The sparkling waters in our idyllic region have enticed locals to splash, dip and swim for thousands of years. In more recent times, residents used their prodigious creative talents to harness the waters in splendid settings—perfect places to cool off, reflect and feast the eyes on works of art and engineering. Here’s a run-down of some of the county’s most exquisite pools, from a 90-year-old natatorium to stunning contemporary designs.
In 1927, Albert Isham, a wealthy Midwesterner who graduated from Harvard at the top of his class, bought seven acres of land on Sand Point in Carpinteria. A fan of Moroccan style and design, Isham hired famed architect George Washington Smith—who was working on Casa del Herrero in Montecito at the time—to draw up plans for a magnificent Moorish-style estate.
A centerpiece was the natatorium building, completed in 1928. Inside and out, it resembles authentic Moorish baths, replete with domes, minarets and arches, a bowling alley, squash court, steam bath, an exercise room and a gorgeous indoor pool. Malibu Tile created intricate tiles to adorn the arched pool entrance and the rim of the pool. Other exceptional features include a retractable roof and two painted tile murals that grace the northern and southern walls.
Isham reputedly held lavish parties with Hollywood starlets and other celebrities, many who stopped over on their way to and from Hearst Castle. Isham died in 1931 at the age of 38, said to have drunk himself to death following the loss of a lady love.
The Casa Blanca pool house eventually fell into ruin, but was restored in the 1980s by Robert and Ruth Ann Montgomery. It was designated a Santa Barbara County Historical Landmark in 1990. Today the small homeowners association (seven homes) share and maintain the private building.
The elite of Hollywood’s Golden Age also drove up the highway to hobnob at the grand Biltmore Hotel, which has reigned over Butterfly Beach since 1927. About a decade later, Biltmore owner Robert Stewart Odell decided to establish a luxe, private social club across the street and right above the sand, where prominent local families and Southern California’s society leaders could gather. The glorious Coral Casino was completed in 1937. According to Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara Marketing Director Christian Gonzalez, “The name had nothing to do with gaming; it drew from the common meaning of ‘casino’ at the time: a place to amble, for example, along the beach or a boardwalk.”
According to the club’s website, its “most celebrated feature is a larger-than-Olympic-size swimming pool (50 meters + “1 foot”), which earned its irregular size during an evening of gentlemen’s poker. It is said that an argument transpired between Mr. Odell and the Olympic Commissioner of the time that resulted in the pool’s size being slightly increased so that it could never be used to host regulated events.”
Since then, a slew of celebrities have lounged at the private members-only club, including Dinah Shore, Lana Turner, Ronald Reagan, Steve Martin, Shirley Temple Black, Joan Crawford, Celeste Holm, Bing Crosby, Michael Douglas, Sigourney Weaver, Esther Williams and Jeff Bridges.
The Coral Casino underwent a $65 million renovation, completed in 2008, which restored the original theme and purpose of the club and preserved the historic elements that earned it historical landmark status.
Two beautiful pools hidden on a famous, peaceful estate in the Montecito hills date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, well before the Hollywood crowd decamped in Santa Barbara.
Back in 1882, nurseryman and horticulturalist Ralph Kinton Stevens and his wife purchased the Montecito property, later called “Cuesta Linda” and today known as Lotusland, one of the nation’s top ten botanical gardens. The Stevens’ son, Ralph Tallant Stevens, was born the same year. Young Ralph grew up on the property, earned a horticulture degree in Michigan and eventually moved back to Santa Barbara to become one of the area’s most prolific landscape designers. Starting in the late 1940s, he was thrilled to work with new estate owner Madame Ganna Walska to design marvelous pools and gardens at his childhood stomping grounds.
The origin of the lotus pond dates back to Stevens’s childhood. Around 1890, the elder Stevens planted the pond (originally meant as an irrigation reservoir) with Indian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, the very same plants that continue to blanket the pond with magnificent blossoms every summer.
The Lotusland newsletter once published an interview with Ralph’s brother, Kinton Stevens, in which he described the pond’s genesis from a child’s point of view:
“Father built an earthen dam and closed off a gap in the ravine and thus formed a large water lily pond. He depended on the next winter’s rains to fill up the area, but it actually took a few seasons to obtain enough water, as we had some very dry years about that date.
“One morning, father told us he was going to make an island in our lake. Father planted many different varieties of bamboo on the island, and, in a few years, it began to look like a good place for a cannibal to hide out. Once, our alligators got loose and lodged there until we caught them again.”
Today the lotus pond is the center of the Japanese garden and is filled with giant koi and ringed by Japanese maples, camellias, azaleas, several species of pine, bronze statues of cranes and a collection of stone lanterns.
The shell pond, an eerie crescent-shaped pool in Lotusland’s aloe garden, dates back to about 1920, when Erastus and Marie Gavit owned the property (1915–1939). Madame Walska later converted the pond into a most unusual work of art, and today the shallow white-bottomed pool is one of Lotusland’s most iconic features. Abalone shells line the border, and water cascades from giant clamshells from the Sulu Sea in Southeast Asia.
At the county’s western edge in Goleta, the elegant Spanish-Colonial Bacara Resort & Spa occupies prime bluff-top property on the ocean. Two of the resort’s three pools—both zero-edge in a terraced center courtyard—take full advantage of the direct ocean views.
The main pool can seat more than 100 guests and has a new pool bar with TVs, ping-pong tables and a sand area for kids. The adjacent pool has 26 luxury cabanas that can be rented for the day. While the first two pools are open only to registered resort guests, a third pool in the on-site spa is available to those who come for spa treatments.
Contemporary Riviera Infinity Pool
A stunning contemporary pool at a private residence in the foothills above Santa Barbara affords sweeping 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean, downtown, with the harbor to the south and the Los Padres mountains to the north. Dave Mendro of Neumann Mendro Andrulaitis Architects says, “One of our main goals for this home design was to achieve a seamless indoor-outdoor living relationship that is quintessential for our clients and their vision of the California lifestyle.
“The pool is designed specifically to be the foreground to the dramatic ocean views. It is designed with an infinity edge on the south ocean side that seamlessly blends the pool into the distant ocean horizon. The color of the pool interior plaster, a dark gray, was chosen specifically to reflect sunlight in the same way as the ocean so that the color of the pool water matches the color of the sea in all types of day-lighting.
“The north edge of the pool that is adjacent to the home has a wet edge, a pool edge detail where the water flows over the coping and is flush with the patio. Thus, the pool has no visible edge. This detail creates a very clean, minimal, dramatic mirror-edge effect.”
A spa in a corner at the west end of the pool was strategically located to take best advantage of the dramatic sunset and nighttime city views. An outdoor, trellised barbecue-kitchen area is an integral extension of the pool and maximizes outdoor living and entertaining.
A former owner’s Versace plate inspired the pool and landscape design at Terra Bella, an Italianate estate in Hope Ranch. The plate design instigated the pattern for the tiles that line the entire pool. “It’s rare for a pool to be 100% tiled,” says Margie Grace, principal at Grace Design Associates, who designed and built the landscape in 2001. “The pool is 70 feet by 40 feet, so that’s a heck of a lot of tile.”
Grace adds that her firm arranged the landscape to “draw your eye to the ocean” and followed the plate pattern in other aspects of the grounds. “The plate gave way to the pool, and the pool gave way to the pattern of swirly, scrolling parterre. The sum is this: an elegant, cohesive composition that’s bigger than the pool, all knit together.”
Santa Barbara Hillside Residence
Inspired by the owner’s travels to Morocco, RRM Design Group created this custom-designed home and outdoor space to accentuate sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the drama of the pool.
Morocco is distinguished by its Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences, as is this spectacular pool area, which includes a cabana with a half-bath, sauna room and covered patio. The Moroccan influences can be seen in the mirador (“a turret or tower attached to a building and providing an extensive view”) overlooking the pool, as well as the ceramic tile insets, columns that dip into the pool, exposed clay tiles, Moroccan lamps, carved wood trellises and corbels, and Moorish arches, says Nicole Stephens, Senior Marketing Coordinator at RRM Design Group.
“Because the home is south facing in a warm climate, the design took advantage of indoor/outdoor spaces that are oriented to views of both the pool and the Santa Barbara Harbor,” says Stephens.
This story was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.