THE MOOR THE MERRIER
As traffic on Montecito’s East Valley Road rushes past, time at Casa del Herrero is in no hurry -- and hasn’t been for more than 80 years. This is where munitions manufacturer George Fox Steedman built his dream house, long regarded as one of the Santa Barbara area’s most impressive design landmarks. But the truth is, historians consider the surrounding gardens just as sublime.
The entrance to the 1925 Spanish Colonial Revival house, for instance, is a stark white facade punched with small windows. It’s as plain as the adjacent palm-lined motor court is ornate, the pavement mosaic of black and white stones topped by an octagonal fountain clad in cobalt-blue tiles. Separately, home and garden are interesting; together, they’re unforgettable. Architecture and landscape design are so entwined on the 11-acre estate, it’s difficult to imagine one without the other.
For the 7 acres that were planted, Steedman looked to Spain for inspiration -- specifically, the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra and Generalife palaces, where walled open-air rooms came alive with mesmerizing fountains and glazed tiles framed by romantic archways. He first hired Ralph Stevens, a Montecito landscape architect known for his exotic-looking subtropical gardens. Later, some of the more complex plans were simplified by the equally esteemed local team of Lockwood de Forest and Francis Underhill.
The well-preserved garden and house provide an exceptionally vivid snapshot of a bygone era when wealthy Midwestern industrialists came west to build their winter retreats in the California sun. The inspired work of Stevens, De Forest and Underhill, in particular, prompted the Department of the Interior to designate the estate a national historic landmark earlier this year.
“Casa del Herrero represents a fully realized example of the American Country Place movement, which began in the 1890s and lasted to about the 1930s,” says Molly Barker, executive director of the Casa del Herrero Foundation. “The Spanish Colonial Revival building, the Spanish-Moorish grounds -- they’re still here for us to see, and they’re the work of some of the most important Southern California designers of the period.”
Steedman and his wife, Carrie, came from St. Louis and were enamored of the Spanish architecture they had seen on their European travels and that had been popularized by the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. To design their winter getaway, they hired Montecito architect George Washington Smith, then the most celebrated practitioner of the style.
Steedman, an accomplished metalsmith, collaborated with Smith on the design and layout of Casa del Herrero, whose name means House of the Blacksmith. After Steedman and his wife furnished the home with pieces purchased abroad, they moved from Missouri permanently in 1930.
The garden, meanwhile, was laid out like a cross, with the long axis running north-south, from the mountains to the ocean. It was completed in 1933, and to this day intimately scaled outdoor rooms encourage visitors to wander and discover what lies concealed around a corner, at the end of a path or down a few steps.
“I’ve taken many clients to Casa del Herrero,” says Santa Barbara landscape architect Sydney Baumgartner, one of the foundation’s garden committee members assisting in the estate’s restoration. “Anyone interested in a classical, axial garden with long views, framed lawns and shaped hedges can see all that here -- plus glorious tile work, wrought iron, benches and waterworks.”
Perhaps the grandest feature -- “the exclamation point,” as Baumgartner puts it -- is the sweeping southern vista where three tiled fountains on three terraces are aligned so that water flows from one to the next through a gravity-driven system of Steedman’s design. Elsewhere, white patio arches, once obscured beneath layers of creeping fig, frame an east garden of blue and white flowers.
Farther out, hidden behind walls and hedges, standard roses bloom inside a boxwood parterre and, in two orchards recently under-planted once again with California poppies, trees hang heavy with oranges and other citrus.
A few of the surprises include the aluminum patio furniture and a sundial shaped like a birdhouse handcrafted by Steedman. He fabricated these and other objects in a workshop that remains, like everything else on the property, much as it was until he died in 1940.
Eric Nagelmann, another Santa Barbara landscape designer, worked as a gardener at Casa del Herrero in the late 1970s.
“Even then, it was like a time warp,” he says. “There were no electric tools. I was on my knees, edging the lawn with hedge shears and pulling weeds by hand instead of using a weed whip.”
Still, Nagelmann remembers it as the experience of a lifetime:
“I got over the initial ‘wow,’ ” he says. “But three months later, it was such a fabulous garden that I was still noticing details I didn’t know were there.”
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