My Santa Barbara: Chasing Pearl

Posted on Sep 23 by SEASONS Magazine

Cheri Rae, author of the new book Pearl Chase: First Lady of Santa Barbara (Olympus Press) shares some vintage pearls about Ms. Chase.

Santa Barbara is acknowledged as a gem of a city in a near- perfect setting; how fitting that it was cultured and polished by a woman named Pearl. Pearl Chase was a wonder of a woman who prodded, persuaded and persistently promoted Santa Barbara in the manner of a natural irritant at the center of a real jewel.

She is the first historical figure I learned about when I moved to Santa Barbara, and she remains the most shining example of a civic activist more powerful and influential than any politician could ever be.

It was 125 years ago—November 16, 1888—when Pearl Chase was born in Boston to well-to-do parents Hezekiah and Nina Dempsey Chase. At the time, Santa Barbara was a dusty little place on the California Coast, about as far from Boston as could be. But a few years later, the family—seeking a better climate to improve Hezekiah’s health—moved west and took up residence in Santa Barbara.

Young Pearl Chase attended Santa Barbara High School (class of 1904), where she distinguished herself as a fine student with organizational ability and plenty of drive—attributes that would serve her throughout her long and productive life.

The classic photograph of her with the SBHS girls’ basketball team speaks volumes. The game that had been invented just a few years earlier was barely played by women, yet there she was at the center of it all, holding the ball above her head. She was the team’s talented organizer, coach and star player.

It was a role she would often play.

A typical Scorpio, she embodied the sign’s traits of determination, strength of character, independence and a powerful drive to succeed. She invited other women who shared her astrological sign to join the Scorpio Club that she founded, with the expectation that they engage in good works in the community and embrace her mission: “Work and Serve.”

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Pearl was strong, determined and blessed with equal parts leadership, vision and persuasion, frequently using the tool of “righteous indignation” to get things done. Throughout her nearly 91 years, she stood apart. This woman transformed a town that once made her gasp with embarrassment. As she described it, “I remember alighting from the train at the old Victoria Street Station, coming home for the holidays [in 1907], and how ashamed I was of Santa Barbara’s shabby buildings, dusty streets and lack of landscaping. Then and there I resolved to dedicate myself to making Santa Barbara a more beautiful place to live in.”

Thanks in large part to her visionary leadership, Santa Barbara has turned into a special place that makes visitors gasp in amazement.

She has inspired generations to follow her example of civic involvement, but none have quite measured up to the standard she set. Her masterpiece is the transformation of downtown Santa Barbara: the preservation of the old in El Pueblo Viejo; the creation of the new in the Santa Barbara County Courthouse; and the founding of organizations to continue her work, including Trust for Historic Preservation. Pearl Chase Society even took on her name.

During times of controversy, like the recent fight over height limits, her name is invoked by preservationists and progressives alike—and everyone in town seems to have an answer to the question: “What would Pearl Chase do?” We cannot know without looking back to see what she did.

The story of her public life, her work and the city she shaped reveal what Pearl Chase accomplished to make Santa Barbara Santa Barbara. One hundred and twenty-five years after her birth is a good time to appreciate the First Lady of Santa Barbara, who cherished our multifaceted and treasured town.

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine. Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Historical Museum.





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