Time Travel Rocks - A Visit to Casa del Herrero
by Billy Goodnick
I finally got my time machine working. Since I wasn't sure how well it would perform on its maiden voyage, I set my sights low. Circa 1925 AD should keep me out of trouble, but I figured I'd better phone ahead (or behind?) to make sure there'd be someone to greet me. Molly said she'd be my guide.
So I jumped into my ?94 silver Toyota Camry LE, set my GPS for central Montecito and the next thing I knew, I was at Casa del Herrero. As my conveyance rolled to a stop just inside the gates, I checked my vital signs. So far, so good - time travel rocks!
A visit to Casa del Herrero (House of the Blacksmith) truly is a voyage back in time. Though conceived and built in the 1920s as a winter home for George Fox Steedman-a wealthy St. Louis industrialist-and his family, the Casa's architecture, garden and furnishings, reach back centuries into southern Europe's Moorish-influenced history.
Perhaps it's my landscape architect's bias, but Casa y Jardín del Herrero would be a more apt name for this eleven-acre estate, tucked into a gently rolling framework of coast live oaks along East Valley Road. The estate is as much about the surrounding gardens as it is about the understated, elegant architecture and interior furnishing.
Montecito's Latest Claim To Fame
You don't find yourself listed as a National Historic Landmark by skimming through a do-it-yourself home design web site, loading up your Dodge Ram at Home Depot, grabbing a few horticulture students from Santa Barbara City College and throwing your back out of wack for a few weekends.
Steedman and his wife, Carrie, had the will and the means to do it right. Steedman began by engaging Santa Barbara's most celebrated architect, George Washington Smith, the point man in our area's now-signature Spanish Colonial Revival look. He rounded out the team with three brilliant landscape architects: Ralph K. Stevens, Lockwood de Forest, Jr. and Francis T. Underhill. Mix in the richness of antiques scouted and purchased on Steedman's European shopping excursions with Arthur and Mildred Byne-who were also scouting antiques for William Randolph Heast's castle just up the coast-and you will understand the reason behind the January 2009 historic designation. In the case of the Casa, it exemplifies not only an outstanding example of design and construction, but also a place that characterizes a way of life.
Strolling the Grounds
Late in the afternoon on this sunny, breezy fall day, I powered down my trusty Camry and met Molly Barker, executive director of the Casa, in her simple, sunlit office. Molly-a medicinal chemist in a former life-worked her way up from "weekend waterer" to Director of Education at Filoli Gardens, another famous country estate in the Bay Area. "It was a meteoric 18-year rise," she laughed. Though she's been in her position at the Casa for only a few years, Molly proved to be a wealth of knowledge, giving me an historic perspective regarding the golden years of American gardens.
Much to my delight she offered a tour of the grounds. I couldn't have asked for a more charming and knowledgable guide.
Grounds for Enchantment
Now, at this point I intended to regale you with my literary prowess and take you on a vicarious tour in eloquently chosen written words. You would inhale the mysterious bouquet of green tea-scented camellia blossoms, stroll quietly through the blue and white garden, gaze through the Spanish-inspired stucco arches of the east patio, succumb to the splashing music of the Moorish tiled pool and fountain, gaze in wonderment at the off-axis exhedra in the midst of a wild cactus garden.
But, alas, Ed is looking over my shoulder, admonishing me with a wagging finger, and threatening to whap the back of my hand with a ruler, lest I take up too much print space. So let me give you a few important info bits and then entice you with my photos.
What's In It For You?
Come visit. Experience local history. Show off this national treasure to your out-of-town friends and relatives. Become a supporting member of a unique non-profit foundation. If you're a lover of crafts and workmanship, have your socks rocked when you get a peek inside Mr. Steedman's amazing metal working shop.
Visit: The public tour season just ended, but there will be a few Christmas tours that will display the house in all its holiday finery. [Contact Susannah Gordon at 805.565.5654 for a reservations-only Wed. or Sat. 10 AM AND 2 PM tour, starting December 9.] Regular tours start again in February, so you won't have long to wait. Call for a reservation 3-4 weeks in advance just to be safe.
Get smart: A new crew of docent guides will start training in January. You'll learn about the history of the house and become an expert on the furnishings, architecture and gardens-maybe even pick up a few pointers for your own landscape project. Again, Susannah's the one to connect with.
Primp posies: If you are interested in floral design, you can join the Casa crew, readying the house for tours. All skill levels are welcome. It's a great group!
Down on your knees: The garden has openings for a few horticultural volunteers. With only two full time gardeners-they had 17 in the day-willing hands are needed to propagate new plants in the renovated greenhouses and help with other garden fun. Your efforts will benefit the herb and kitchen gardens and the flowers you grow find their way into the flower arrangements.
Open your wallet: You can help the Casa del Herrero Foundation protect and preserve this national treasure by becoming a member or making a donation, large or small. [See the links at the end of this article]
Read all about it: The complete history of Casa del Herrero, and the romantic era that surrounds it, have been captured in a stunningly beautiful, engagingly written book: Casa del Herrero, the Romance of Spanish Colonial by Robert H. Sweeney, photography by Matt Walla. The book is published by Rizzoli International, known for their magnificent architectural offerings.
So with no further ado, indulge yourself in a few luscious images I captured as the afternoon shadows extended across the estate. I've included a few links at the end so you can learn more about the Casa and follow up on volunteer opportunities.
The motor court is surrounded by a forest of palms and skyscraping giant bird of paradise massings.
Big money doesn't necessarily mean ostentation. The house façade is a study in simplicity, based on spare forms of an Andalucian farmhouse. You might find your jaw dropping as you behold the intricately detailed mosaic paving.
On axis with the rear of the house, this fountain acts as the focal point that lures you to the wild territory beyond.
As is the tradition on large estates, some areas are intentionially designed to create the impression of a ruin. The cactus garden, with a pair of massive dragon trees on the right, contrasts the more refined spaces close to the house. The cool gray foliage seems to glow in the shaded dell.
The herb garden, close to Mr. Steedman's workshop, is a classic walled space where herbs, flowers and edibles are still grown. The afternoon sun awakened the fragrant essential oils.
The original greenhouses have been restored and put back to work. I love that volunteer gardeners are actively propagating plants for the gardens.
Just a bit of Steedman's handiwork-hand-made aluminum patio furniture with meticulously embellished surfaces and a simple tile tabletop.
A view of the blue and white garden through the east patio arch is a classic Spanish garden device.
East of the blue and white garden you will encounter this tiled terrace and wall fountain. Behind and below the fountain wall is the rose garden. (I'm hoping they have cushions for the benches.)
As late afternoon light washed the garden, I snapped this farewell picture of a bougainvillea vine draped over the gate that leads to the office.
For additional Casa del Herrero images visit my Flickr photo site. Click for more.
Casa del Herrero website
The Book: Casa del Herrero, the Romance of Spanish Colonial
# # # #
Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
# # # #