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Casa Dorinda - Montecito's Downton Abbey
updated: Jan 12, 2013, 12:00 PM

By the Urban Hikers (Peter Hartmann & Stacey Wright)

This story is about a house. A magnificent house, in the heart of Montecito that has been many things to many people, since being built in 1919. Not only is the home remarkable, but the story that accompanies it is also quite rich and unique. We think you'll agree that Casa Dorinda's history has more than a few parallels to that fictional mansion across the pond known as Downton Abbey.

Before launching into the history of Casa Dorinda and the extraordinary (and quite generous) family that built and called it home for several decades, we'll show and tell you about its current use. But - be sure to stay turned for next week's story - Episode II - in which we fill you in on Casa Dorinda's history; it includes spectacularly wealthy residents, a staff of 40+, opulent parties, prominent guests, (including royal visitors) patriotic use during the war effort, "interfamily" marriage, intrigue, financial despair and more...

In 1975, after decades of neglect, Casa Dorinda was opened as a "life care community" for the elderly. Operating as a non-profit by the Montecito Retirement Association, it's now home to approximately 300 men and women, all of whom either live in their own apartments or cottages, live in the assisted care or memory care unit of the facility, or stay in the medical unit. To say that the property, the program, the staff and the residents of Casa Dorinda are anything short of astonishing would be a gross understatement. We got invited inside, and have a few photos to illustrate our enthusiasm for Casa Dorinda in her current incarnation.

Although we arrived at the front entrance, we'll show you the less-often seen back of the original mansion, which was designed by Carleton Winslow, the same architect who designed the S.B. Natural History Museum, The Valley Club, the L.A. Public Library (he also designed the addition to the S.B. Library in 1924), and "La Quinta", once home to actor Michael Douglas and his family.

Back to the front we go, with two photos - one showing it as it appeared when we arrived in the afternoon, and the second, as it appeared when we left after sunset...we hope we didn't wear out our welcome...but there was so much to see and hear about at this amazing property.

Walking back outside, two of Casa Dorinda's really gorgeous features are the courtyard (which saw some rip-roaring parties back in the day!) and the tower, which we ascended in the old Otis "Micro- Drive" elevator.

During one of the chapters of Casa Dorinda's history, the mansion served as the campus of the Montecito School for Girls, a day school/ boarding school. But more on that in next week's story... We did find an old photo depicting the school, and as you can see there was a swimming pool for the students' use and enjoyment. The pool was not original to the home, and has since been converted into a croquet court. Does anyone know if Downton Abbey has a croquet court?

Back inside we'll take you on a mini-tour of some of Casa Dorinda's original rooms, and show you some of the amazing details of the mansion. These photos, snapped off as we wandered the campus with Sarah, (our hostess and guide) were taken as snapshots, and therefore don't come close to doing justice to the beauty and elegance of this amazing property. But alas, they are all we have to share with you. The following three photos show the library, the main staircase, and a peek into the music room from the old dining room (now the game room).

We'll be showing you some additional architectural and design details in a bit, but wanted to highlight the detail on the door in the previous photo.

When built in 1919, the 80-room Casa Dorinda was probably the largest home in Montecito. Aside from having servants quarters for a huge staff, a two-story guesthouse and other "outbuildings" the mansion itself consisted of a kitchen, dining room, music room, morning room, bachelor's room, library, "long gallery", "his and hers" bedrooms suites (at opposite ends of the house, connected by "the avenue of delight" an indoor bridge), a courtyard, guest rooms, several sitting rooms, several powder rooms and bathrooms, numerous fireplaces, an elevator, a magnificent tower and a massive formal garden. This room, originally referred to as the "Oriental Room" is located on the first floor, and has an interesting and unique ceiling.

Legend has it that Anna Dorinda Bliss had a fascination with the zodiac, and particularly for the Chinese zodiac. The panels in the ceiling of this room features what appears to us to be the dragon and the snake, both signs within the Chinese zodiac, although at Casa Dorinda they have been referred to for many years as the sphinx and the serpent. The story goes that Mrs. Bliss commissioned the ceiling, incorporating both her own and her husband's Chinese zodiac signs into it. We verified that Mr. Bliss seems to have been born in the year of the dragon (1844), however unless Mrs. Bliss fudged about her age, she is most decidedly not a snake. Born in 1851, she would have either been a pig or a dog (we were unable to find her birth month), and since one of the UH was born under the sign of the dog, we see no shame in this...but maybe Mrs. Bliss preferred not be represented as such...

In what is now the game room, we got a peek at what had originally been the silver safe, located in the main dining room of Casa Dorinda, and is now discretely covered with a door.

And now for a few of our favorite interior details of Casa Dorinda. The first of these photos is looking into the old dining room (now the game room); the last photo shows the mantlepiece in that room, with a modification made by Homer Barnes when the property was home to the Montecito School for Girls.

Going up the main staircase, near the main entry of the mansion, are two exquisite stained glass windows, depicting historical events. The windows are original to Casa Dorinda. We found a signature on one of the panels by Henry W. Young , New York.

And although we didn't show this detail when we originally showed you the main entrance, it's just too lovely to leave out.

We found the ironwork on the property to be exquisite, and while we suspect these examples are original to the home, we can't be 100% certain some of them weren't later added.

This bit of ironwork is at the front of Casa Dorinda, and is reportedly another example of Anna Dorinda Bliss' love of astrology, the stars and the symbols of the zodiac.

For many years we've been dying to go into the tower at Casa Dorinda, a landmark we've both known and loved for many years. When we found out we'd be ascending to it in the old, original elevator we were excited beyond words. Well, one of us was anyway. The other just kept talking...

And this was the view from above, on the afternoon of our visit. Simply breathtaking!

Before we show you some of the more modern improvement at Casa Dorinda, and tell you just a bit more about the residents of the facility, we want to share a couple of photos we took in August 2011 when the goats were on the property keeping the weeds in check. The goats and their amazing protector weren't present on the day of our visit, but we were assured they'll return when the grasses need cutting in this little corner of Casa Dorinda paradise.

This is the view looking back at the main house from one of the resident's private cottages. Talk about deluxe. All we could say was WOW!

Although these elements of Casa Dorinda have been added following the Bliss' occupancy there (to accommodate the subsequent residents) we think they are lovely and definitely worth a look.

We thought this was pretty convenient, and has got to be the smallest Santa Barbara Bank and Trust Branch of all.

Casa Dorinda is an amazing place, serving the residential, social, artistic, emotional and medical needs of many of Santa Barbara's citizens. It's a "facility" that defies easy description, because despite being a residential care for the elderly it's so much more. Most of the residents at Casa Dorinda live independently and most are active in the same ways as those of us "younger folk". They live, work and play. They take classes, pursue hobbies & recreation and socialize with their peers. Our brief tour of Casa Dorinda was an unexpectedly delightful eye-opener. This is the computer lab and photo room.

This is the ceramics room, and two ceramic pieces (birdhouse and fisherman) made by Alice, a "90- something" resident who has lived at Casa Dorinda for many years. We'll show and tell you more about Alice in next week's story. She is truly an amazing woman with a truly wonderful life story.

This is the gallery outside the painting studio, showcasing some of the residents' work.

This is a shot of some of the origami currently being created in the crafts room. Once the needed number of cranes are created, they'll be used as table decorations in the main dining room for one of the special occasion events.

Casa Dorinda offers residents a variety of amazing options to enhance their lives and lifestyles. There is a jewelry making studio, several meeting rooms and a community garden. Many important decisions are made through boards and committees, most of which are made up of the residents, themselves. This photo shows the backdrop from a play, preformed at Casa Dorinda, that was written and produced by Pat Wygant, one of its residents. The play, "Hoboland" is about a "hobo" who leaves San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, and finds himself living at "Hobo Jungle", the modern-day site of the Bird Refuge. We think the backdrop (now hanging in one of the hallways) is pretty nifty.

This photo shows the community display case, which each month features the collection of one of the residents who wishes to share it with others. Being that our visit was during the holidays, the case displays a collection of snow globes, music boxes and other things Christmas. Next moth there will be a collection of just about anything you could imagine.

And we leave you with a photo of one of the resident's flowerbeds from the community garden, where the resident gardeners at Casa Dorinda plant, tend and harvest flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs, for use in their own homes as well as in the main dining room.

Our tour of Casa Dorinda was great fun and much appreciated. Thank you to Sarah for her gracious hospitality and thank you to the residents of this grand old mansion for allowing us into their home. Next week we'll go back in history and tell you more about Casa Dorinda's beginnings, the Montecito School for Girls and some of the key players in a really fun and fascinating part of Montecito's past.

As always, we encourage you to go out and explore the neighborhoods, keep your eyes, ears and minds open to all that you encounter, and above all expect the unexpected.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 SBSURFERLIFE agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 12:20 PM

Beautiful, great job!!


 COMMENT 362826 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 12:41 PM

Really great work, thank you so much for putting the time and effort into this. I've always wondered about Casa Dorinda, and now my questions have been answered.


 COMMENT 362830 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 01:10 PM

Julia Child has spent her last years at Casa Dorinda


 COMMENT 362831 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 01:13 PM

A lovely place to spend ones Golden Years if one has the gold to afford it. Thanks for the tour.


 COMMENT 362850P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 03:05 PM

the most epic retirement home ever!


 ROGER DODGER agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 05:01 PM

It used to be a pink building years before it became what it is now Belinda used to run all over the grounds and play. She lived in a mansion up there when she was a kid. I think it was on Buena Vista and it was designed by a notable figure. Hey do you have some grey poop on?


 COMMENT 362891P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 05:02 PM

Hard to believe now, but it was a pretty big battle to get it approved. If you look at articles from the time, many people opposed 'developing' it in this way and the conversation went on for a long time before final approval was granted. Good for perspective!


 COMMENT 362904P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 05:31 PM

Thank you! I've wondered what was there. Google maps shows the road from Hot Springs to San Ysidro as though it is a public access way. Do you know if that's so?


 COMMENT 362918 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 06:11 PM

Thank you for a great tour of a great property. I can't wait for "Episode 2". I have heard many rumors about Casa Dorinda in the old days and it sounds like I need to know more!


 COMMENT 362943P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 07:10 PM

Interesting read and photographs. Thank you for the information. Have been told that if you're not a member of the right "clique" one can feel quite ostracized, kind of like junior high school. That would sad. Nice looking place, though somehow it seems lacking in freshness.


 COMMENT 362956 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-12 08:08 PM

Thank you! Very enjoyable to read, and like others I have been curious. I had no idea of the history about it. I look forward to your next segment :)


 COMMENT 362973P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 07:11 AM

Wow. Now that's a retirement community I could get behind. Fab photos. Sign me up!! (But wait, what's the cost........?)


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 07:24 AM

Wonderful job, UHs! I have friends living there and always love to visit, especially for a meal, food is fabulous. Wandering through the main house is like stepping back in time; love the Downton Abbey comparison (a favorite show of ours). I swam in the pool you pictured (1950s) and often rode in the large riding arena, close by the pool; when the Casa was the Montecito School for Girls the Barnes' let the SB Co. Riding Club hold gymcanas there. Looking forward to your next installment. Keep up the good work.


 COMMENT 362985 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 08:02 AM

I had the privilege to live there in 1963 when Westmont rented it for girls dormitories. We all loved the place. One of our favorite things was to go into the full basement which was truly enormous. It was very scary down there, which of course made it all the more fun! We move from there to what was called Emerson Hall on Ashley Road, another great estate, but not nearly as large as Casa Dorinda. Wonderful memories!


 COMMENT 362992 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 08:35 AM

Thank you for this interesting and informative pictorial essay--many of the shots are really good, some with difficult light conditions.


 COMMENT 362993 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 08:38 AM

Wonderful! Beautiful photos and love it that you catch all the amazing little details.


 COMMENT 362998 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 08:57 AM

Stacey/Peter - Birthday update - Mrs. Bliss was born June 11, 1851, Mr. Bliss on October 27, 1844.


 COMMENT 363004 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 09:11 AM

I still have family there. We all think the Casa is like a giant Clue game board. The croquet lawn was a bowling green for a long time. "La Casita" (not photographed), a scale model of the main building, was constructed by some of the original residents and is now maintained by a committee; it has tiny bats hanging in the tower belfry. Hope the UHers get a look at it someday.
If anyone has a tape of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin putting on a spoofy cooking demonstration for the residents, I'd like a copy, please!


 SBANDTO agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 09:15 AM

Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing and for taking the wonderful photos, too. It looks like a spectacular property and I am glad that it is being used for such a worthwhile cause. It is nice to know that places exist such as this for seniors.


 COMMENT 363017 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 09:50 AM

Thanks Neal. That makes Mrs. Bliss a pig in the Chinese Zodiac. A metal pig to be precise.


 COMMENT 363057 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 12:57 PM

What an excellent job! I look forward to the next installment. Would it be possible for you to do a similar tour of Casa de Maria on El Bosque Road with its history as an Immaculate Heart Novitiate and later retreat house? Some of the architecture at Casa Dorinda reminds me of that at the original Casa de Maria buildings.


 COMMENT 363070 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 02:06 PM

the architecture reminds me a little of La Casa de Maria (not far from Casa Dorinda) ... though I'm sure they were designed by different people ... must have been THE Santa Barbara style back in the day.


 COMMENT 363137P agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-13 08:11 PM

any idea of the cost of residence here?


 COMMENT 363225 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 09:14 AM

Thank you for such a wonderful piece! We enjoyed having you both here at Casa Dorinda. Can't wait for part 2!


 COMMENT 363273 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 10:31 AM

UH here - @057 and GRANNYFRANNY - The estate on El Bosque that later became La Casa de Maria was designed by James and Mary Osborn Craig. They are the same architects who designed the Campbell Ranch out at Coal Oil Point (as well as parts of the El Paseo). We wrote a story about the Campbell mansion last year, with a bit of info about the Craigs. You can read the story here on Edhat - under the Urban Hike tab on the main page. We agree - it would be great to tour that property and write a story about what's now Casa de Maria and its marvelous history.


 COMMENT 363277 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 10:36 AM

I believe that not only is it exceedingly expensive, but the waiting list was, at one time at least, over 4 years. A long time for the elderly to wait.


 COMMENT 363493 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 06:36 PM

So weird, I was just talking about Casa Dorinda today, come home and find this fabulous article & pictures.

Back in the early 70's, my boyfriend & I met someone that was doing security at Casa Dorinda, right before it was turned into a retirement place. He worked the midnight shift and told us there was stories about the place being haunted. He invited us out there while he was working, which we happily accepted. (and, I'm sure he appreciated the company!!). We walked inside and outside of the Estate. It was very cool. And, many headstones for the womans pets that she buried in the yard.
There was stories about the unexplained smell of perfume around the stairwell in the main entrance, which wasn't present all the time, and hearing unexplained "noises" inside the house.


 COMMENT 363495 agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 06:39 PM

I heard that Julia Child was the only resident that was allowed to remodel the kitchen!!!

She came into our workplace one night, when she accidently dropped her airline tickets into a postal mailbox and when we found the tickets, called her, she personally came out to the Postal Facility, when it was on Fairview, and picked them up herself and took a little tour of the facility. She was soooo nice and said "hello" to everyone. What a treat that was!!!


 MACSCIDOR agree helpful negative off topic

2013-01-14 08:04 PM

363137P _Just go to their website. All prices are listed_as well as the square footage of the different units_along with the specific floor plans. (When you click to a new page, always check the horizontal color bar near the top that shows new pertinent topics. It's all there. Nicely done.)


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