Looking at the images taken of Santa Barbara shortly after the 1925 earthquake, which demolished much of the city, it’s astonishing that the then-newly built mansion of George Fox Steedman suffered no damage. So, it’s perhaps fitting that the lush grounds of this wealthy inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist’s estate has served as a refuge this past year as COVID-19 has upended life as we know it.
“During this period of anxiety, it’s nice to be in a quiet space with tranquility,” says Jessica Tade, executive director of Casa del Herrero, the name Steedman (pronounced STED-man) bestowed upon the now-historic mansion and the precisely planned gardens in the heart of Montecito, adjacent to Santa Barbara.
The Steedmans came west from St. Louis to visit his brother, fell in love with the Santa Barbara area, and decided to build a part-time home. The family moved into the mansion on the same day that the 1925, 6.3 earthquake jolted the area’s population awake. Eighty percent of the commercial buildings in Santa Barbara were in rubble.
“It’s truly amazing that the house was intact,” says Tade as she escorts us around the precisely manicured property.
The home, which has earned designation as a National Historic Landmark, is closed for renovations, but the plan is to reopen it for tours this summer. The mansion has been called one of the finest examples of Spanish revival architecture in the country. The surrounding 11 acres of gardens and groves also have won accolades. The green spaces are accented by artful walls, tiles, trellises, sculptures, fountains and architectural details, many of them fashioned by Steedman, who took up blacksmithing upon retirement. (Casa del Herrero translates to House of the Blacksmith).
As we meander from one garden to another, Tade explains that the grounds are landscaped so that one must pass through a succession of entries to explore each section. It was Steedman’s wife, Carrie, who focused on creating this “eclectic mix of Country Place Era and Moorish-inspired gardens.” (Country Place Era is an American landscape design popular from about 1890 to 1930. Wealthy homeowners commissioned landscape architects to reproduce the European gardens that the homeowners had seen on their European travels.)
One of the most notable garden features is the group of dragon’s blood trees (Dracaena draco) in the Arizona Garden, one of the farthest from the house. The trees are clustered so tightly it appears that they are interwoven to form a canopy. A 2019 renovation undertaken by volunteers from the Garden Club of Santa Barbara and its $7,000 grant make it possible for visitors to walk underneath the trees.
There also are many details throughout the estate, inside and out, that serve as evidence of Steedman’s talent at the blacksmith’s forge and craftsmanship with wood. His ornate birdhouses grace the property here and there.
Like so many other attractions, destinations and historic landmarks, Casa del Herrero was forced to close during the pandemic. The gardens have reopened and reservations are necessary. For particulars, visit casadelherrero.com/tours.
Tours are self-guided but docents are stationed throughout to answer questions.
The advantage of the self-guided tour is that “visitors can move at their own pace,” Tade says.
Come July, “we are hoping to reopen the house safely to tours with modifications provided by the county and the Public Health Department. The house at this time is undergoing necessary painting and cleaning and preservation of the second-story tile floors.”