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Montecito's Magnificent E. Mountain Drive
updated: Mar 24, 2012, 9:30 AM

By the Urban Hikers, Peter Hartmann & Stacey Wright

A couple weeks ago we told you about part of a hike that started at the county/city boundary on Mountain Drive, ending at Cold Springs Road. Today we complete the trek, backtracking just a tad to tell you a little history about "Piranhurst" and the "Tea Garden." Then it's on the San Ysidro Ranch and the end of the line, which happens to be at Park Lane.

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Previously, we mentioned the Tea Gardens/ Tea House briefly but such a magnificent and fascinating part of Santa Barbara history deserves a bit more elaboration. This is the Tea House as it looks today, and as we all know, it was the origin of the devastating "Tea Fire" in November 2009.

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As briefly as possible, we'll give you the 411 on the estate that was home to the "Tea House."

The property know Piranhurst was purchased in 1910 for $35,000 by Henry and Ellen Bothin (pronounced " bo-THEEN") as part as the 350-acre estate Henry and Ellen Bothin would come to create. Henry Bothin migrated from the Midwest and began building his empire by first opening a spice and coffee factory in San Francisco in 1875. He ultimately acquired vast commercial real estate holdings, and was one of the largest landowners in San Francisco by 1906.

In 1916 the Botins set about remodeling Piranhurst to create an elaborate mansion, which was located along the west side of Cold Springs Rd. and the south side of Mountain Drive. During the remodel and renovation of the estate they purchased an additional 160 acres of land, above Mountain Drive to use for the creation of a "tea room" which they dubbed "Mar y Cel". The tea room and gardens, located to the north of the residence, were built for the Bothin's personal enjoyment, the entertainment of guests, and for elaborate social events. The landscaping and gardens surrounding both the mansion and the tea house incorporated exotic African flora as well as a variety of tropical ferns, flowers, and palm trees.

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The Tea Gardens, as it came to be known, incorporated an incredibly elaborate aqueduct system featuring massive walls and arches, several stone pools, assorted water works flowing down the property's natural sloped geography, statuary, a basic kitchen and an impressive amphitheater. Ellen Bothin was the daughter of Anthony Chabot, the man credited with bringing water to Oakland, California. As the sole owner of the East Bay System, a privately held water company until 1875, it seems quite likely that Mr. Chabot provided much of the technology and inspiration for the reservoirs, aqueducts and meandering gravity flow water works developed by Ellen and Henry on the Tea Gardens portion of the Piranhurst Estate.

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Ultimately, two separate reservoirs built into the original Tea Gardens grounds became a part of the Montecito Water District. In 1924 the site for the Cold Springs Reservoir (originally named the Bothin Reservoir) on the eastern portion of the property was transferred to the district. In 1947, the site for the Henry P. Drake Reservoir on the western side of the property was transferred to the district.

Legend has it that from about 1917 until Henry's death in 1923, the elaborate tea parties and other gatherings were quite the social events of the day. Aside from the tea house, the grounds also contained a 200-seat amphitheater, which was located above the spectacular water works display and was a viewing area constructed of concrete benches. The amphitheater overlooked both a large stage as well as the pool. The stage reportedly supported renditions of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream" and the pool was often used to showcase synchronized swimming shows. For several years following Henry's death the tea parties were put on hold, and ultimately, Ellen moved from the home to take up residence in El Mirasol, an estate-turned hotel at what is now Alice Keck Park Park.

After Henry's death, Ellen visited the tea garden on a near-daily basis to enjoy her tea and the solitude of the gardens, but by the 1950s and1960s, with no one living at Piranhurst, there was a lack of regular maintenance at the tea house (which at one point required the labor of 35 full-time gardeners). Security was non-existent. The spot, once the pinnacle of elite society quickly became a popular party destination for many uninvited guests.

Ellen Bothin died in 1965 at almost 100 years old. By the mid '70s, skateboarders were using the Tea Garden's swimming pool walls and a massive rope swing was hung for thrill seekers of all ages. In the late 1970s after a skateboarder was seriously injured on the property, the county of Santa Barbara reportedly dynamited the middle of the property's biggest and most popular skateboarding bowl, which effectively killed the location as a skater's paradise.

The Bothin family heirs sold the portion of Piranhurst below East Mountain Drive to Edward F. Brown. At the time of the sale, Mr. Brown obtained an option on the Tea Gardens, but never exercised the option. At the expiration of the option the Tea Gardens became separated from the home below it. Later, the Bothin family heirs sold the Tea Gardens property to Mr. Shirley Burden, and Mr. Burden's heirs then sold it to another party.

In mid 2000s, preservationists obtained and placed some 150 acres of the Tea Garden property in a permanently protected land easement held by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County and created a short public trail, making legal the long-standing portion of the popular Cold Spring Trail that has traversed the northwest corner of the property. The Tea Fire devastated what remained of the Mar y Cel property. Today basically all that remains of the once grand "tea house" are the ruins that can be seen form Mountain Drive, looking up. Likewise Piranhurst, the residential part of the estate has seen several owners since Ellen's death in 1965. One of those lucky homeowners was Gene Hackman -- or so legend has it.

And with our history lesson behind us we continue on along E. Mountain Dr. enjoying the sights and sounds of the area. The views are spectacular. There are many others who also enjoy the splendor of E. Mountain Dr. - we encountered walkers, joggers, trail hikers, bicyclists and pets gathering at the numerous trail heads that start on Mountain Drive.

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At the corner of Mountain Drive and Cold Springs Rd. is a Spanish-style home that in our younger years we recall serving as a U.S. Forest Service fire station. What a great place to be stationed if you were in the forest service. Today it's a residence and there's no obvious sign of its nostalgic past.

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Just past the old forest service fire station, Mountain Dr. descends into Cold Springs Canyon. The flavor and ambiance of the road shifts dramatically. As the road descends, the woods thicken, the temperature drops, the fragrance of native plants become more noticeable and water seems to appear out of nowhere. It's the presence of Cold Springs Creek that creates a different ecosystem, and the road happens to intersect the flowing creek.

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In fact, there are several pools just off the road that provide a habitat for steelhead trout and other aquatic and semi-aquatic life. But don't try to procure your dinner there. These trout are an endangered species, and the signs nearby ask people to "tread lightly."

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Here's an interesting tabloid fact that many may not know. This sweet little meadow was used in the filming of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. It's apropos in an ironic sort of way, because this entire area was once an important part of Chumash life.

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As we descended from the canyon we came across Gate # 4 of the Riven Rock estate, home to Stanley McCormack, heir of International Harvester. A colorful and tormented man, his story is brillliantly told by local author T.C. Boyle in Boyle's book simply named Riven Rock.

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Montecito's Mountain Drive is full of natural wonder and archetectural splendor. A walk along the road captures the imagination, inspires awe and sometimes require a little patience for the "perfect shot." The variety of this hike is one of the things that makes it so special.

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The San Ysidro Ranch is indisputably one of Santa Barbara's true gems. The ranch had its humble beginnings in the early 1800's when Tomas Olivera, (the son of one of the founders of the Santa Barbara Presidio in 1782), built the first structure on the property in 1825 (or possibly 1828 - there is conflicting information in this regard). The structure, a small adobe was home to the Oliveras for many years. These photos show the ranch it its earliest days and a more recent photo of the adobe.

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As an aside, in 1831 Tomas Olivera's stepdaughter married William Foxen, a prominent local businessman. They later moved to the Santa Ynez Valley.

But back at the ranch, it seems change was constant. The property passed through several hands before being purchased in 1868 by B.T. Dunsmore, a rancher who capitalized on the ranch's soil and climate by planting vast orange and lemon orchards. Following Mr. Dunsmore's death in 1881, the ranch was sold to Taylor Goodrich and John Harliegh Johnson. The partners continued to grow oranges and lemons and even began producing and marketing a popular wine made from the oranges.

In September 1888, a forest fire threatened the ranch and the adobe, but luckily nothing was damaged in the fire. Sadly in August 1889, a wooden packing shed caught fire and burned to the ground. A new packing shed was erected in its place, this time using stone. Today the packing house is home to the Plow and Angel bar and restaurant.

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With the arrival of Eastern visitors, Goodrich and Johnson recognized an opportunity to provide hotel services to tourists. In 1892 they constructed a small, cottage-style hotel that was able to serve forty guests. Besides the out-of-towers, many local people used "The Ranch" to take "staycations" long before it was fashionable to do so. After three years of operating a successful hotel, and after 13 years of successful ranching, the partnership of Goodrich and Johnson was dissolved. Mr. Johnson and Mary, his bride of two years, carried on with the ranching and hotel operation of the San Ysidro Ranch. Following Mr. Johnson's death in 1914, Mary and their children continued to operate the ranch. In 1932 Mary died. The Johnson children continued to operate the ranch for another three years before selling it to silent movie star, Ronald Coleman, and Alvin Weingand, a hotel manager. Both Coleman and Weingand had dreamed of owning and operating a "country hotel."

In 1958 Ronald Coleman died. Al Weingand became a California State Senator in 1962 but continued to oversee operations at the ranch. Not surprisingly, the hotel became a favorite of the Hollywood set, and there were certain guests including Audrey Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Gloria Swanson and others who made frequent trips north to rest and relax at the very private and exclusive hotel. John and Jacqueline Kennedy spent part of their honeymoon at the ranch in 1953, and as a result, there are several historic photos of the couple enjoying the peaceful beauty of the ranch and its surroundings.

In 1965, (just about the time one of the Urban Hikers was taking riding lessons and learning to care for horses from Gene O'Hagen Sr. at the ranch's riding stable) Al Weingand sold the ranch. After a series of sales, James and Susan Levenson purchased the property in 1976. They ran a successful business until 2000 when the ranch was sold to Ty Warner. Since 2000, major renovations and other improvements have been undertaken, and the San Ysidro Ranch continues its long history of being a highly sought-after destination for out-of-towners and locals alike.

We have to include this history of the San Ysidro Ranch in this story for reasons other than its sheer historical significance and the "entertainment value" the history provides. The fact of the matter is that in traversing Mountain Drive, all are required to pass through a public easement on the ranch. There is also a sanctioned horse trail, which is part of the Montecito Trails Foundation.

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At the "end of the line" magnificent Mountain Drive ends at the intersection of Mountain Drive and Park Lane.

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This is an area of Santa Barbara/Motecito we've traversed time and again over the years. But it was only by walking this lovely route that we were able to see all that we did and appreciate it for all the unique beauty. For this reason we encourage you to go out and explore your town, meet your neighbors, keep your eyes, ears, and minds open to all that you encounter. Above all, expect the unexpected.

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

 COMMENT 266944 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 09:37 AM

Great stories. Thanks


 COMMENT 266959 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 10:08 AM

Not being from SB, I love and cherish the history lessons from the Urban Hikers, using the information as a starting point on my own organic discovery of this amazing place. Thank you both.


 COMMENT 266974 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 10:27 AM

wow, another great piece. i always enjoy your histories & photos. thank you, urban hikers!


 MTNDRIVER agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 10:52 AM

Great article, thanks so much--as usual. Definitely one of the best roads in SB for walking, running, and biking.


 COMMENT 266999 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 11:40 AM

Another wonderful hike and history lesson! How DO you research all of this wonderful history for us? It makes me appreciate places I have seen many times and even lived near without knowing the interesting history. Thanks Urban Hikers!


 COMMENT 267007 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 12:17 PM

When is the book coming out?


 COMMENT 267022 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 01:04 PM

Very cool. We were skating T bowls until the late 90's. Is Gene O Hagen the same person who was manager of Montecito CC?


 COMMENT 267033 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 01:51 PM

I believe that Piranhurst is now owned by billionare Harold Simmons.


 COMMENT 267081 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 05:22 PM

Great chronicle! Thanks for the stories and the pictures!


 COMMENT 267112 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 08:24 PM

Thank you UH's for highlighting a particular favorite area of mine...I love hiking all the trails clustered in this area and have enjoyed a cocktail at the Plow and Angel bar and even a meal at the Stonehouse. Running the length of Mountain Drive is also a favorite of mine from back in the day! I've biked, walked and run most all of the streets here at one time or another...thanks for this wonderful history lesson!


 KDEF agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-24 09:55 PM

To add a little more history to the Urban Hikers excellent account, my father Lockwood de Forest did work for Mrs. Bothin. He and my mother told stories about the teas they attended. Guests were shuttled up to the tea house, A bevy of servants proceeded them in station wagons who brought the hot tea along with cakes and sandwiches served on the finest china and silver and tables and chairs..


 PROGRESS agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-25 07:34 AM

UH, you constantly serve as motivation to seek out new vistas in the SB area! It would be cool if you included your mileage (I'm terrible at math!) for each trek.


 COMMENT 267128 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-25 07:43 AM

Ditto ...many thanks for bringing the history forward - as an Eastern transplant to SB, I love learning the history - and noticing when I follow your steps!


 COMMENT 267137 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-25 09:05 AM

One correction, I worked at SYR in the late '80's. The Lavenson's sold the ranch to Bob Harmon and Claude Rouas of Auberge du Soleil in 1987. They in turn sold it to Ty Warner.


 COMMENT 267153 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-25 09:52 AM

The "legend" that actor Gene Hackman owned Piranhurst is correct. I was involved in a renovation of the guest house in 1980-81 and met him on the property a few times. The main house was clearly a grand residence at one time, but had fallen into disrepair and was not inhabited at the time.


 COMMENT 267252 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-25 03:45 PM

Dan, me too! It was 1992, and I was a trail guide.


 COMMENT 267275 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-25 08:52 PM

To 022 - One of the UH here- There were two Gene O'Hagens who gave riding lessons "back in the day". Gene Sr. was the stable manager at the ranch and gave lessons to beginners, as well as managing the trail rides for the guests of the ranch. After a rider progressed a little, Gene Jr., who worked at the Jackson Ranch on E.Valley near Ortega Ridge, would take the student. I was lucky enough to have been taught by both father and son. I'm not sure if Gene Sr. or Jr. ever managed the Montecito CC, although I believe Gene Jr. married one of the "Isaiah Bros." daughters, Mary, and later became a local real estate agent. I do wish I knew more, as I loved both of these men! And to DAN 39 - you are right. No dispute here. Just a bit of modern history we failed to chronicle correctly. Oops. Sorry.. that that's what we love about Edhat readers - we know they'll correct us and/or add the details that we either get wrong or don't include in our stories. Thanks for your interest, comments and correction. We appreciate them.


 COMMENT 267590P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-27 12:30 PM

I love this stuff. Thank you for yet another wonderful experience, and I too would like to ask - when is there going to be a book with all of the walking / hiking you two are doing? Fabulous!


 COMMENT 342000 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-11-12 03:06 PM

Nice history piece. I really like the excellent details and research. Lots of good info and photos. How about crediting the organization that allowed you to use the historic photos? (By the way, is there really someone else in town with my name? See previous comments above.)


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