Full Circle: The Story of El Mirasol

April 1853. Vitus Wackenreuder completed his drawing of Salisbury Haley’s survey, and the city of Santa Barbara was officially gridded into square blocks. The fledgling City Council declared 16 of these blocks public plazas with the largest being the Garden de Alameda which covered the six blocks bordered by Garden, Victoria, Anacapa and Arellaga streets.

By 1898, four of the Garden de Alameda blocks had been sold, of which only one remained vacant, though not for long. In 1904, Mary Miles Herter, the widow of Christian Augustus Ludwig Herter of the famous New York design firm, Herter Brothers, purchased the vacant block. She commissioned the newly formed New York architectural firm of Delano and Aldrich to design her a bungalow. Delano and Aldrich was destined to become one of the most prominent architectural firms in the East with a client list that defined the Gilded Age. The U-shaped house the company designed for Mary Herter was an eclectic mix of Spanish Revival, Italianate and Romanesque, and was no “bungalow.”

An Exclusive Hotel

In 1909, Mary’s artist son, Albert Herter, and his artist wife, Adele McGinnis Herter, arrived in Santa Barbara to help Mary decorate her house. They were well-suited for the job having just opened Herter Looms in New York, a continuation, of sorts, of the family business that had closed in 1906. When Mary died in 1913, she bequeathed her home to Albert, who decided it was too grand to be a residence. He and Adele renovated the home into an exclusive hotel by adding extensions to the wings, building 15 bungalows, planting exquisite gardens and lavishing the interior with unique artistry.

El Mirasol advertised itself as the hotel of choice for those “who dislike the publicity, the noise and promiscuity of a large hotel…. There will be no band, no ill-mannered and indifferent bell boys, no obligatory tipping at every turn to insure attention.” Instead, the brochure stated, one will find a pervasive spirit of quiet cordiality and cheerfulness.

Guests arrived by train, often in private railcars and accompanied by personal maids. Met by a special attendant and private car, they were chauffeured to the seclusion of the hotel where Chinese houseboys would serve them in blue silk mandarin coats by day and bright orange jackets in the evening. Hospitable service was the rule with one and a half to two servants per guest.

The main house was furnished with Herter Brothers’ crafted furniture, Tiffany lamps designed by Albert Herter, and wall coverings created by both Adele and Albert. The drawing room, known as the Cactus Room, caused Frank Lloyd Wright to exclaim, “Madam, that is the most beautiful wall covering in the world!” Adele had papered the walls with gold leaf and silver foil taken from Chinese tea packages. Upon this background, she had painted exquisite scenes of cacti. In the smaller dining room, the Peacock Room, Adele and Albert used bright orange and blue, causing one observer to remark, “How few would have had such courage in the use of color, yet how marvelous the result now it is done.”

An arcaded patio bordered the courtyard whose center boasted a fountain and pool of imported tile. The vine-covered cottages were commodious. Guests had their choice of a five-room, three-bath cottage or a four-room, two-bath cottage, both with fireplaces and roomy closets. Each room had a private entrance and each bungalow had a covered veranda. The grounds were praised for their skillful design, which created an impression of absolute unity dominated by the blue and orange theme of the hotel.

In its heyday, El Mirasol’s amenities almost paled in comparison to the glitter of its clientele, a veritable “Who’s Who” of the Gilded Age. Among those who resided there for a month or two each year were the J.P. Morgans, the Vanderbilts, the Crockers, the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, the Armours and, in later years, the Joseph P. Kennedys, Admiral Richard Bird, Charles Lindbergh and Carey Grant.

Reaching for the Sky

Albert and Adele sold El Mirasol to Frederick C. Clift, an hotelier from San Francisco, in 1920. The next several decades were hard on America and hard on the elegant hotel. The Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the dawn of Vietnam War protests left the once beautiful hotel feeling a bit ragged. In 1963, when Morgan Flagg owned the hotel, the 50-year old “dame” needed extensive maintenance and renovation.

By this time, the hotel had become primarily a retirement-residence hotel and most of the guests were quite elderly. In fact, the hotel had acquired a nickname, “God’s Waiting Room.” Several Montecito estate owners, among them Mrs. Henry Bothin of Piranhurst, spent their last days in El Mirasol’s bungalows where daily maid service and meals cost $35 a week.

In 1965, Morgan Flagg traded the hotel, valued at $850,000, to Jacob Seldowitz in exchange for Seldowitz’s ranch, Rancho Costa Linda. In December 1966, two consecutive fires destroyed the entire attic of the west wing of the house. Hoping to have El Mirasol spring phoenix-like from the ashes, Seldowitz proposed a new El Mirasol, a nine-story “low-rise” complex with underground parking for 400 cars, a restaurant, lounge and auditorium/performing arts center.

Thus began a typical Santa Barbara-style controversy as opponents and supporters of the plan marshaled their resources. Letters flew to the editor. Surveys were conducted and petitions signed. Seldowitz requested an R-4 zoning; he was denied. He appealed to City Council but had filed too late. As opposition became more and more vituperative, Seldowitz claimed anti-Semitism, apparently never realizing that a nine-story block-sized complex might be antithetical to his craftsman cottage neighbors. In the end, he picked up his marbles and left town.

The property was acquired by a group of 28 Santa Barbara civic and business leaders who formed El Mirasol Investment Company. They proposed an 11-story condominium complex. A citizen’s committee, with Pearl Chase as leader, organized to fight the granting of a height variance by the Planning Commission. The company altered its plans to two nine-story towers. Soon the League of Women’s Voters joined the fray and neighborhood groups formed and added their voices. El Mirasol Investment Company denounced those against the project as a vocal minority that did not represent Santa Barbara.

City Planning turned down the height variance but was overruled by the City Council. The case eventually ended up in court. On July 10, 1969, Superior Court Judge Harold Underwood of Trinity County, who had been brought in to hear the case, ruled that “the variance granted does complete violence to the comprehensive general plan.” He ordered City Council to rescind the order of variance. El Mirasol Investment Company dissolved.

A Vocal Majority

The battle was won but not the war. Exhausted by the three-year battle, Pearl Chase and the opposition to high-rises nevertheless realized that this battle would be fought again and again unless the decision was taken out of the hands of the political system. They initiated an amendment campaign to limit the height of buildings and achieved success in the November 7, 1972 election. The vocal minority had the majority; 24,499 to 8,048.

Section 1507 of the City Charter reads, “It is hereby declared the policy of the City that high buildings are inimical to the basic residential and historical character of the City.” Building heights are specified as follows: 30 feet in areas zoned for single and two-family dwellings; 45 feet for three or more families, hotels, motels, and offices; 60 feet in areas zoned for industrial, manufacturing and commercial uses; and 30 feet for all other zones.

As for El Mirasol, the bulldozers razed the elegant buildings, and over the next few years various plans for the vacant block came to naught. At one time the Santa Barbara Museum of Art acquired the land and planned to build a new museum there. The lot did a stint as a community garden, and then in December 1975, the City received an early Christmas present. An anonymous donor had purchased the site and given it to the city for a park. Today, Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens fulfills the vision of the original city planners, and out of the ashes of El Mirasol comes a policy that, when adhered to, fulfills the vision of those who fought to protect the unique character of Santa Barbara.

(Source: “El Mirasol: From Elegant Swan to Ominous Albatross,” by Hattie Beresford. Noticias Spring 2001.)