Historic Montecito Estates

Posted on Sep 1 by SEASONS Magazine

By Nancy Ransohoff

Montecito, with its mild Mediterranean climate and aah-inspiring ocean and mountain views, has long been a magnet for the well to do. Winding tree-shaded hillside lanes are dotted with stylish and elegant residences, many of which are estates built at the turn of the last century by wealthy midwesterners and easterners.

Some of these mansions were thoughtfully and carefully reinvented to serve a public purpose. Here are three such estates that share their unique beauty and history with the community and visitors (or will in the future) in different ways. Although the homes’ interiors are not all on public view, we give you a glimpse behind leafy hedges, stucco walls and wrought-iron gates at a trio of grande dames with fascinating stories to tell.

Lotusland

Madame Ganna Walska at Lotusland, courtesy Lotusland.

Lotusland is known as a 37-acre botanical nirvana tucked into the Montecito foothills. But sitting gracefully among the rare cycads, cacti, palms and lotuses is the 8,800-square-foot home once owned by Madame Ganna Walska. The well-known Polish opera singer and socialite purchased the estate in 1941 and spent the next 43 years of her life designing the unusual display gardens that eventually became Lotusland. Today, the Mediterranean-style home hums with activity, as its stately bedrooms and common rooms are used for Lotusland’s administrative offices and special events. (Advance tour reservations are required to visit Lotusland; the house is not part of the tour.)

The Spanish-influenced house was originally designed by noted Los Angeles-based architect Reginald Johnson for the Erastus Palmer Gavit family, who came to Montecito to flee the eastern winters. Gavit purchased the estate, previously owned by noted horticulturalist Ralph Kinton Stevens, demolished the existing house and renamed the estate Cuesta Linda, Spanish for “pretty hill.”

Rose Thomas, research associate at Lotusland, notes that Johnson’s design, which was completed in 1920, “reflects the hallmarks of his work: consideration for the past, love of beauty and dedication to the principles of sound composition and proportion.” These characteristics are also on view in Johnson’s other works in the area, including the 1937 Santa Barbara main post office and the 1926 Biltmore Hotel.

During the 1920s, the Gavits hired renowned Santa Barbara architect George Washington Smith to make some additions and alterations to the estate in his signature Spanish-Colonial Revival style. Smith’s designs include the distinctive pink perimeter wall and the water garden’s bathhouse. Cuesta Linda’s reputation as one of the finer estates in Montecito grew so far and wide that when Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover made a 1928 campaign stop in Santa Barbara, it was one of the four estates he visited.

In 1939, the estate was sold to British diplomat Humphrey Clarke, who made alterations to the interior of the house, including squaring off several arched doorways. When Madame Walska bought the estate for $40,000 in 1941, she made no changes to the house, but occupied it in her own colorful way. She lived in the house for a time, but later preferred to reside in the adjacent George Washington Smith-designed pavilion, using its Moorish-style patio as an outdoor living room. She housed many of her possessions, including an extensive Tibetan art collection, and dedicated a room for her beloved cockatiels in the main residence.

Casa del Herrero

A contemporary photo of Casa Del Hererro by Matt Walla, courtesy Casa del Herrero.

One of George Washington Smith’s best-known houses is Casa del Herrero (house of the blacksmith), ensconced behind a white stucco wall among oaks and palm trees on East Valley Road. The 11-acre estate, with its historic house museum and impeccable gardens, is open to the public for tours by advance reservation.

Built for the wealthy George Fox Steedman family of St. Louis, the villa is one of the finest examples of Spanish-Colonial Revival architecture in America. It’s included on the National Register of Historic Places and maintains National Historic Landmark status in part due to its Moorish-style gardens created by Ralph Stevens, Lockwood de Forest and Francis T. Underhill.

Steedman, an industrialist, engineer and architecture aficionado, participated in every detail of the property’s buildings, furnishings and gardens, working closely with George Washington Smith on the design of the house. On June 29, 1925—the day of the Santa Barbara earthquake—the Steedmans moved into their new home. It survived unscathed. In the 1930s, Steedman hired noted architect Lutah Maria Riggs (a colleague of George Washington Smith) to design an octagonal library addition to celebrate his and wife Carrie’s 30th wedding anniversary.

Carrie continued to live at the estate after George died in 1940. When Carrie died in 1962, their daughter Medora Bass lived at the casa until her death in 1987. Medora’s son created the foundation that now operates the estate in 1993.

A tour of the respectfully preserved house is a vivid glimpse into the Steedmans’ lives and Montecito life in the 1920s and 1930s. The casa is furnished just as they left it; the dining room table is set for dinner with fine crystal and china, and patio chairs designed by Steedman await weary garden strollers. “It’s as if the family just packed their suitcases and stepped out,” says docent Carolyn Williams.

Highlights include dazzling Mediterranean tile work and a treasure trove of 15th- and 16th-century fine and decorative art objects, including many religious pieces from Spain. The house of the blacksmith tour ends appropriately in Steedman’s well-equipped workshop, where he practiced metalworking and silversmithing.

Bellosguardo

Aerial view of Bellosguardo, courtesy Bellosguardo/Clark Estate.

Also known as the Clark estate, Bellosguardo has been shrouded in coastal fog and mystery for six decades. Most folks whizzing past on Cabrillo Boulevard or playing volleyball on nearby East Beach are unaware of the spectacular 23-acre property that sits high above them on an oceanfront bluff, hidden by trees.

The estate was the grand summer home of the late reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. Huguette was the youngest child of Senator William Andrews Clark, a copper king of Montana, a railroad builder, one of the founders of Las Vegas and one of the wealthiest men of the Gilded Age. The Clarks bought the property in 1923, but Senator Clark didn’t have much time to enjoy it—he died just over a year later. The house was damaged in the 1925 earthquake, and Huguette’s mother, Anna, began the process of building a new, opulent mansion in 1933.

Designed by Reginald Johnson in an 18th-century French style with Georgian influences, the 21,666-square-foot Bellosguardo is a sturdy structure. Authors Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., in their book Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, note that, “Anna wanted something more quakeproof—a home built of reinforced concrete and sheathed in granite…” She also apparently wanted something large—there are 27 rooms in the main house, including six bedrooms for the family and three small bedrooms for servants.

Huguette Clark inherited Bellosguardo from her mother in 1963 and Huguette died in 2011, just shy of her 105th birthday. Although she is believed to have last visited in about 1953, Huguette arranged for the estate to be carefully maintained over the decades by a devoted staff. In her will, Huguette left the home to a new foundation to foster the arts. Bellosguardo Foundation now has a 19-member board of directors, but the property is still owned by the estate. The community has its fingers crossed, as Bellosguardo Foundation is awaiting word from the New York public administrator, the estate’s executor, on a final estate settlement. Stay tuned for this grande dame’s next act.

Related Montecito Lifestyle Then & Now Stories:

Montecito Lifestyle Then & Now

Ranchito Bendito

Glorious Gardens

Modern Marvel

Historic Montecito Estates

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.

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