 1869.
The year 1887 saw Montecito’s wooded dells echoing to the first blast of a locomotive whistle, as the Southern Pacific extended its Coast Line as far as Goleta. Montecito Station was built adjacent to the future Biltmore Hotel, giving Depot Road its name. Montecito soon lost both its railway depot and its U.S. post office to Santa Barbara, however.
The year the railroad arrived, a prominent San Francisco banker, William H. Crocker, and his mother-in-law Mrs. Caroline Sperry, bought Rancho Las Fuentes (“the fountains,” so called because of the numerous artesian wells and ponds on the ranch), south of East Valley Road. The Crocker-Sperry Ranch was devoted to citrus, and a large sandstone-block packing house was built to handle the lemon crops grown by most of Montecito’s ranchers. A huge reservoir, the size of a football field, stood until 1965 near the present gatehouse of the Birnam Wood Golf Course. The upper end of the Crocker-Sperry Ranch is still called China Flat by old-timers because of the Chinese stone masons who camped there in the 1880s. The ranch was inherited by Mrs. Sperry’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth Poniatowski, in 1906.
Two pioneer brothers, George and Fred Gould, planted olive groves along a “trail to the beach” which was named Olive Mill Road after the Goulds built a stone olive mill in 1893. The mill, “El Molino” is now the home of actress Lena Horne at 200 Olive Mill Road.
More and more wealthy people, drawn to Santa Barbara when it was in its heyday as a fashionable health resort, began establishing luxurious private estates in Montecito during the 90s. This trickle became a flood after the Potter Hotel opened in 1902, luring such ultra-rich names as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Fleischmann, Cudahy, DuPont, Swift, McCormick, Bliss and others. Many of them fell in love with the area’s incomparable scenery and climate and began developing fabulous estates in suburban Montecito, ranging in size from 30 to 200 acres. The ruling echelons of the millionaire migration were dubbed “The Hill Barons” because their palatial mansions occupied hilltops overlooking Montecito’s beautiful woodlands.
A working-class population to serve the needs of the wealthy increased in Montecito and social patterns began to emerge. The original Hispanic inhabitants kept pretty much to themselves in the shady bosques of Old Spanish Town, where they built two dance halls, a cantina, taverns, and a co-op store known as “La Cooperacion” which was destroyed in the disastrous floods of January, 1914.
The middle-class Americans built two recreation centers in Montecito Village, Montecito Hall in 1897, Montecito Home Club in 1908. A popular social center for the elite was “The Peppers” at 430 Hot Springs Road, built around 1900. Its ballroom, with a balcony to accommodate a large orchestra, was the scene of a piano recital by Paderewski, a vocal concert by Madame Schumann-Heink, and the dancing debut of Santa Barbara’s world-famous Martha Graham.
In 1915 Mrs. William Miller Graham, an active social leader, built the octagonal “Country Theatre” on lower Middle Road. Its auditorium seated 320 playgoers around a center stage, a theatrical concept far ahead of its time. Fire destroyed the theater in the early 1920s, leaving only the existing collonade of white pillars.
Sports activity in Montecito followed caste lines. Farmers, servants. chauffeurs, gardeners, tradesmen, they played sandlot baseball or croquet, being unable to afford the more aristocratic pastimes such as golf, polo, or tennis.
In 1804 the Santa Barbara Country Club was incorporated by a group headed by Judge R. B. Canfield. An 18-hole links was laid out between the highway and Channel Drive, from Santa Barbara Cemetery (founded in 1867 easterly to the present Biltmore Hotel where a clubhouse was erected. This redwood building burned down and was replaced by an elegant structure at 1070 Fairway Road. When the golf course was moved inland in 1907 to an area north of the bird Refuge, the former clubhouse was converted into a residence by Mr. and Mrs. John Percival Jefferson’s son, who called it Miraflores. A later owner deeded the mansion to the Music Academy of the West.
A new golf clubhouse was designed by Bertram C. Goodhue and built in 1915 on Summit Road. In 1922 the club changed its name to the Montecito Country Club. For many years it was privately owned by Avery Brundage, who sold it to the Japanese interests now operating the course. The club lost nearly half its membership in 1928. when Major Max C. Fleishmann and others of similar financial standing formed the Valley Club of Montecito, purchasing ranch land south at East Valley Road on either side of Sheffield Drive. It was joined in 1968 by the Birnam Wood Country Club, owned by Robert McLean, publisher of the News-Press. It occupies the former Crocker-Sperry ranch. and the original sandstone lemon packery was converted into an elegant clubhouse which has become a center of Montecito social life.
Tennis was highly favored by Montecito’s haut monde, activity centering on several courts at the Willis Knowles estate at 1675 East Valley Road, site of today’s Knowlwood Tennis Club.
Many Montecitans are unaware that a polo field once flourished along Middle Road. In 1913 William H. Bartlett bought 34 acres on Robertson Hill and built a polo grounds complete with grandstands, stables, and a luxurious mission-style clubhouse which opened in the spring of 1916. Polo became a casualty of the 1930s depression, but the clubhouse remodeled as a residence still stands at 184 Middle Road.
Montecito’s popular image involves its “millionaire estates,” which enjoyed a boom around 1920 when the area’s shady lanes were traveled by as many as 3,000 cars a day bringing tradesmen to and from mansions in progress of building. America’s foremost architects, including the likes of George Washington Smith (whose home at 240 Middle Road, the first of over 30 he built in Montecito, still stands); Francis T. Underhill, Bertram C. Goodhue and Frank Lloyd Wright were erecting English manorhouses, Normandy castles, Italian palazzos, Cape Cod Colonials and incredible marble palaces at the end of tree-lined lanes.
Even to list Montecito’s fabulous estates is obviously outside the scope of this pamphlet. In 1930 Harold C. Chase, a noted realtor, published a roster of over 200 “major” estates. Among them were McCormick’s “Riven Rock,” Hammond’s “Bonnymede,” Bothin’s “Piranhurst,” Murphy’s “Rancho Tijada” (since 1945 the campus of Westmont College), Knapp’s “Arcady” (since subdivided), Peabody’s “Solano” (later the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions), Gray’s “Graholm” (now the Brooks Institute of Photography), Mine. Chana-Walska’s “Lotusland,” Gillespie’s “El Fuerides,” Bliss’s “Casa Dorinda.” Ludington’s “Val Verde,” Clark’s “Bellosguardo” – an entire book could be written about any of these estates, and there are countless others.
The enactment of federal income tax laws in 1914, the stock market crash of 1929, the rising cost of servants, all combined to democratize the incredible saga of Montecito’s super-wealthy citizens. The era of baronial snobbery, mind-boggling opulence and Croesus-like extravagance is almost gone. Celebrities still flock to Montecito, show business stars and captains of industry and finance, but the belle epoch is gone forever, the victim of a changing economy.
Water supply problems have plagued Southern California’s semi-arid climate from earliest times, and Montecito was no exception. In 1924 it became necessary to bore Doulton Tunnel into the mountain wall. This horizontal well met Montecito’s increasing water needs until Juncal Dam was completed in 1930 at the 2,224-foot elevation of the watershed of the upper Santa Ynez River. This concrete arch structure, 160 feet high by 350 feet wide, impounded 7,050 acre feet of water in Jameson Lake. During the nearly half century that has followed, siltation and debris from run-off have reduced the lake’s capacity to 6,000 acre feet. Montecito Water District water reaches its consumers via 2.2-mile-long Doulton Tunnel and a system of pipelines terminating in ten foothill reservoirs.
Recognizing Montecito as a rustic, sylvan Eden which is unique in America, the owners of Montecito property have long waged battles with developers, who were known to move in on the edge of a big estate and start work on an objectionable house on a small lot, thus forcing the estate owner, in self defense, to pay a premium price to gain title to the offending project. In 1929 the State Legislature passed a Planning and Enabling Act to protect communities like Montecito from ruination by over-development. Montecito residents, led by John A. Jameson, John D. Wright, Dr. Rexwald Brown and Dwight Murphy, pushed for and got a county zoning ordinance, the first such in California history, enabling Montecito to restrict lot sizes to the present average of eight acres, none being below one acre. Lot splits are rigidly controlled. Wherever possible, utilities are kept under ground.
Montecito has always resisted business incursions into their residential zones. This led to a head-on confrontation with the State Division of Highways in 1927 when a widening and commercialization of the Coast Highway was proposed. John Jameson led a crusade to raise funds to buy land contiguous to the highway in order to assist the State in creating California’s first scenic parkway, using planted center dividers and landscaped edges, including frontage roads. All billboards and commercial housing were banned. The Montecito Parkway became a model for cities from coast to coast, and was the genesis of California’s freeway system. The segment between San Ysidro and Olive Mill Roads was completed by 1937. After the hiatus of World War II, the parkway was extended to Sheffield Drive in 1949, to form one of the most beautiful approaches to a city to be found anywhere.
Alarmed by the post-war population explosion which was fast eroding the esthetic beauty of Santa Barbara and the Goleta Valley, the Montecito Protective and Improvement Association was formed in 1948 to keep out sidewalks, concrete curbs and gutters, advertising signs, widening of streets and other threats to the unspoiled rural look of Montecito. The Association is considered to be one of the most powerful citizen bodies in the United States, Montecito’s “watchdog for the people.”
Montecito has always enjoyed a cordial relationship with neighboring Santa Barbara, but its citizens adamantly oppose annexation to the larger city. Montecito’s growth tripled in the 50-year period between the 3,000 inhabitants of 1928 and today’s 9,500, but it would have reached 50,000 had Santa Barbara’s erratic zoning laws been in effect. Montecito residents feel they have proved that as long as they can control their own rate of growth, they can maintain their independence as one of the most desirable – and envied – places to live in all the world.
© Copyright 1980 by Santa Barbara Board of Realtors.