A historic home anchors 12 new hilltop residences, each with views to forever.
By James Badham
The big house on the hill already had a good story line—immigrants fleeing Hitler’s rise, transitional architecture, a tiki bar and even a bit part in an odd incident of artillery fire aimed at Goleta from a Japanese submarine during World War II. But it took Santa Barbara developer Jeff Nelson to add the next chapter to the house by imagining it as the centerpiece of a small subdivision modeled after the hilltop towns of Europe.
When Nelson first saw the five-acre property on Patterson Avenue just north of the 101 Freeway, he saw an unmaintained avocado grove below an overgrown promontory perhaps seventy feet tall topped by a barely visible structure. That turned out to be a 7,000-square-foot house.
The three-story nine-bedroom house was built in 1936 by then-famous local architectural firm Edwards and Plunkett, which also designed Arlington Theatre, among many projects. The commission came from Joseph and Catherine Rochlitzer, who fled Austria with their two sons as Adolf Hitler rose to power. Catherine, an American, had visited Santa Barbara while studying chemistry at Stanford University and had always wanted to return, so the family landed here.
The house was designed at a time when the Spanish Colonial or Spanish Revival style, that had been adopted in Santa Barbara following the earthquake in 1925, started to feel the push of modernism. The result is that The Knoll is neither Spanish nor modern, appearing watered down by embodying a bit of both.
The white stucco walls and beams extending through the exterior walls reflect a Spanish sensibility, while the large, flat picture windows allow plentiful light into the house, but appear out of place next to those protruding beams. The house has nine bedrooms, including his-and-hers master suites, a secret office behind a rotating wall where Rochlitzer kept his law books (for fear of arising suspicion of him as a foreign attorney during war time), servant’s quarters, a banquet staging room, separate linen room and a large living room that seems small for the house.
The home was sold in 1951 to the Balcolm family, whose great contribution to the house was to pick up on the just-emerging trend established by Trader Vics and Don the Beachcomber restaurants. They transformed a patio on the western end of the house into a tiki bar with a South Pacific theme, complete with bamboo work, walls hand-painted with palms and hula girls, and views extending up the Gaviota coast.
During World War II, the Rochlitzers, like others who had a view of the coast, were recruited by the war department to scan the coast for military threats. The family called in the short burst of shelling that landed in Ellwood, which they could see from their promontory. The shelling was so ineffective that many have wondered if it had more to do with settling a social score than with any kind of military offensive. One story, on Wikipedia, runs that before the war, the captain of the submarine that fired the shots had passed through Santa Barbara Channel on a merchant vessel. While visiting the oil fields that covered Ellwood at the time, he fell backward onto a cactus, causing some oil workers to laugh. The shelling of Ellwood by that same captain may have been a payback for loss of face.
So there it was, a stately house of a certain vintage, loaded with history and falling into disrepair. Then Nelson purchased it in 2005. While he is trained as a lawyer, he also possesses a strong creative streak. Working as an attorney for developers early in his career, he often had ideas that he thought would make the projects he worked on better. So he became a developer himself, one who seeks inspiration from the site itself. Strolling past the long-neglected avocado trees studding the slopes that surround the mansion, he was reminded of hilltop villages in Spain, Italy and France.
“The topography here has more in common with the Santa Barbara Riviera than with the rest of Goleta,” Nelson says. “Hilltop villages always start with the prominent house on top—the grand manor house—which is later surrounded by subordinate structures.”
Having discovered his concept, Nelson moved forward with permitting. But then came the recession, and the development that eventually would be called “The Knoll” was put on hold, along with several other of Nelson’s projects. But he weathered that economic storm, and the 12 homes were completed last summer—each with white plaster walls, tile and wrought iron details, and tall decorative chimney caps in the Spanish style.
“The excitement for me is to be able to be able to work around a Plunkett home, to work the site and be able to take in the incredible views from it. When we started, you couldn’t even see the existing home up there. It was an amazing discovery, actually. I never knew there was a Plunkett home there,” says Gorrell, a longtime local architect who, along with his partners at LMA (a leading Santa Barbara architectural firm since 1975), has continued with the Edwards & Plunkett tradition of working on many prestigious projects in the region—both residential and commercial—including Ralphs Fresh Fare Market on Carrillo Street in downtown Santa Barbara, Gelson’s Market at Loreto Plaza, Sansum Clinic (interiors), Boys & Girls Club, Pelican Hill Golf Clubhouse in Irvine, many high-end residences and several mixed use projects, among others.
A circular drive leads through the development, up and around The Knoll, providing a series of shifting perspectives of the main house above, which enjoys 360-degree views unlike those anywhere else in the area. The complementary designs of the two firms—”different but similar,” says Nelson—are pleasantly intermingled as the handsome three-and four-bedroom homes are laid out in circular fashion around and below the main house. Some face the mountains, others look toward Gaviota and several have expansive views south to the Channel Islands. A single affordable-income unit in the development will be rented at a rate well below market.
Another near-circle of refrigerator-and television-sized boulders transported from one of Nelson’s other projects, “The Boulders,” on San Antonio Creek, were used to create a kind of retaining wall around the hill. The motif is echoed in the stone gate structure by the entrance to the property.
The homes feature rounded doorways and open floor plans in which dining rooms and living rooms blend together. Following the slope, they also offer downstairs great rooms and en-suite bedrooms, wine cellars and large walk-in closets. A couple of the residences have space for elevators.
“There’s lots of light and airiness to the open plans,” says Gorrell.
Nelson was looking for something to provide a visual separation between the community and Patterson Avenue. When he heard about an olive farm in Porterville, CA, whose owner was about to cut down a grove of 80-year-old trees that were no longer producing, Nelson arranged to purchase some of them. He then had the trees pulled out and transplanted to The Knoll, where they provide a perfect privacy screen, one that won’t drop olives on the sidewalk.
The story of the house on the hill continues, with one final chapter to be written, revealing the future of the main house. What we know is that it will be sold to the highest bidder and, in all likelihood, updated to create a truly one-of-a-kind residence.
This story was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.