Rabid Horticulturists Wanted
by Billy Goodnick
Please indulge me this week. I usually try to bring you either some hot tips about great plants you should try out in your garden, or I rant about some bone-headed planting shenanigans I find particularly offensive. But I just came home from making a recommendation to the Park and Recreation that drives another nail into the recovery of Franceschi Park.
Franceschi Park - fifteen acres of public open space just east of the El Encanto Hotel. For locals, it's where you take out-of-town guests to show off the million-dollar view of Santa Barbara and see the Channel Islands rise from the Pacific. If you're a power walker, it's about the rustic paths that offer a three hundred and twenty foot elevation ascent. For some high school kids it's the destination of choice for a bit of lunch hour inhalation therapy.
And for local horticulturists it's a formerly glorious botanical paradise that has inexorably fallen on hard, dry times.
I rarely fantasize about having a time machine, but when I read descriptions of Dr. Francesco Franceschi's plantings and the continuing work of people like Peter Reidel, Will Beittel,
Ralph Stevens and the Santa Barbara County Horticulture Society, I can't help but wish I could have walked the pathways.
Franceschi Park is part of a complex tale, starting with Dr. Franceschi (formerly Emanuele O. Fenzi, of Florence, Italy) moving to Santa Barbara in 1894 to field-test hundreds of plants from the world's Mediterranean climate regions. He cultivated hundreds of new selections, introducing many of the plants we have around our homes today.. His wife, Cristina, purchased forty acres on what's now known as the Riviera, where they built a two-story redwood Craftsman-style home.
The good doctor's writings tell of the glorious arboretum and botanical garden he intended to create. Long story short, he moved to Libya in 1913 while some of his family stayed behind, and in the mid-1920s a gentleman from New Jersey by the name of Alden Freeman, bought the property. He radically remodeled the house into the Italianate, eclectic structure we see today and eventually convinced the city of Santa Barbara to accept the house and grounds as a public park.
That's the first instance when a time machine would have come in handy. Knowing what I know today, I might have warned the 1931 city council how Prop. 13, recessions and budget cuts would eventually dampen the inspiration of earlier years. How unauthorized late-night parting and uncaring visitors would bring vandalism, litter and house break-ins.
The house was condemned in the 60s and there were serious discussions about tearing the place down, but Pearl Chase convinced the City to throw a few bucks at it and make it habitable.
By the 80s the roof was leaking, floors were buckling and roots from a nearby Moreton Bay fig tree were coming up through the sink drains.
The 90s brought another discussion of razing the house, but this time the Pearl Chase Society, rode to the rescue with an ambitious plan to raise a bunch of money, rehab the house so that the city could use it as an event space for weddings, small meetings, interpretive displays and a library regarding Dr. F's work.
When the idea of saving the house was floated again, there were a whole lot of people left scratching their heads. Some neighbors of the NIMBY persuasion painted a picture of loud music, belching busses and traffic jams. Others argued that Dr. Franceschi and his property are all about the plants, and besides, the house was a bit goofy for their tastes.
A master plan was developed to address many of the concerns; from the number of times the house could be used per month, to the prohibition of rice being thrown at weddings (bad for birds), to how many parking spaces would be set aside for drop-in visits. The master plan called for a new accessible restroom, vista points along the paths, and an ambitious restoration of much of Dr. Franceschi's horticultural vision. The Pearl Chase Society's house rehabilitation plans could be considered ambitious, but respectful of the history of the Freeman-period improvements, while modernizing the utilities and providing access via an elevator between floors.
The P&R Commission appointed an advisory committee to assure that the master plan would be implemented with meaningful input from the community. The five-member committee was populated by a representative of the Pearl Chase Society, another from the Riviera Association, one horticulturist, one neighbor and an "at large" member.
Well, tonight the Franceschi Park Advisory Committee was indefinitely laid off. It's a shame. The committee members were dedicated, enthusiastic, imaginative citizen volunteers committed to turning Franceschi Park and house into a valuable community assets. But with no new funding on the horizon for physical improvements, and no imminent progress anticipated to rehab the house, there's really not much reason for their quarterly meetings.
Even in the best of fiscal times, it was hard to argue for millions of dollars of public money being poured into the master plan when down in the flatlands playgrounds need fixing, teens long for a constructive place to hang out and beach access stairs are crumbling. The FPAC sought a few grants, but nothing came of it. A neighbor started a foundation to raise money for the park, but so far, nada.
Santa Barbarans often boast about their beautiful parks. ‘Alice' is the jewel in the crown, but if you stop and look, there's a lot of work to be done to get it firing on all eight cylinders again. I keep waiting for a few letters to the editor, or an irate bunch of park lovers to show up at City Council or the P&R Commission to rise in defense of our hundred year-plus legacy of parks. They were once the envy of the west coast.
What Franceschi Park and the rest of the park system really needs is a cadre of fanatical park lovers to muster their forces and arrest the entropic freefall. In my fantasy, it would look something like that scene at the end of the Frankenstein movie when all the peasants descend on the castle with crude pitchforks and torches. Okay, no torches, but how about some serious grimacing?
Problem is there ain't any rabid horticulturists to be found in these here parts and I don't know where they'll come from. Though I hear that the new Obama administration is lifting the restraints on embryonic stem cell research, so maybe a mad scientist will jigger the DNA of a few gardeners, cross them with pit bulls and instill a little attitude in them.
Don't get me wrong - I know Santa Barbara is doing the best it can with what it has, and there are a lot more important things (like running water and level sidewalks) that take precedence. It just kills me to know what it might be like in a perfect world.
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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
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