AUTO TRANSFORMATION: PART 1

It started out as a trickle and soon became a flood. Automobiles were pouring through Santa Barbara. The local garages kept track of those who stayed to patronize the hotels, but city officials had their eye on those who passed on by to camp along the roadside or in farmers’ fields far outside of town.

When City Councilman A.W. Dozier returned from an auto tour in 1915, he reported that he had encountered thousands of motor parties and shared camps with hundreds of people from throughout the country. Mindful of the lost business potential of motorists just “passing through,” Dozier recommended that the City designate a piece of land for an auto camp. Campers who stopped in Santa Barbara for the night would “lay in a supply of groceries, take in our theaters, spend a little money, and get an idea of what Santa Barbara really is,” he said.

No immediate action was taken on Dozier’s idea although a young man named James L. Hawkins opened a camp in connection with his auto supply station at Cacique and Salinas streets. He put in a grocery store and installed water, telephone, gas and light and put in sewer connections.

In 1919, the City, cognizant that more than 100 motorists a day were bypassing Santa Barbara, finally opened its own camp at Alamar and De la Vina (then Hollister Avenue). By 1920 the camp included a central lodge with a shady porch furnished with tables and chairs. Inside, campers could use any of the 12 gas plates for cooking, dishtowels, dishpans and a large sink. Ironing boards and irons were available, and there were two laundry tubs, a porcelain bathtub and several showers. Hot water was supplied from a gas water heater.

The City Campgrounds also provided the following: for the children, a large sandbox and swings; for the motorist/mechanic, a pit; for the laundress, facilities for drying clothes; and for the City, potential home buyers. In July 1920, City officials claimed that “over eighteen thousand dollars worth of real estate [had] been sold...as a direct result of the Auto Park.”

The Hollister Cluster

The City Campgrounds, located underneath shady oak trees and near Mission Creek, was soon overflowing so in 1922 Santa Barbara Auto Camp opened across the street. In 1925, just north of Mission Creek, Mountain View Auto Camp opened its gates, and around the corner at 128 West Alamar, L.O. Church opened a short-lived auto camp.

The population of Santa Barbara tripled between 1910 and 1930. As houses sprang up farther and farther from the central core of State Street, so did businesses. With four auto camps in close proximity, it is no wonder that a cluster of stores began to dot the 2700 block of De la Vina (Hollister). First to arrive were a corner grocery store and meat market owned by J. M. Couch and C.B. Stewart (today’s Mimosa restaurant and bar) and a drugstore owned by B.T. Keith at 2704-06 (today’s Mayo’s Carniceria & Tacos).

Couch’s grocery became a Safeway Market around 1931 until Safeway built its own store at 2720 in the late 1930s (today’s Santa Barbara County Sleep Shop). The City Campgrounds became Davis Brother’s Auto Camp in 1926 and then the Davis Garage and Tire Center.

In 1926, the north side of the block had three grocery stores, three restaurants, one barbershop and one drugstore, as well as an auto camp. The south side of the block developed in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. By 1949, there were two gas stations, two restaurants, one grocery store, one barbershop and one auto court.

While the Mountain View Auto Camp at 2820 De la Vina is now the Ralphs shopping center, and Church’s camp on Alamar is now covered with a condominium complex, the Santa Barbara Auto Camp at 2717 De la Vina still exists as a modest but impeccably maintained trailer park. What makes the 2700 block unique in an era of urban renewal is that time seems to have passed it by. As such, this block preserves the flavor of a much earlier Santa Barbara.

Most of the original buildings still exist and are used as initially intended. What started out as J.V. Murray’s restaurant at 2709-11 in 1932 was split into a restaurant and barbershop in 1941. Today, Amigo’s Hairstyling for Men shares the structure with Jimboz Lounge (the former Lejon’s which was the former Poop Deck). The building at 2714 has spent most of its life as a bakery, and the former grocery store at 2710 continued to serve food as the Steer Steakhouse (1959), the Sweden House Restaurant (1969) and, currently, as Edomasa Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar.

Auto Courts & Motels

As time passed, auto camps evolved into tourist camps and then into auto courts and motels. By 1949, Santa Barbara boasted a total of 42 auto courts and motels, 23 of which were on Hollister Avenue (De la Vina and State). One of the longest lasting was Bam’s Auto Court, located on the north side of State Street across from Hitchcock Way. Opened in the 1930s, Bam’s included a restaurant and service station. In the 1940s, a covered wagon and two pioneer statues decorated the entrance. Cars drove through a grand arch and each cabin was shaded by its own tree, the trunk of which had been painted white to prevent fender benders.

But auto courts were becoming suspect in the 1940s. Then FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover attacked motels and auto camps in an article called “Camps of Crime.” The anonymity of auto court life versus hotel life had led to a class of travelers who were one step above tramps, said some. Communities no longer were so welcoming of these visitors who became known as “tin can tourists.” Citizens were critical of the dilapidated condition of the auto courts as well as the loose morals of these travelers. In its heyday, Bam’s was considered a respectable establishment, but by the time it was demolished in the late 1960s, its reputation was tarnished and it had become the target of college hijinks. In the early ‘60s, a fraternity group attempted to liberate the statue of Bambi, the deer. News-Press headlines announced: “College Students Go On Deer Hunt.” Most of the group was caught in the act and, according to the local constabulary, discovered that deer hunting was out of season.

Hollister Avenue was the western gateway to Santa Barbara. Once known as the Goleta Road, it flowed into De la Vina Street at Mission Street. State Street dead-ended at Constance Avenue until the 1950s, so Hollister-De la Vina was the main thoroughfare.

The eastern gateway to the city was the Coast Highway in Montecito. In 1923, when Ida Lietzow established her auto camp between Hot Springs and Olive Mill Roads, only two gas stations just east of Hot Springs Road and six houses fronted this entire stretch of Coast Highway. Little did she know that 25 years later, the entire character of Montecito would change.

(Sources: Sanborn maps, city directories, Rouse and Tompkins articles, contemporary news articles, Internet sites, especially MotelAmericana)

(Ms. Beresford is a retired English and American history teacher of 30 years in the Santa Barbara School District. She is author of two Noticias, “El Mirasol: From Swan to Albatross” and “Santa Barbara Grocers,” for the Santa Barbara Historical Society. She can be reached at news@montecitojournal.net.)