by Walker A. Tompkins
Samarkand meant “the land of heart’s desire” in the archaic Persian tongue. It identified the fabulous Asian city where a Mythical Queen Scheherazade spent her 1001 Arabian nights. In Santa Barbara, the melodic oriental name was first-applied in 1920 to a deluxe Persian style hotel, formerly a boy’s school.
As the dominating landmark of a hilly elevated neighborhood. The Samarkand gave its name to an area bounded on the east by Oak Park, on the north by Hollister Avenue (now De la Vina Street), on the west by a ranch boundary fence centered on modern Las Positas road, and on the south by the old Coast Highway and the railroad.
During the 19th Century the Samarkand Hills were open cattle range. By 1910 they were co-owned by Harry A. Hollister, son of the famous pioneer Col. W. W. Hollister, and rancher A. C. Greenwell. The area was first subdivided in 1920 as the Casa Loma Tract. Many of its street names carry a Hollister flavor: Peregrina, Alegria, San Onofre and Santa Anita Roads were named for arroyos on the old Hollister (Nuestra Senora del Refugio) Ranch west of Gaviota; Stanley Drive memorializes Hollister’s youngest son, one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Tallant Road commemorates Ed Tallant, long-time manager of the Hollister Estate Company. Clinton Terrace was named for Clinton B. Hale, Hollister’s son-in-law. The road entering from the south, Treasure Drive, reportedly got its name from a legend of two highway robbers burying a saddlebag full of gold alongside that road. They killed each other in a saloon brawl in Ventura before they could return and divide their loot, which presumably is still there awaiting a finder.
The Casa Loma, or Hill House Tract got its name from the first private dwelling to go up on the Samarkand Hills, at 3030 Samarkand Drive. It was the home of Earle Ovington, noted as the first unofficial air mail pilot in the United States, who came to Santa Barbara in 1919 and established the Casa Loma Air Field with a 1,500 foot runway roughly paralleling today’s McCaw Avenue overlooking Loreto Plaza. Although the “airport” offered no lights, hangars, repair or loading facilities, just a mowed hayfield and a windsock flying atop a small barn where Ovington kept his own aircraft – the Casa Loma was Santa Barbara’s only government-listed air strip at the time, and attracted such aviation celebrities as Charles Lindbergh (flying a replica, not his original Spirit of St. Louis), Jimmy Doolittle the future Tokyo raider, Amelia Earhart, Hap Arnold, and others.
The pioneer landing strip can be approximately located today as the eleventh fairway of the Community Golf Course.
The modern history of the Samarkand neighborhood dates from 1915 when Dr. Prynce Hopkins, headmaster of a private boys’ school known as “Boyland” on Mission Ridge Road, purchased the 32-acre tract bounded by Las Positas Road, Hollister Avenue, Oak Park and Tallant Road. At what is now 2663 Tallant Road, Dr. Hopkins erected his new and elaborate Boyland II, a two-story main building with two wings housing dormitories and class rooms, nine stables which now serve as garages, and formal gardens with a Persian motif which rivaled, on a small scale, the famous gardens of Rome, Paris and Vienna. The garden terraces with their exotic plantings led down to an artificial lake of one and a half acres, in the form of a 200 by 400 foot ellipse enclosed by a 1,000 foot cinder racetrack. The lake was unique in that it had a sculptured relief map of the world, with the million-gallon, 28-inch-deep pond representing the oceans. There were miniscule snow-covered mountain ranges, rivers with running water, and tiny volcanoes which, on occasion, fumed real smoke.Unfortunately, Boyland II was hexed from the start. Its opening in 1916 coincided with America’s approach to World War I. Hopkins was one of the country’s most vocal pacifists, at a time in American history when pacifism was equated with disloyalty. While never accusing Dr. Hopkins of being pro-German, the government felt Dr. Tompkins was impeding its military recruitment program. He was jailed and fined $20,000 for his anti-war activities his school closed in 1918 when Dr. Hopkins went into self-imposed exile abroad. His mother, Mrs. Mary Hopkins, had the complex remodeled into “a small, ultra-exclusive hotel catering to the elite clientele from the East” who wintered in sunny Santa Barbara.
The former boys’ school was re-christened “The Samarkand Persian Hotel”. The entrance road (today’s Samarkand Drive) off Hollister Avenue (De la Vina Street) was flanked by a double row of large blue concrete vases. Spilling over with flower blossoms, these-vases were a Santa Barbara conversation piece for years until they had to be removed when Samarkand Drive was widened and paved as part of the city’s permanent street network.
The splendor and opulence of the Samarkand Hotel Is still marveled at by old-timers as something that had to be seen to be appreciated. The dormitory villas and classrooms were converted into posh hotel suites. The Persian gardens were enlarged and replanted on a lavish scale. One casualty of the new order was the removal of the world relief map from the oval lake. What had been a major asset for teaching boys geography was not deemed appropriate for a deluxe tourist caravansary. A colonnade eighty white concrete pillars formed parentheses bracketing the reflection pool stocked with gold fish and surrounded by a rose pergola.
The interior of the Samarkand was redecorated in Persian style with red, brown, gold and orange colors predominating. The oriental motif was carried out in murals and oil paintings in the foyer, lobby, dining room, lounge, library and other public rooms. One of its muralists was the world-famous Albert Herter.
The grand opening of the Samarkand Persian Hotel came on New Year’s Eve 1920 a soiree that ranks as one of the most luxurious in Santa Barbara’s high society annals. Among the entertainers that night were Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, America’s premier dancing team of the period. Next day’s newspaper accounts of the gala event said “Miss St. Denis’ Hindu dances captivated the audience, but the Samarkand captivated the dancers.”
From the very first, patronage at the Samarkand Hotel failed to yield a profit. Santa Barbara boasted two other high-class hotels, the Ambassador (formerly the Potter), which burned down in 1921, and the New Arlington, which was razed after the 1925 earthquake. But even with this competition removed, the Samarkand continued to lose money, partially because it was somewhat hard to find. Although it escaped earthquake damage, the Samarkand suffered along with Santa Barbara in general from a boycott by vacationers who were nervous about visiting a locality which had suffered such a terrible disaster.
The Samarkand managed to survive, thanks to its administrator, Charles B. Hervey. Known as the “Caliph of the Samarkand”, Hervey wore a satin turban, brocaded jacket silk bloomers and curl-toed Arabian slippers. His bus boys, waitresses, cigarette girls and other staff members also affected turbans and oriental raiment. But the charm and managerial genius of this charismatic Boniface suffered two mortal blows in quick succession – the debut of the Santa Barbara Biltmore Hotel in 1928, which siphoned away the monied visitors, and the stock market crash of 1929 which reduced the Samarkand’s guest list to such low levels that those remaining were transferred across town to comparable lodgings in the El Mirasol Hotel.
The depression decade of the 1930’s saw the Samarkand alternately opening and closing. The formal gardens withered from neglect, the stately buildings fell into disrepair. Finally, in December of 1937, the once-glorious multi-million-dollar Samarkand was put on the market for a paltry $55,000 including the 32-acre grounds.
The only bidder and new owner was Alma Spreckles, a San Francisco socialite and patron of the arts who was the millionaire widow of a sugar tycoon. Mrs. Spreckles poured more than $215,000 into refurbishing the Samarkand, including a heated swimming pool which replaced the elliptical fish pond. She loaded the hotel itself with a fortune in personal objects d’art, including gorgeous Flemish tapestries and bales of rare oriental rugs from her own collection.
While this ambitious face-lifting was under way, Mrs. Spreckles took time out to marry Elmer Awl, one of Santa Barbara’s well-known citizens. She placed Awl in charge of the Samarkand, but the out-of-the-way hostelry could not compete with the more accessible Santa Barbara Biltmore.
Mrs. Awl recalled that Santa Barbara was known as a watering spa during the `70s, `80s and `90s, and that the world-famous sulphur springs had been capped over when the old Potter Hotel had been built over them. Her attention was called to a surface showing of sulphur water on the banks of Mission Creek in Oak Park, just down the hill from the Samarkand, and on her property. Why not help Santa Barbara regain its former reputation among the wealthy as the “in” place to take the waters?
To the secret dismay of her neighbors, Mrs. Awl brought in drilling crews who spudded in a well in an attempt to tap the source of the sulfur seep in Oak Park. At 400 feet the boring was abandoned, after tapping plenty of malodorous fumes, making the neighborhood smell like rotten eggs, but no sulfur water. To the relief of everyone concerned, the mineral spa idea was junked.
Discouraged by lack of business and high overhead costs, Mrs. Awl at last recognized the fact that her beloved Samarkand was a white elephant and should be disposed of. Since no hotel man would buy or rent it, she decided to give it away, as a tax write-off.
At a formal banquet in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on the night of January 11, 1940, Mrs. Awl created a sensation by offering a deed to the Samarkand Hotel and surrounding property to the Santa Barbara chapter of the March of Dimes, in the hope that her hotel could become a national rehabilitation center for polio victims. But alas, the national headquarters of the March of Dimes rejected the gift, reportedly after pressure from President F.D. Roosevelt, who wanted Warm Springs, Georgia to become the world’s polio treatment center.
Her altruism rebuffed, Mrs. Awl next offered the Samarkand white elephant to the Regents of the University of California for use as a women’s dormitory, then assessed at $600,000. The Regents declined the gift with regret, explaining that it was against University policy to locate a dormitory off its Santa Barbara campus. So Mrs. Awl returned to the Samarkand for the last time, removed all her personal treasures, and on September 13, 1940, swapped her Santa Barbara palace for a dairy farm in Mann County worth only $80,000.
The new owner, Leonard W. David, had no intention of reopening the Samarkand. His interest was in the unused portions of the 32 acre grounds, which he promptly sold off at a nice profit, including eight acres of town lots between Treasure Drive and the new Las Positas Road. He also sold a parcel known as the “Hippodrome” southwest of Westview Hall. To wind up his speculatory activities, on the last day of the year, by coincidence the twentieth anniversary of the Samarkand’s grand opening, David sold the Samarkand Hotel and 16 acres of land to a resort owner from Lake Tahoe, one D. H. Chambers, for $60,000. Chambers, ignoring the past history of the hotel, had great plans for the Samarkand – but the old jinx of history struck again.
Close on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. Marine Corps activated a fliers’ training base at Goleta. Needing billets for hundreds of officers and trainees, the military requisitioned all the available hotel space in Santa Barbara for the duration – including the Biltmore, the Miramar and the Samarkand.
Next door to the Samarkand, World War II made another major impact – the building of a large military hospital on “Hoff Heights,” the mesa where Earl Ovington had his airport runway, and the flatlands below which are now occupied by MacKenzie Park.
Hoff General Hospital consisted of more than 100 temporary buildings, a commissary, mess halls, linen supply depot, surgical and medical wards, and personnel barracks, supporting a 1,300-bed hospital facility. Its 46 acre had a network of more than a mile of covered sidewalks, three miles of utility lines, and a mile of gas piping. During the four years of its operation, Hoff treated more than 27,500 military patients.
Deactivated in 1946, Hoff’s substandard wards and barracks were moved to places like Pilgrim Terrace and Turnpike Road to give a few years’ service in relieving Santa Barbara’s severe postwar housing shortage. The last of the war surplus hospital buildings were bulldozed in 1960 to make way for MacKenzie Park.
Few traces remain of Hoff General Hospital. The chapel was moved to San Roque Church to serve as a parish house. The hospital administration building now houses the Army Reserve Center at 3227 State Street. The hospital’s water supply tank still stands on Las Positas Road near the entrance to McCaw Avenue. Although owned by the city water department, it is no longer in service. A concrete wall at the base of the hill overlooking MacKenzie Park was part of a never-completed therapeutic swimming tank under construction at war’s end.
The Marine officers who occupied the Samarkand during the war gave the hotel what neighbors called a shameful “beating,” but Mr. Chambers’ damage claims were promptly paid by a special federal agency set up to handle similar matters. The Samarkand never regained the high caliber of prewar years, however. Resident historian Michael H. Schnapp wrote, “During wartime, the principal interest had turned to the sale of beverages at the bar. There the owner, Mr. Chambers, often appeared as the generous host, and in his declining years, was his own best customer. Within this environment the Samarkand was reputed to have assumed the proportions of a hideaway, where in order to avoid interference from law-enforcement agencies, special precautions were taken to conceal such deviations.”
This notoriety gave a rather unsavory denouement to the Samarkand saga, which ended in 1950 when Chambers died. Three years later his estate sold the entire complex for $275,000 to a Shanghai merchant named J. M. Kantzler. His attempts to make the hotel show a profit ended, as usual, in failure. Kantzler recouped some of his investment by selling off more land, mostly along the edges of Oak Park, thereby trimming the Samarkand property to half its 1920 area. Meanwhile the roundabout neighborhood was fast filling up with houses. Twelve per cent date before 1940; 80 per cent were built before 1959. By 1978 the Samarkand area was near full development.
Across Las Positas Road to the west, the old Parks ranch was split up into the Community Golf Course, Earl Warren Showgrounds, and the campus of Adams Elementary School. Probably the most elegant home on the Samarkand Hills was that of Dr. William David Sansum at 2800 Tallant Road, a short distance from his world-famous Sansum Clinic next door to the Cottage Hospital.
On December 15, 1955, Kantzler conveyed title to the hotel and 16 acres of grounds for a reported $500,000 to a corporation known as the Samarkand of Santa Barbara Inc., who at long last brought the facility to its true destiny – that of a health care center. There were 150 residents at the Samarkand on June 29, 1966, when the retirement facility was purchased by the Evangelical Covenant Church of America. During the first decade of its new ownership as a life Care facility, the Samarkand thrived. It doubled its occupancy and made extensive capital improvements, including the convalescent center and resident health center at 2566 Treasure Drive.
The Samarkand neighborhood could point with pride to one of America’s most beautiful and prestigious retirement centers in its midst, but the asset was not without its price. For half a century the hotel had been the neighborhood’s principal tax payer. Now, because it was owned by a church organization, it was legally exempt, and the Samarkand was withdrawn from Santa Barbara’s tax rolls.
The Samarkand District Improvement Association, one of the most active in the city, reports that as of 1974, the last available census, there were 630 dwelling units on 184 acres of land (not counting the Samarkand residents) for a population density of less than 11 persons per acre, one of the lowest in Southern California.
“If Samarkand means the land of heart’s desire,” states an Association spokesman, “the name certainly fits our neighborhood, since three out of four of us have achieved America’s fondest dream – ownership of our own single-family home.”
© Copyright 1980 by Santa Barbara Board of Realtors.