Santa Barbara’s Grand Hotel: The Potter
By Neal Graffy XNGH
It would be impossible to come to a conclusion about the Most Important Date in Santa Barbara’s history. Probably the top four on most people’s minds would be the founding of the presidio on April 21, 1782, the Mission on December 4, 1786, the great earthquake of June 29, 1925 and my birthday, November 26, 1952.
But I’d like to add Sunday, January 19, 1902. There is no doubt in my mind that the actions taken on this date gave us the best of what Santa Barbara would become.
On that date, at a place known as Burton’s Mound, Los Angeles hotelman Milo M. Potter, turned over a shovelful of dirt and proclaimed to the small audience present that in exactly one year his new hotel would open on that site.
Burton’s Mound, was a 30-acre parcel bounded by the ocean, Bath, Montecito and Chapala streets. The Chumash called it Syukhtun (“where two trails run”) and had lived there for centuries. At the time of the Spanish arrival, the chief of the village was Yanonali and note how conveniently the street named for him points to his former home.
The mound was about thirty feet high and surrounded by hot and cold springs with water tasting from brackish to sweet. Mission Creek passed through the north-east corner. Somewhere in the 1820s a small adobe – said to have been built by the Franciscans as a “hide house” - was placed at the top of the mound and over the years owned or occupied by a veritable Who’s Who of early American settlers who added to it until it was about 83’ long and 20’ wide.
The last to call it home was Lewis T. Burton, an otter hunter who had settled here around 1831 and married into the Carrillo family (twice). He bought it in 1860 and sold it to the Seaside Hotel Association, a group of local investors, in 1875 for $35,000. Despite the promising name, they never built anything and at one point even offered the property free to anyone who would build a hotel. In the meantime, the hot springs made money as the Burton Mound Sulphur Baths and the mound and groves of trees around it became Santa Barbara’s favorite site for picnicking, partying, and grand celebrations.
Chumash occupation, wetlands, proximity to a creek, an historic adobe, and - even back then – the public sentiment of “ownership by trespass and use.” Anyone of these elements would kill a project today but as one editor noted “Santa Barbara looses its favorite picnic grounds, but the loss will be cheerfully borne in view of the greater gain.” And he was right.
Milo Milton Potter was born in Dundee, Michigan on May 19, 1854 (the 19th always proclaimed as his “lucky day”). After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1877, he went to Florida to raise fruit, an unsuccessful endeavor. He next went into the cotton business as broker and did quite well until pests destroyed the market. However, he did have a fine home which he rented out to northern tourists and found he liked the role of inn-keeper. Expanding his horizons, he built a 100-room hotel – the Potter House at Crescent City – which was quite successful until it burned to the ground.
Having had enough of Florida, he moved to Cape May, New Jersey to manage the Congress Hall Hotel for a few years before heading to Los Angeles where he started working at the Westminster Hotel on October 19, 1888. If there is a “green thumb” for hotelmen, Potter had it. In relatively short time, he was noted as Los Angeles’ premier “boniface” so it was to no one’s surprise when Isaac Newton Van Nuys built the Van Nuys Hotel (right across the street from the Westminster at Main and Fourth) it was Milo Potter who signed the five year on September 19, 1896. Potter left the Westminster a month later (on the 19th of course) and officially opened the Van Nuys (still standing) on the 19th of January. During his Los Angeles years, enough incidents occur on the 19th of any given month, including his hiring of and eventual marriage to Mrs. Nellie Jones, to fill a book. All these events and anything else relating to “our Mr. Potter” were cheerfully noted in the Los Angeles papers.
For his Santa Barbara endeavor, the timing was perfect. In March 1901 the missing link of the Southern Pacific’s coastal railway – Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo - was finally completed. At last, trains came through Santa Barbara on their way to and from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Potter knew Santa Barbara was a golden opportunity for a seaside resort.
Potter was a magnificent self-promoter. He bought Burtons Mound in December 1901 and according to the newspapers, within thirty days of purchase had held a contest for plans, chosen an architect and engineered the grading of the mound. In reality, Potter had been sniffing around Santa Barbara in early 1900 and Burton’s Mound was the obvious choice. More than likely everything was planned and ready when Potter made the purchase. The perceived Potter whirlwind made great headlines and free nationwide publicity for the “new resort hotel for Santa Barbara.”
As promised, the hotel opened exactly one year later on January 19, 1903. “Anyone who was anyone was there” and according to one report “there was more money at the Potter that day than there was in Fort Knox.” In typical Potter fashion, the hotel which was supposed to cost $500,000, remarkably and with great publicity all the way, grew to a $1,100,000 hotel and greatly expanding in size as well.
The finished product was six-and-a-half stories high with 390 guest rooms. Along the front were sun, shaded and glassed-in porches. Above, roof gardens provided spectacular views of the ocean, islands, mountains and the city. The grounds were elaborately landscaped and included tennis courts, a zoo, a palm and fernery building, cactus gardens and enchanting pathways. The gardens were constantly renewed to astonish the winter guests with a showy variety of blooms.
The Potter had its own post office, water system, power plant and a railroad siding which led onto the grounds to allow the bulk shipment of fuel and groceries.
The Potter had three dining rooms. The main dining room, pictured here could hold 700 guests and represented an investment of over $100,000. The china and silver were custom made for the Potter and imprinted with the Potter logo. It took 100 waitresses, 15 busboys, 40 dish washers and 15 cooks (plus whatever personal chefs guests brought) to run the kitchen. At the far end of the dining room above the doors leading to the kitchen (at upper left) was a music stand where up to 20 musicians would play to cover any noise that would be emanating from the kitchen.
Many hotels of the Potter’s style were open for “the season” which ran from January thru May. Eyebrows were raised when Potter announced he would be all year long. In the days before instant transportation by auto, many families would spend a month or more at the hotel. Potter knew he had to keep them busy and small as it was, Santa Barbara, along with Potter’s help had plenty to keep guests occupied. Among other activities, for the “off-season” Potter created a summer sports festival pre-dating by decades our Semana Nautica.
In Goleta, the Potter Farm provided suckling pigs, chickens, eggs and dairy products. The Potter Squab Ranch, also in Goleta, claimed to be the largest in the world and contained “60,000 milk fed squabs” raised “exclusively for the Potter table.” These establishments were often visited by guests as part of the Potter experience and were highly regarded for their sanitary conditions.
In 1909, the Potter Country Club opened in Hope Ranch and featured a nine-hole golf course, horse racing track, polo grounds and other amusements. The club house seen at far left still stands as a private residence. The hotel also had sailboats, and several glass bottom boats for channel excursions.
Directly behind the Potter the Southern Pacific Railroad built their new station with a pathway leading directly to the Potter. Part of it can still be seen in the little park across from the station. Alongside the station was a siding reserved for the private rail cars of the Potter’s patrons. It should be noted that Frank P. Flint, State Senator, Potter board member and investor, was also the attorney for the Southern Pacific.
Potter sold the hotel in February of 1919 (lots of 19s!) and it was renamed the Belvedere. The following December it changed hands and names again when it became part of the Ambassador Hotel chain and rechristened the Ambassador.
On April 13, 1921 the hotel caught fire. The 110 guests were safely evacuated as fire crews arrived from Santa Barbara and Montecito. Pushed by winds gusting from fifty to eighty miles per hour the fire spread quickly and fiercely, burning the hotel to the ground within three hours. Faulty wiring was found to be the cause.
The owners promised a new hotel would soon rise from the ashes but time passed and weeds were the only things that rose along the once magnificent grounds. A proposal by the city to acquire the property for a park through a bond measure was rejected by voters. The property was subsequently acquired by several Los Angeles businessmen for a development of small cottages. This plan too failed to come to fruition although a few were built and still stand today as treasured landmarks of the Ambassador Tract. Slowly the hotel site and former gardens evolved into motels, apartments and homes.
As for Potter, he’d retired to his Montecito estate “Parra Grande” and that’s where he died on April 30, 1925. He had climbed up to his water tower, had a heart attack and fell
Today, flanked by giant palm trees planted in the teens, the half-acre Ambassador Park on West Cabrillo marks what the grand entrance to the hotel was once. Just past Chapala street, is a “bridge to nowhere” that spans Mission Creek. This was the back entrance to the hotel for the men bringing in guest’s luggage from the depot. The railroad spur next to the depot also survived and a Pullman car, the Lear jet of its day, is parked there. The gates to the entrance to Potter’s estate, with his crest on top, still stand in Montecito.
But the true measure and worth of the Potter Hotel is not in these few surviving relics. A number of the Potter’s guests fell in love with Santa Barbara and made it their home. These new Barbareños would play an important role in preserving our beachfront, building our hospitals, schools, parks, museums and helping to not only rebuild Santa Barbara after the earthquake, but defining what the new Santa Barbara would look like.
Neal Graffy is a Santa Barbara historian, author and lecturer. His books, “Street Names of Santa Barbara”, “Santa Barbara Then & Now”, and “Historic Santa Barbara” are available at Chaucer's, the Book Den, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, and online at www.elbarbareno.com. He is also co-author of a historical fiction series of Santa Barbara History Mysteries "A Murder at the Potter Hotel" and "An Unfortunate Incident at Castle Rock."
Photos courtesy Neal Graffy collection