Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California

Date added: March 25, 2024 Categories: California House Smith, George W.
Main House, south elevation (2008)

The Steedman House in Montecito, California, was designed in the 1920's by Santa Barbara's prime architect of the Spanish Colonial Revival style, George Washington Smith, and reflects a close intellectual and artistic collaboration between him and the St. Louis industrialist owner, George Fox Steedman, an artisan and silversmith. Built in the middle of Smith's short (1916-1930) but prolific career, the house is considered one of Smith's most beautiful, epitomizing his ability to integrate discrete elements of Moorish and Andalusian style into a cohesive whole. The house is notable for having retained the spirit of the 1920s; neither the elegantly landscaped estate grounds nor the house has been significantly altered since the death of the original owner.

Although numerous Southern California architects, such as Wallace Neff and Reginald Johnson, Joseph Plunkett, and William Albert Edwards, designed in the 1920s in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, made popular by Carleton Winslow, Sr. and Bertram Goodhue's buildings for the San Diego Exposition of 1915, George Washington Smith is considered the most sophisticated of these early twentieth-century architects. In addition he is given credit for originating, with another Santa Barbara architect, James Osborne Craig, its simpler Andalusian forms.

Born in Pennsylvania, Smith studied architecture at Harvard until a change in his father's fortunes forced him to drop out. Moving to Europe he studied painting and linked himself with Robert Henri and George Bellows. On a trip with his wife to see the San Diego Exposition in 1915 and to paint, he stopped in Santa Barbara and stayed there the rest of his life. In 1916 he built a home in Montecito, a massive L-shaped house sheltering a rear garden, with balconies, decorative tiles, and severe doorways. This house depended on the interplay of red tile roof lines, balconies, and the decoration of windows and doors to enliven its massive white stucco facade. As a painter, Smith's appreciation for Cezanne's abstract planes led him to emphasize a simplicity of form in his house. It so intrigued his friends, who all wanted one, that he abandoned his painting career to pursue architecture. Considering himself a "gentleman architect", he could operate on a social par with his clients and was able to work closely with them on renderings for their houses. So popular were his designs that by the mid-twenties to have a Smith House was considered the "hallmark of success".

The thirty-some houses Smith designed between 1916 and 1930, when he died, represented a second generation of building in Montecito by well-to-do Easterners and Midwesterners attracted to this rustic wooded village. Not as fabulously wealthy as the inheritors of great Victorian fortunes the Mortons, McCormicks, Swifts, Armours, and Pillsburys; who came to Montecito in the teens to build enormous hilltop estates in the Mediterranean and Renaissance styles, this next generation found satisfaction in the smaller scale villas with landscaped gardens.

Although primarily a residential architect, Smith also designed several commercial buildings in downtown Santa Barbara, among them the Lobero Theater, News-Press building, the Little Town Club, and Meridian Court, a series of artists' studios. Indeed the height of his career coincided with the extensive rebuilding of Santa Barbara, after the destructive earthquake of 1925, in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, a conscious attempt by the city to create a Hispanic fantasy on top of the Victorian rubble.

By 1922 when George Fox Steedman, President of the Curtis Manufacturing Company of St. Louis, which produced saws and pneumatic machines, commissioned Smith to build a house in Montecito, Smith had already designed at least seven other Spanish Colonial Revival houses in Santa Barbara, three within a mile of Steedman's property. Steedman's choice of Smith was a happy one, and perhaps not unusual given their similar backgrounds. They were only five years apart in age, both went to Harvard, and Smith's father as well as Steedman was an engineer. In addition Steedman's strong interest in European architecture would have drawn him to Smith who already had a reputation for involving his clients closely in the design of their houses.

Steedman's Montecito property originally was part of the Pueblo lands deeded by Spain in 1782 to the Santa Barbara Presidio, a military fort established to protect Spanish California from attack by other European powers. When possession of California passed to Mexico and then to America the land was sold off by the city of Santa Barbara, with priority given to descendants of Presidio soldiers. In 1868 Jose de Jesus Cota, possibly one of these descendants, was granted nineteen acres. He was declared incompetent in 1912, and his land was sold at auction. Mrs. Meysenburg of St. Louis bought it, and after several resales and subdivisions, the Steedmans bought their property in 1922.

The collaboration between Steedman and Smith was unusually strong during the three years they worked together on the property's design. Smith produced over forty studies for the house, many of which Steedman marked with comments revising design elements, modifying floor plans, and simplifying rooms. In addition, he drew Smith's attention to details from books on Spanish architecture (particularly Austin Whittlesey's 1917 The Minor Ecclesiastical, Domestic and Garden Architecture of Southern Spain), photographs of Italian courtyards, as well as providing him with several hundred photographs as possible sources for small details. As a result, many details can be traced directly to their European counterparts. The library tower was inspired by a French chateau, the loggia with vaulted ceiling by an Italian loggia, the outer court by the Patio de la Reja in the Alhambra, the front doorway by one in Ronda, Spain, the walled Moorish garden by those in Seville.

Most importantly for the looks of the finished house, Steedman sailed for Spain in 1923 on a "furniture and fitting hunt", accompanied by an old friend from St. Louis, architect Louis La Beaume, and a husband and wife team, Arthur Byne and Mildred Stapley, authorities on Spanish gardens and antiques. In the months before his trip he worked over Smith's elevations and floor plans so he could shop intelligently for details. During his six-week trip, he bought iron window grilles, Moorish stone windows, a Gothic ceiling, seventeenth-century paneled Moorish doors, Tunisian tiles, huge garden pots, and wrought iron gates, which he shipped to the Santa Barbara site. Smith and his close collaborator and draftsman, Lutah Maria Riggs, then measured the items on-site and incorporated them in the final working drawings. As a result of such close care and attention to detail, Smith was able to meld these disparate Spanish elements into a unified elegant whole.

Immediately after moving into the house; on the morning of Santa Barbara's major earthquake in 1925; Steedman and his wife began designing the surrounding gardens. Although a leading California landscape architect Ralph Stevens, and horticulturist Peter Reidel designed the gardens, Smith and Steedman worked with them closely to ensure their harmony and integration with the house plan. Although each side of the house looks onto a court or garden, Smith purposely kept the interior separate from the exterior. The series of walled gardens with fountains, circular pathways, and terraces epitomize Smith's thoughts on the ideal Spanish garden, where "intimacy and mystery is achieved...One is not Overcome by seeing it all at once, but has new surprises as he progresses through the garden".

With a staff of ten to fifteen gardeners, Steedman over a twenty-year period worked on and changed the gardens until they suited him, moving mocked up trees around to achieve desired effects. To water the large estate, in Montecito where water is often in short supply, he used an artesian well several hundred yards north of his property. Plunkett and Edwards, a Santa Barbara architectural firm, built a pump house for it in the Spanish Colonial Revival style in 1928.

Steedman also continued to impress his lively interests and keen intelligence on the outbuildings. He added the workshop and gardener's cottage with a garage in 1928. Three years later he added the library tower, designed by Lutah Riggs after Smith's death. He put up the guest cottage rapidly in 1932 to house his daughter, her infant son, and a Swiss nurse, on a visit from Europe. In his meticulously arranged workshop, still intact, he designed garden furniture, modeled on heavy leather and wood Spanish chairs, but translated into aluminum which he cast himself. For the iron stair railings leading to the back garden, he cast lion finials of bronze. Two Gothic birdhouses of his creation, one with a vertical sundial, adorn the east gardens. A student of medieval art, he decorated the vaulted ceiling of the loggia with mythical creatures and his aluminum garden chairs with scholarly monks and puckish school-boys. He cast silver vases for Mrs. Steedman's prize-winning camellias, then photographed the arrangements in his downstairs darkroom before bringing the vases into the house.

The house as well as the gardens remain largely, unaltered since Steedman's death in 1940. Such continuity is unusual in Montecito, where many Smith houses have been remodeled to suit new owners' tastes. Retention of such large acreage is also exceptional in a time when many estates have succumbed to economic pressure and have been subdivided. A major impetus in the remarkable continuity of the gardens, some sixty years after their inception, is the unrivaled devotion of several head gardeners, Joe Acquistapace, who worked on them from 1928 to 1977, and Ildo Marra, who arrived in 1946. Although the gardens have been simplified over the years, with the consultation of Lockwood deForest, noted Santa Barbara landscape architect, to acknowledge the sharp reduction in staff from fifteen to two, they remain remarkably true to the original intent of their owners and designers. Indeed a major value of the Steedman house, beyond its architectural worth, is its integrity. Seeing it and wandering through its gardens, one can readily slip back into the 1920s, the heyday of these Montecito estates.

Site Description

The Steedman House, a private residence in Montecito, California, was designed by George Washington Smith in the years 1922 to 1925. Built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the house is made of steel-reinforced concrete, with tile walls stuccoed and painted white, topped by red tile roofs. The approximately 11 acre property, in excellent condition, consists of the main house surrounded by a series of walled formal and informal gardens, two gardener's cottages (one with attached garage and guest house), a workshop and three gardening outbuildings.

A gentle S curve drive winds through three sets of gate posts to suddenly reveal, beyond a spacious auto court, a whitewashed two-story Spanish facade broken into irregular bays. A stone portal dominates the entrance facade. The three-bay main block is rectangular, with two wings extending one bay forward. A one-story, one-bay wing with shed roof nestles in the corner formed by the facade and the left wing. An octagonal one-story tower juts from the left corner. Although the house is large, only one facade is visible at a time. Modeled on Andalusian architecture which plays with a sense of mystery, revealing only small glimpses at a time, this house so combines walls and courts that the whole is never seen.

The foundation, basement, and frame are of reinforced concrete, the frame infilled with six-inch hollow tiles. On the interior, stud walls project into the rooms to give the illusion of thickness. The low-pitched, side-gabled roof, of red tile, is of four different heights. Between the two wings runs a shed roof, paralleling the lateral eaves. Seven stucco interior chimneys pierce the roof, one on the front, one on the ridge, and five on the back slope.

The off-center heavy wooden door, decorated with iron studs, is set into a large stone portal. In the lintel a carved stone tile of a centaur blacksmith makes reference both to the Steedman symbol and to the name of the house, Casa del Herrero or House of the Blacksmith. Above the cornice is a shallow wrought iron balcony with French doors. To the right of the doorway, a lamp hangs from a wrought iron rooster. Thirteen fixed and casement windows, all but four embellished with elaborate wrought iron grilles, punctuate the facade asymmetrically. Some have hoods and projecting sills. Others are set in deep reveals.

A double band of North African tiles in a geometric pattern of blue, white, and green skirts the base of the house. Colored pebbles in patterns form the surface of the auto court. In front of the door, white and black stones upended in concrete form a castle and lion, symbols of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the eagle of the Hapsburg Charles V. An octagonal tiled Moorish fountain rises from the center of the court. Low white stucco walls surround the court, with wrought iron gates leading to a garden on the left and the service wing on the right.

The rear, or south, elevation is relatively symmetrical. A second-floor arcade is centered over a double-arched loggia below. Flanking the arcade are a French window with a shallow wrought iron balcony to the left and a Moorish multifoil arched window to the right. To the left of the loggia is a triple-arched window, to the right a double-arched window, the arches of both separated by slender columns. Leaded glass windows with diamond quarrels are set behind these stone surrounds.

The recessed left bay incorporates a cutaway corner balcony with chamfered wood posts and turned balusters. Its supporting beam ends are painted whimsically with grinning cats' heads. A cornice formed by a double row of miniature stucco arches, mimicking the curved roof tiles, enlivens the eaves.

To the right, an attached wall leads through three arches into a Moorish garden extending the length of the east facade. The recessed left bay of this facade contains a balcony with iron railing and French doors. A second balcony juts from the wall near the right corner. A six-light casement window with iron grille and a small round-headed window set in a deep reveal lies between the balconies. On the first floor, two six-light casement windows with iron grilles flank the central arched door to the living room. Up five brick steps from the garden terrace, this door has decorative arched spool shutters on either side. The shallow scalloped second-story overhang rests on carved wooden brackets. Three cut-out triangles form a decorative vent in the gable.

On the west side of the house, a driveway leads into a sandstone auto court, enclosed by the west facade of the house and the east facade of the workshop and by two walls to the north and south. Two segmental arches, one enclosing a wooden double garage door, the other forming a kitchen entrance dominates this west, or service, facade.

To the left of the kitchen door under the arch is a massive tiled sink. The shallow overhanging second story is supported on overscale stucco corbels. On the second floor, two six-light casement windows flank a small round-headed window. Two similar casement windows, with iron grilles, light the servant's dining room to the right of the kitchen entrance. Three cut-out triangles form a decorative vent in the gable. The cutaway corner porch wraps around the corner from the rear facade.

Major Interior Features

The entrance hall contains a significant fifteenth-century Gothic ceiling. Removed from Teruel, in southern Aragon, it is made of pine and painted in rich shades of red, green, black and gray, highlighted in gold. Recessed panels, set between scored wooden beams, consist of Islamic geometric and organic patterns coupled with Christian figures and animals. (According to a 1927 article only two Teruel ceilings were in California collections, one with Mr. Steedman and the other belonging to William Randolph Hearst.)

A Tunisian-tiled three-point staircase curves dramatically from the dining room to the upstairs bedrooms. A polychrome ornamental hood on the dining room corner fireplace, painted by Mr. Steedman with a centaur and a fox, symbols of his name, as well as the creatures he painted on the vaulted ceiling of the loggia, reflect both his artistic skill and his admiration for medieval art.

The octagonal library, inspired by a medieval French chateau tower, rises to a frieze of twenty-four Biblical scenes copied from a fifteenth-century block book. At each juncture of the octagon's sides, small portrait heads depicting authors such as Dante, Bocaccio, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Cervantes, each with an open book in front of it, jut from the wall.

Outbuildings

A rectangular wood-frame workshop, with a red tile roof, connects to the house by two stucco garden walls, its east facade forming a side of the auto court off the kitchen. The walls are stuccoed and painted white. The main entrance is off the auto court. A gable dormer with fixed two light windows juts from the north slope of the hipped roof. Three interior chimneys, with miniature gabled red tile roofs, extend from the roof, two on the north and one on the west slope.

Built into a hill, the split-level workshop has blind arcades; infilled with brick, on the south and west facades. Two doors and two windows are enclosed in the arcades. A tiled stairway on the south facade leads to the upper level. Three arched windows with vertical mullions and an oriel window with leaded glass panes light the north facade. Six light casement windows are set in the remaining three facades.

Built in 1928 and attributed to George Washington Smith, the workshop, with tools, machinery, and a casting furnace intact from the 1930s, fills the top floor. A darkroom, wine cellar, and wine-tasting room are on the ground level.

Immediately to the west of the workshop stand three one-story gardening buildings: a board and batten whitewashed tool shed with a gabled red tile roof and attached concrete compost shed; a rectangular greenhouse, its glass panes rising to a gabled roof from a four-foot high concrete base; a board and batten potting shed on a four-foot high concrete base with an attached barrel vaulted lath house.

North of these outbuildings and connected by a sandstone boulder wall to the workshop is a gardener's cottage with an attached four-car garage. Built in 1928, this complex is also attributed to George Washington Smith. The split-level, L-shaped wood frame and stucco house has several projecting bays to the rear. The gabled red tile roof is of several heights and pitches. The recessed front entry, facing north, is flanked by two shallow wings containing oriel windows with wrought iron grilles. The rear entry and two second-story windows have stone surrounds with overscale keystones.

Attached to the east side of this cottage is a four-car garage with a gabled red tile roof. Its lintel is supported by five octagonal concrete columns whose bolsters are decorated with cats and floral designs. A one-story guest house of half-timbering infilled with brick painted white was built into the corner formed by the cottage and garage in 1932.

A large circular sandstone incinerator with a six-foot-high domed top stands in the northeast corner of the property. Beyond this incinerator, across a driveway, lies another gardener's cottage, designed by G. W. Smith and built in 1923. Sited right against the main road, this complex consists of an L-shaped main house and a small utility house linked by a stucco wall which has large wooden garage doors opening onto an auto court. Originally paved in large sandstone blocks, the court has been covered in asphalt. A verandah running along the rear, south, facade of the main block opens onto a garden supported by a sandstone retaining wall. The rear wing, rising to two stories, originally housed a garage and upstairs bedroom. The garage has been converted to a room and its doors replaced with aluminum sliding glass doors. A simple four-car wood frame garage with rough redwood plank siding and red tile roof was built later for gardeners' cars.

Landscaping

The land slopes gently downhill from the front of the property to the back. Surrounding the house are a series of walled gardens and courts, interconnected by arches or small gateways. Except for the long vista from the upper terrace to the base of the garden, the variety of enclosed gardens are designed in the Spanish style to provide unexpected visual surprises, revealed only as the viewer strolls through an arch, or around a bend in the path.

The long formal garden at the rear of the house extends in steps down the hill to a terrace surrounded by arched, tiled concrete walls with inset tiled benches. Its long strip of grass, bordered by brick paths and hedges, is punctuated by two tiled fountains. Tiled channels carry the water from one fountain to the next. A succulent garden lies at the base of this long garden. The outer gardens surrounding the formal garden, reached by semi-circular, stone-bordered paths, contain tree roses and citrus trees.

Two attached walled gardens lie east of the main house, a formal Moorish tiled garden with two fountains just off the living room, and further east, through a privet-covered arched wall, a grassy rectangle surrounded by borders of perennials. An extravagantly tiled wall fountain with tiled benches marks the eastern edge of the perennial garden. Baroque twisted columns resting on dragons and supporting a vine-covered pergola separates this garden from the citrus trees to the south.

To the north of these gardens, next to the library tower, is a narrow, hedged camellia garden, its boundaries marked by statues of Pan and St. Francis. To the west of the main house, next to the kitchen area, lies a series of stepped-walled gardens for herbs, vegetables, and cutting flowers. The edges of the property drift gently into the wilderness.

The apparent discrepancy in property line configuration between the Assessor's parcel map and Mr. Stevens' landscape scheme lies in the fact that the landscaped area did not cover the entire property Steedman owned, which included, for example, the dog leg to the east which opened onto Pimiento Lane. The only change in the historic property boundaries is the loss of a small parcel north of the property across E. Valley Highway; the remaining 10.93 acres encompass the balance of the historic estate.

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Main House, north elevation (2008)
Main House, north elevation (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California View of motor court from second story (2008)
View of motor court from second story (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Motor court stonework detail (2008)
Motor court stonework detail (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Spanish Garden with furniture (2008)
Spanish Garden with furniture (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Arcade wall (2008)
Arcade wall (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California East Exedra (2008)
East Exedra (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Blue and White Garden (2008)
Blue and White Garden (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Rose Garden (2008)
Rose Garden (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Main House, south elevation (2008)
Main House, south elevation (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Runnel (2008)
Runnel (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Pepper Tree Fountain (2008)
Pepper Tree Fountain (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Cactus Garden (2008)
Cactus Garden (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California South Exedra (2008)
South Exedra (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California East Orchard (2008)
East Orchard (2008)

Steedman Estate - Casa Del Herrero, Montecito Santa Barbara California Herb Garden door surround (2008)
Herb Garden door surround (2008)