In the spring of 1769, while Spanish soldiers were busy erecting a Royal Presidio on the site of Santa Barbara, their spiritual leader, Padre Junipero Serra OFM, was scouting for a place to put his tenth California mission. He selected a spot in Montecito’s beautiful East Valley, where an Indian trail snaked up a canyon. That trail is known today as Hot Springs Road. But Father Serra’s plan never materialized due to his death a short time later and Santa Barbara Mission was constructed four miles west, thus depriving Montecito of what would have been an historical landmark of the first magnitude.
Montecito was founded by some of Santa Barbara’s “first families,” and many of their descendants still live on land owned by their forebears nearly 200 years ago. The matriarch of one such family, Dona Marcellina Feliz de Dominguez, planted a grapevine slip near her adobe at what is now 850 Parra Grande Lane.
In 1862 Wilbur Curtiss filed a homestead claim on the Hot Springs and thus became Montecito’s first American settler. He built the first of four wooden hotels at the springs, the last Montecito Hot Springs Resort hotel was lost in the Coyote Fire of 1964. Still privately owned, the springs remain today an important water source, although no longer exploited for their therapeutic value.
Among early Yankee arrivals was a silver miner from Nevada, William M. Eddy, who founded the Santa Barbara County National Bank in 1875. The following year an Englishman, Josiah Doulton, scion of the royal chinaware family, bought 20 acres on the Montecito waterfront. He named his place “Ocean View.” When hard times forced his wife to take in boarders, the place became popular with tourists and the name was changed to the Spanish “Miramar” – the forerunner of today’s far-famed Miramar Hotel and Convention Center. Its neighbor, the Biltmore Hotel, came on the scene in 1927.
The year 1887 saw Montecito’s wooded dells echoing to the first blast of a locomotive whistle, as the Southern Pacific extended its Coast Line as far as Goleta. Montecito Station was built adjacent to the future Biltmore Hotel, giving Depot Road its name. Montecito soon lost both its railway depot and its U.S. post office to Santa Barbara, however.
The year the railroad arrived, a prominent San Francisco banker, William H. Crocker, and his mother-in-law Mrs. Caroline Sperry, bought Rancho Las Fuentes, south of East Valley Road. The Crocker-Sperry Ranch was devoted to citrus, and a large sandstone-block packing house was built to handle the lemon crops grown by most of Montecito’s ranchers. A huge reservoir, the size of a football field, stood until 1965 near the present gatehouse of the Birnam Wood Golf Course. The upper end of the Crocker-Sperry Ranch is still called China Flat by old-timers because of the Chinese stone masons who camped there in the 1880s. The ranch was inherited by Mrs. Sperry’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth Poniatowski, in 1906.
Two pioneer brothers, George and Fred Gould, planted olive groves along a “trail to the beach” which was named Olive Mill Road after the Goulds built a stone olive mill in 1893. The mill, “El Molino” is now the home of actress Lena Horne at 200 Olive Mill Road.
More and more wealthy people began establishing luxurious private estates in Montecito during the 90s. This trickle became a flood after the Potter Hotel opened in 1902, luring such ultra-rich names as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Fleischmann, Cudahy, DuPont, Swift, McCormick, Bliss and others.
In 1804 the Santa Barbara Country Club was incorporated by a group headed by Judge R. B. Canfield. An 18-hole links was laid out between the highway and Channel Drive, from Santa Barbara Cemetery (founded in 1867 easterly to the present Biltmore Hotel where a clubhouse was erected. This redwood building burned down and was replaced by an elegant structure at 1070 Fairway Road. When the golf course was moved inland in 1907 to an area north of the bird Refuge, the former clubhouse was converted into a residence by Mr. and Mrs. John Percival Jefferson’s son, who called it Miraflores. A later owner deeded the mansion to the Music Academy of the West.
A new golf clubhouse was designed by Bertram C. Goodhue and built in 1915 on Summit Road. In 1922 the club changed its name to the Montecito Country Club. For many years it was privately owned by Avery Brundage, who sold it to the Japanese interests now operating the course. The club lost nearly half its membership in 1928 when Major Max C. Fleishmann and others of similar financial standing formed the Valley Club of Montecito, purchasing ranch land south at East Valley Road on either side of Sheffield Drive. It was joined in 1968 by the Birnam Wood Country Club. It occupies the former Crocker-Sperry ranch. and the original sandstone lemon packery was converted into an elegant clubhouse which has become a center of Montecito social life.
Many Montecitans are unaware that a polo field once flourished along Middle Road. In 1913 William H. Bartlett bought 34 acres on Robertson Hill and built a polo grounds complete with grandstands, stables, and a luxurious mission-style clubhouse which opened in the spring of 1916. Polo became a casualty of the 1930s depression, but the clubhouse remodeled as a residence still stands at 184 Middle Road.
Montecito’s popular image involves its “millionaire estates,” which enjoyed a boom around 1920 when the area’s shady lanes were traveled by as many as 3,000 cars a day bringing tradesmen to and from mansions in progress of building. America’s foremost architects, including the likes of George Washington Smith (whose home at 240 Middle Road, the first of over 30 he built in Montecito, still stands); Francis T. Underhill, Bertram C. Goodhue and Frank Lloyd Wright were erecting English manorhouses, Normandy castles, Italian palazzos, Cape Cod Colonials and incredible marble palaces at the end of tree-lined lanes.
Recognizing Montecito as a rustic, sylvan Eden which is unique in America, the owners of Montecito property have long waged battles with developers, who were known to move in on the edge of a big estate and start work on an objectionable house on a small lot, thus forcing the estate owner, in self defense, to pay a premium price to gain title to the offending project. In 1929 the State Legislature passed a Planning and Enabling Act to protect communities like Montecito from ruination by over-development. Montecito residents, led by John A. Jameson, John D. Wright, Dr. Rexwald Brown and Dwight Murphy, pushed for and got a county zoning ordinance, the first such in California history, enabling Montecito to restrict lot sizes to the present average of eight acres, none being below one acre. Lot splits are rigidly controlled. Wherever possible, utilities are kept under ground.
Alarmed by the post-war population explosion which was fast eroding the esthetic beauty of Santa Barbara and the Goleta Valley, the Montecito Protective and Improvement Association was formed in 1948 to keep out sidewalks, concrete curbs and gutters, advertising signs, widening of streets and other threats to the unspoiled rural look of Montecito. The Association is considered to be one of the most powerful citizen bodies in the United States, Montecito’s “watchdog for the people.”
Montecito has always enjoyed a cordial relationship with neighboring Santa Barbara, but its citizens adamantly oppose annexation to the larger city. Montecito’s growth tripled in the 50-year period between the 3,000 inhabitants of 1928 and today’s 9,500, but it would have reached 50,000 had Santa Barbara’s erratic zoning laws been in effect. Montecito residents feel they have proved that as long as they can control their own rate of growth, they can maintain their independence as one of the most desirable – and envied – places to live in all the world.
By Walker A. Tompkins
Montecito’s semi-rural feel continues to be a big draw for individuals and families looking for privacy. No sidewalks, no streetlights, and typically large lots give a private and woodsy feel to the neighborhoods; this unincorporated portion of Santa Barbara County is held to a carefully constructed community plan, which limits urban growth and holds developers to strict set of standards.
The upper village has recently seen a surge in new businesses, mainly within San Ysidro Village, located behind the pharmacy. A handful of tastefully appointed cottages, each unique in its architecture and finishes, house upscale clothing stores, as well as antique stores, a bank, a florist, and more.
On Coast Village Road, which is parallel to Highway 101, a mixed-use building being constructed should be finished by year’s end. It will feature a few upscale condos as well as retail space, and a café. It neighbors lots of mom-and-pop shops along the district, as well as clothing stores, art galleries, wine shops, salons, office buildings, and apartment buildings. Closer to the Santa Barbara side of the road, Montecito Country Mart has been designed to be a one-stop-shop for residents, filled with an ice cream shop, a barber, drycleaner, juice bar, post office (Read N Post), grocery store, sandwich shop, bakery (Xanadu), a toy store, and more. On Sunday mornings, you’ll find bicyclists gathered on the expansive patio sipping coffee before their morning ride.
On the other side of the freeway, you’ll find access to some of California’s most stunning beaches, including Butterfly (flanked by the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort), Hammons, and Miramar which will be home once again to the long closed Miramar resort,.
The residential areas near the beach are an eclectic mix of homes occupied by young surfers, retirees who spend their days on the sand, and mid-age professionals.
There are currently about 120 properties on the market in Montecito, with the median home price of $4,095,000 but in a community like Montecito, the median home price can be skewed with just one or two large estates. Like many areas, Montecito can be broken down into submarkets, two of which include the gated communities of Birnam Wood and Ennisbrook.
Montecito typically sees a surge in home sales during the summer, when families migrate there to send their kids to either of the excellent public schools, Cold Spring School and Montecito Union. The area is also home to exemplary private schools, including Laguna Blanca and Crane Country Day School, as well as Westmont College.
If an ocean view is just not enough, and you want to be living at the beach, check out the homes on Hill Road. There you will find charming beach cottages and zen retreats all just steps from the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel and the beach.
Montecito is home to many great schools, providing elementary, undergraduate, and graduate studies. Cold Spring School and Montecito Union provide education for young students, as well as Laguna Blanca Lower School and the Crane Country Day School. Westmont College,Pacifica Graduate Institute, and Brooks Institute also reside in Montecito, offering opportunities for further learning.
For out-of-towners looking to stay in Montecito, The Four Seasons Biltmore and Coral Casino at Butterfly Beach offer world-class lodging, dining and spa opportunities. For a more out-of-the-way experience, the San Ysidro Ranch offers upscale guest cottages in the Montecito foothills. The Montecito Country Club gives golfers a challenging course with stunning ocean and mountain views. Of course, Montecito’s natural beauty stands on its own, as evidenced by its local beaches, hiking trails, and hot springs.