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  • Writer's picturePrinceton North

Santa Barbara's Riviera: A Tapestry of History, Luxury, and Educational Legacy

Bridging the two mile span which separates Mission and Sycamore Canyons, the sylvan uplift which the padres knew as the “mission ridge” has for the past 65 years been known as “the Riviera” due to its resemblance to slopes along the Mediterranean coasts of France and Italy. Santa Barbarans lucky enough to live on this ridge attach premium value to their homes because of their unsurpassed views of city, mountains, sea and islands.

Riviera Neighborhood

The Riviera was not always as beautiful as it appears today. Two hundred years ago, the early explorers found it to be a stark, tawny hill dotted with sandstone boulders, almost devoid of grass cover, and with a few spindly oaks growing in the arid ravines.

The moccasins of prehistoric Chumash Indians had worn a hillside trail linking the two canyons. Centuries later this path evolved into a road for Mexican ox carts, debouching onto the flatlands at the future Valerio Street. The Americans gave this dusty set of wagon tracks the flamboyant name of “Grand Avenue.”

The Franciscan friars ignored the ridge as too steep to plow and too barren for grazing. In early days packs of coyotes denned in the Riviera arroyos and their howls used to signal the approach of steamships long before the vessels came in view around Castle Rock or Booth’s Point, a signal which sent hotel tallyhos and draymen’s wagons hurrying to beach or wharf to meet the ships.

The first citizen of note to acquire large land holdings on the Riviera hill was C. A. Storke, who arrived in 1872 to teach at the short-lived “college” at State and Anapamu Streets. Storke paid $1.25 an acre for 123 worthless hilltop acres which the populace jeeringly referred to as “Storke’s Folly.”

Riviera Neighborhood

Storke built the first house on the ridge, at what is now 1740 Grand Avenue. There was born the first baby to be delivered on the Riviera, on November 21, 1876. The infant was Thomas More Storke, destined to establish the Santa Barbara News-Press and to rank as the city’s most active leader for more than sixty years.

In 1887, the year which marked the arrival of the first railroad train in Santa Barbara, C. A. Storke sold his “Folly” at a handsome profit to a San Francisco capitalist, Walter N. Hawley, who was the community’s most active citizen for the next decade, filling the civic vacuum left by the death of Col. W. W. Hollister.

Hawley renamed his Riviera subdivision “Hawley Heights”, but lack of a water supply and inadequate roads impeded its development past the turn of the century.

At the eastern end of the Riviera, the Catholics had had a large cemetery on the hillside until the Board of Health closed it for sanitary reasons. In 1902 three local physicians, Drs. Benjamin Bakewell, Harold Sidebotham and Philip Chancellor, bought an unused portion of the old graveyard where modern California Street intersects East Arrellaga Street, and there built a two-story private sanatorium which they named the Quisiano. Six years later, four sisters of the Order of the Sacred Heart of Mary arrived in Santa Barbara for the purpose of founding a Catholic hospital. The Quisiano Sanatorium was for sale for $23,000, so the Sisters purchased it and named it the “Salsipuedes Hospital” for the nearby street of that name. This amused Spanish-speaking townspeople who knew that salsipuedes translates “get out if you can” – Salsipuedes Street being an impassable adobe quagmire in wet weather. The good sisters hastily renamed their new Catholic Hospital in honor of their patron saint, Francis.

Riviera Neighborhood

St. Francis Hospital quickly outgrew its quarters, resulting in the sisters buying three acres of land at the end of East Micheltorena Street where they erected a modern four-story facility, assuming a $300,000 mortgage. A year later the great Earthquake of 1925 wrecked the hospital, which was not insured. With community support, the sisters were able to rebuild, dedicating the new St. Francis in October 1930. It was the forerunner of today’s splendid facility, which in addition to regular surgical-medical capabilities has special departments for eye, ear, stroke and cardiac cases.

The Riviera is famous for its semi-tropical appearance, with lush plantings of acacias, eucalypti, pittosporum, eugenias, palms, hibiscus shrubs and other exotics. The man chiefly responsible for this metamorphosis was a Florentine horticulturist, Dr. Emanuel Orazio Fenzi, who came to Santa Barbara in 1894 and established a downtown nursery. Changing his name to Francesco Francheschi Fenzi, in 1904 he bought 40 acres of Riviera hilltop land a mile east of the Old Mission, which he developed into one of California’s premier nurseries and arboretums. There he propagated phyla nodiflora, Montezuma cypress and the unique Francheschi flame tree. His stately redwood mansion on the Riviera, Montarioso, is still standing. It dates from 1909.

In 1912, when he was 70, Dr. Fenzi was called away from the Riviera by royal command of the King of Italy to supervise a large-scale horticultural program in colonial Libya, where he died eleven years later. The noted botanist Peter Reidel carried on the Riviera business which the Fenzi estate sold in 1927 to Alden Freeman. He offered the city 14 acres of the arboretum, including Montarioso, for park purposes. The gift was at first declined by an economy-minded City Council, but was finally accepted in 1931 after the newly-formed Riviera Association guaranteed to underwrite maintenance costs for two years. Today Francheschi Park is one of Santa Barbara’s most precious assets. A smaller horticultural park on the Riviera, four acres located at Moreno and Lasuen Roads, was acquired earlier for $3,000 and bears the name of F.O. Orpet, the park superintendent who developed it.

A major hinge-point in the Riviera’s history came in 1909 when the State selected Santa Barbara as the site of a Normal School, providing the community donated land for a campus. Banker C. A. Edwards offered 14 acres of view lots on the western end of the Riviera above historic Santa Barbara Mission, which the State accepted on the condition that the city would furnish transportation up to the hilltop for the convenience of students and faculty.

Riviera Neighborhood

The city already had a streetcar terminus at the Old Mission, so a branch line was laid along Los Olivos Street to the foot of the Riviera ridge and thence uphill on Frelon and Normal Avenues (later renamed Alameda Padre Serra) as far as Moreno Road. The flowing curves at the west end of Alameda Padre Serra today mark the old streetcar right of way, the curves being essential to provide a gradient which electric cars could negotiate. The roadbed had been ballasted, tracks laid and trolley lines installed by January 1, 1911, three years in advance of the opening of the Normal.

A roofed platform where patrons could wait for cars was built at the end of the line and is still preserved as a historical landmark, although streetcars gave way to buses in 1929 and the Riviera tracks were ripped up in 1930 and paved over as Alameda Padre Serra.

The Normal was not the first educational institution on the Riviera. In 1912 Dr. Prynce Hopkins built “Boyland”, a private school for underprivileged boys, on a 13-acre campus near Las Tunas and Tremonto Roads. The terrain proved too stony for athletic fields, so in 1916 Dr. Hopkins removed his school to a Persian-style campus now known as the Samarkand (Hotel) life care center.

The first Normal School buildings went up in 1913, with a reflection pool inside an arched quadrangle. An immediate economic impact of a college campus on the hill was a sudden demand for student and faculty housing. An opportunistic land owner adjacent the campus, James M. Warren, promptly built a two-story dormitory, two 10-room houses, and three three-room cottages, which are now part of the El Encanto complex. The El Encanto Hotel, with its surrounding gardens and pergola, making it truly “the enchanted place” as its name translates in Spanish, was built in 1917.

The lovely Riviera Santa Barbarans admire today, as seen from the city below, dates from 1913. That year a group of investors calling themselves the Riviera Company, spurred by the imminence of a college campus, incorporated for $300,000 and bought the old Hawley Heights tract and additional acreage. Their chairman and majority stockholder, pink-bearded George A. Batchelder of Atherton, became known in years to come as “the father of the Riviera.”

Batchelder’s first move to beautify the Riviera was to plant hundreds of oak seedlings from his nursery in Atherton, now grown to gnarled old specimens whose owners often believe were there in old Spanish days. Batchelder imported Italian stonemasons, supervised by Joe Dover of Santa Barbara, who began quarrying field stone into blocks for revetments, walls, fences, gateposts and stairsteps. This stone work is priceless today, since stonecutting is fast becoming a lost art. Batchelder, far ahead of his time, also insisted that all unsightly utility wires and cables go underground. Lots were oriented so that no home would impair a neighbor’s view of the city, harbor, ocean and the channel islands. Furthermore, lot buyers were required to erect a tile-roofed, white stucco home at a minimum of $4,000, a considerable sum in World War I days. Batchelder’s own home was at the corner of Lasuen and Paterna Roads.

Padres at the Old Mission were invited to name the winding streets on the Riviera. The main thoroughfare, which divides the “upper” from the “lower” Riviera, became Alameda Padre Serra (or APS to those living on it) in memory of the founder of the California missions. Other names out of our Hispanic past were perpetuated -Jimeno, Ferrello, San Carlos, Oramas, Lasuen, Rubio, Paterna, Arguello. Dover, we assume, honors the boss stonemason.

The big event of the decade, the opening of the Santa Barbara State Normal School of Manual Arts and Home Economics, took place in the fall of 1914. Soon the somnolent neighborhood took the impact of such collegiate distractions as fraternity house parties and, later, horrendous traffic from jalopies and hot rods.

In 1916 another capitalist, Clarence A. Black, built an ornate Italian villa, El Cerrito, at 2130 Mission Ridge Road. It was noted for its stonework, laid by a Scotsman named Peter Poole. Black sold his estate to socialite Hilda Boldt Weber. In 1941 she offered it to President Roosevelt and staff as a summer White House, and FDR would have accepted had it not been for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two years later, Mrs. Weber conveyed the estate to the sisters of the religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, who operated it for many years as the Marymount School for Girls. Marymount is currently a non-denominational, coeducational school, kindergarten through ninth grade, and one of the Riviera’s proudest assets.

Riviera Neighborhood

The king and queen of the silent movies, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and his wife Mary Pickford, planned to build their mansion “Pickfair” at a 750-foot elevation at the east end of the Riviera. In partnership with U.S. Senator William G. McAdoo and Santa Barbara publisher Thomas M. Storke, the couple owned the Las Alturas tract overlooking the Sherman & Ealand properties in Sycamore Canyon. The partners quarreled, however, and Doug and Mary pulled out of the deal and built Pickfair in Hollywood. McAdoo owned an elegant home at 250 Las Alturas Road which was a Riviera showplace until it was lost in the 1977 Sycamore Fire. Storke carried on with the development of Las Alturas and the Loma Media tract during the 1930s.

Not the least of Batchelders legacies to his Riviera is the County Bowl, built with federal WPA labor in 1935 in Quail Canyon, a natural amphitheater which Batchelder donated for the purpose of providing a place for Old Spanish Days fiesta pageants.

At the west end of the Riviera, meanwhile, the Normal School was prospering, and changing names as frequently as Zsa Zsa Gabor. In 1919 it became the Santa Barbara Normal School; in 1921 the Santa Barbara State Teachers College; in 1935 the Santa Barbara State College; and finally in 1944 the University of California Santa Barbara College. After ten years under that name it outgrew the Riviera campus and moved to Goleta where it is now UCSB, the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The city was required by law to dispose of the Riviera campus. After a long wrangle in City Hall over whether to rezone the area from apartments to single family units, the campus was sold in early 1963 to the highest bidder, a Santa Ana mortician named Roy D. Lewis, who paid $330,501 for it. Subsequent owners were the Brooks Institute of Photography and John Pickens of Santa Barbara.

The Riviera Center today is an island of elite business firms in the heart of an upper middle-class residential neighborhood, with such prestigious tenants as the Brooks Institute of Fine Art, a Montessori School center, the Riviera Theater, and ABC-Clio Press.One of the older and more stabilized neighborhoods in the city, the Riviera also ranks as one of the wealthiest and best-educated. City Hall statisticians reported in 1974 that of the 1,851 persons then living in 688 dwelling units above Alameda Padre Serra, three out of four had college degrees and held white collar jobs. Below APS, with a denser population of 2,618 in 1,108 dwellings, over half had college training and 53 percent held white collar employment.

Protecting the Riviera against the incursions of greedy land developers, non-conforming architecture and uncontrolled population trends has been the responsibility of the venerable Riviera Improvement Association, founded in 1930 with the late Dr. Hilmar O. Koefod as its charter president. From that time to the present the Riviera Association has kept a vigilant monitor on City Hall, safeguarding the best interests of its resident taxpayers.

“We know how lucky we are not to have to go to Europe to enjoy the Riviera lifestyle,” one cosmopolite commented. “We’ve got a better Riviera right here in Santa Barbara!”

The Riviera History by Walker A. Tompkins, © Copyright 1980 by Santa Barbara Board of Realtors.


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