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Urban Hike: Samarkand - It’s all About the History
updated: Apr 16, 2011, 9:45 AM

By Stacey Wright and Peter Hartmann

What do a long colorful history, a hotel that just couldn't make it, lawn bowling, beautiful family homes, old folks, a multi-purpose park, English poetry, and the US Postal Service's first air mail pilot have in common? Samarkand.

The intrepid urban hikers, a middle-aged couple on a quest to walk all 256 miles of the streets within the city limits of Santa Barbara, once again hit the streets. This week, we report on our adventure through marvelous Samarkand.

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Samarkand is one of those neighborhoods that virtually everybody in Santa Barbara knows about. Either you live or have lived in Samarkand at some point, or you have a friend or family member who has called Samarkand home. Or, if none of these apply, perhaps you are an avid lawn bowler...or maybe it's just that you know about the shortcuts that get you from the North side to Oak Park/Cottage Hospital in no time at all. In any event, we Urban Hikers have known about Samarkand for a long time. But it wasn't until we walked the streets of this neighborhood that we really learned the secrets of this wonderful neighborhood.

After experiencing firsthand the incredible serenity and beauty of Samarkand (over a number of hikes), we dug into the history books and found a whole lot of interesting information about Samarkand. Lots of the history revolves around the Persian-style hotel that tried and tried to become a landmark, but just couldn't. Ultimately, what had been one of Santa Barbara's earlier grand hotels morphed into a modern retirement community, and a 1920's residential housing development.

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The depth of Samarkand's charm and beauty is impossible to appreciate without knowledge of its modern history. And so, the Urban Hikers will embark on a little historical journey to put things into perspective...The story begins in 1915, when Dr. Prynce Hopkins, the headmaster of a private boys' school in Mission Canyon, bought 32 acres of cattle grazing land with the vision of creating a second school he called, "Boyland II". The school, located next to Oak Park, and bounded by what is now Las Positas, State Street and Tallant Road, was a spectacular school with dormitories, nine stables and a racetrack, tennis courts, formal gardens, and an elaborate artificial lake with a sculpted relief map of the world. All designed and outfitted in the style of Persian royalty.

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Boyland was short lived. Dr. Prynce was fined $20,000 and jailed for suspected pro-German sentiments at the start of World War I (he was reportedly nothing more than a true pacifist), and in 1918, he exiled to Europe. His mother, Mary Hopkins, attempting to capitalize on tourism from the East Coast, remolded the school into a posh hotel she named, "The Samarkand Persian Hotel", after the town where the mythical 1001 Arabian nights had occurred. The hotel opened with a grand gala on New Year's Eve 1920; the guest list and descriptions of exotic entertainers were published the following day in the newspaper, and documented the splendor of both the occasion and the hotel. Sadly, through a series of economic and political misfortunes, the hotel ultimately failed to live up to Mary Hopkins' expectations, and by 1937, it was sold to the widow of a sugar tycoon for a mere $55,000.

The sugar tycoon's widow, Alma Spreckles, had visions of resurrection, and set about to breathe new life into the once magnificent hotel. Thinking she could capitalize on the public's obsession with medicinal hot springs and spas, she ordered a well drilled at the creek in what is now Oak Park. Hoping to find a healing sulfur spring, all she managed to do was drill to 400', and create the stench of rotten eggs in the neighborhood. Giving up on her dream, Mrs. Spreckles attempted to donate the hotel and its accompanying 32 acres, first to the March of Dimes, and then to the Regents of UC California, Santa Barbara. Both concerns passed on the offer, and in 1940, Mrs. Spreckles ultimately decided to trade the property for a dairy farm in Marin County, which was reportedly valued at $80,000. We found a 1940's photo of the terrace at the hotel.

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The buyer of the property immediately set about developing a housing tract, and sold off the hotel with 16 acres to D.H. Chambers, a resort owner from Lake Tahoe. But just as things were beginning to look up for the Samarkand Hotel and Mr. Chambers, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor put a snag in the plans. The U.S. Military requisitioned all hotel space in Santa Barbara, and the hotel became temporary housing for the Marines during the war years. According to historical accounts, the young Marines trashed the hotel and its grounds. Mr. Chambers, depressed and withdrawn, died in 1950 without realizing his dream of reviving the grand old hotel. In 1953, his heirs sold the property to "a Shanghai merchant" for $275,000. The buyer quickly sold the hotel and 16 acres to Samarkand of Santa Barbara for a half a million dollars, for the creation of a retirement community. In 1966, the Evangelical Covenant Church purchased the property, and what had been a major source of tax revenue, was no longer. Today, the blue vases that once graced Boyland II and The Samarkand Persian Hotel remain throughout the property, and the defunct tennis court dating back to the boys' school can be seen off Tallant Rd. There is also a chapel on site for use by the residents of the facility.

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Arguably to many, Samarkand's most historic figure is Earle Ovington, the first official US Postal Service airmail pilot. In 1911, following the lead of Britain, Italy and France, the US felt compelled to institute airmail, and Mr. Ovington was sworn to "defend the Constitution and protect the mail". After moving to Santa Barbara in about 1919, he made his home at 3030 Samarkand Dr. We walked past the house and couldn't help but notice a predominant mailbox, as well as a tile plaque that is visible on the right side of the building. The verse, written by English poet, Henry Kirke White, was published in 1803 in Clifton Grove: A Sketch. According to Wikipedia, White died in 1806 at the tender age of 21 from "the strain of continuous study"…and the kids nowadays complain about too much homework! We loved this little verse about contentment, and think it fits perfectly into this bucolic little neighborhood.

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Also n 1919, Earle Ovington established Santa Barbara's first airfield, which was located very near to his family home. He called both the airfield and his home Casa Loma. The airfield had little more than a 1,500' airstrip and hangar, but it managed to attract visitors such as Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle. After serving as an airport, the property (and part of what is now MacKenzie Park) became "Hoff Heights" the home of Hoff General Hospital, a 1300-bed military medical facility. After World War II, when the hospital was deactivated and the airport was moved to Goleta, the buildings were relocated to various places around Santa Barbara. For example, the one-time aircraft hangar became the Santa Cruz Market in Goleta, and the old hospital administration building became the Army Reserve Center now located at 3227 State Street. Even though McCaw Ave. is not technically in Samarkand, we took a photo of the location that Casa Loma's airstrip once occupied, and we can't help sharing it with you. The strip ran parallel to what is now McCaw Ave., and is now a part of the Municipal Golf Course.

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We want to tell you one last tale about Samarkand, and them we promise to stop with the history lesson...it's just that we find it to be oh-so-fascinating...Did you ever wonder how Treasure Drive got its name? Legend has it that before the turn of the century, two roadside bandits made off with a heist of gold and other treasures. In the course of stashing their loot, they buried it in the area that is now Treasure Drive. Before returning to collect their ill-gotten treasure, the bandits got drunk in a tavern and killed each other...and so the buried treasure waits. We took a photo on Treasure Drive where we suspect the goods are still awaiting discovery..

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Aside from a rich history, Samarkand is quintessentially Santa Barbara beautiful. The views are stunning, the architecture is rich and varied, the pride of ownership is profoundly obvious, and the wholesome neighborhoods make it ideal for families and children. These Urban Hikers can't say enough positive things about Samarkand, so we'll show you a few random pictures taken during our hikes and let you form your own opinions about this wonderful area of town.

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Last, but not least, we want to tell you about two outstanding places to recreate in Samarkand: MacKenzie Lawn Bowling Club and MacKenzie Park. These public spaces are unique, wonderful havens that have served the residents of Santa Barbara with grace and style, and are just plain wonderful in our opinions.

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So as always, we encourage you to go out and meet your neighbors, see first hand the pride they take in their homes and neighborhoods, keep your eyes, ears and minds open to all that you encounter, and above all, expect the unexpected.

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

 COMMENT 164456 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-16 10:52 AM

What a wonderful job you did on this article. How many of us would have ever known the rich history of Samarkand if you hadn't done all this excellent research! Thank you so much for your informative and enriching historical presentations, I am loving every one of them!


 COMMENT 164472 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-16 11:45 AM

I LOVE these Urban Hiker "articles" and especially the history and pictures. I've found it difficult to locate books on SB's history (I've read most) and love your ability to fill in little voids. Very, very interesting, keep up the good work!


 CHERIDIANE agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-16 04:59 PM

Love the history lesson and the pictures! Before your writing here I only knew bits of this history. How great to have all this historical fun in one article. Keep on telling us about our beautiful city.


 COMMENT 164571 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-17 08:18 AM

Some other interesting historical tidbits about the Samarkand neighborhoold are: The Samarkand area was originally owned and farmed by Dixie Thompson; Stanley Drive was named for Stanley Hollister of the Goleta Hollister family; several doctors who were founders of the Sansum Clinic built their houses in Samarkand. One is a wonderful Tutor (1920's?) house on Samarkand Drive (past Stanley Dr. going towards State St - on the left). Another is on a private drive off of Tallant Road across from the Samarkand retirement home and the falling-apart tennis court -- a very early 1900's house -- built before most of the Samarkand area was divided up and built on in the 1920's. Wish I knew more! --- A 40 year Samarkand resident


 RONNIEB agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-17 09:34 AM

After WWII when Samarkand was being developed we lived briefly in homes my parents bought on spec. on La Serena and Las Positas. They also owned a vacant lot across from the Samarkand Hotel. Dad grew corn, strawberries, etc. there. Gophers were a constant problem. I can still see Dad, shovel in hand, waiting for a gopher to stick its head out of a hole after he had put a gas bomb in the other hole and closed it with dirt. He caught quite a few! When I was about seven I used to fly kites in the field where the golf course is now. It was full of gopher holes. Gophers owned that entire area. Once when I was in second grade at San Roque School our St. Bernard "Tiny" followed me to school. The nuns were not pleased! I had to walk Tiny all the way back home on Las Positas, then of course back to school again. Thanks for the memories, Urban Hikers!


 COMMENT 164585 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-17 09:44 AM

Thankyou so much for these articles, I am expanding my delight for this beautiful town I call home.


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-17 10:18 AM

Thank you, I've heard bits of the school, hotel, etc not all together. We lived in the 300 blk of Samarkand in the 60s. Great place for raising little kids. Also, underground utilities so unobstructed views.


 COMMENT 164701 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-04-17 07:12 PM

Now this is my kind of hiking.


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