The Miramar We Remember

The year is 1968. Clad in my college uniform – ripped 502 jeans, striped Penny’s Towncraft tee shirt covered by a plaid Pendleton shirt, and Pivetta hiking boots – I’m heading north on Highway 101 on my way back to UCSB. Stowed in the trunk are two pillow cases filled with freshly laundered, neatly pressed clothes, compliments of Mom. Hidden at the bottom of my duffle are the tubes of toothpaste and bars of soap I’ve sneaked from Dad. I’ll hear about it later, but by then I’ll be more than 100 miles away and out of reach.

In my pocket is a check for $50 for living expenses for the month, compliments of my capitalist pig father who is soooo Establishment. He bemoans sending me to college saying that I, primarily, seem to be learning nothing but four-letter words. I flash him the sign and chant “peace, love, happiness.”

As the oil-burning Corvair descends Ortega Hill and passes the postcard view of Fernald Point, the blue roofs of the Miramar announce our arrival at the gateway to Santa Barbara. Set in a world of green lawns and ornamental plants, the inviting cluster of buildings is a landmark for travelers. One blue cottage roof announces the price for a night, $6. I have the money for the indulgence, but my dorm room awaits and there’s a war protest scheduled for this afternoon, and the SAE’s are hosting a kegger at Devereux, and….

It is now 2007. I never did get to stay at the Miramar but for all the years I’ve lived in Santa Barbara, it has continued to be a landmark for locals and travelers alike. Rumor has it that when Paul Gawzner, an experienced Eastern hotelier, acquired the hotel from the Doultons at auction in 1939, he overheard local architect Harriet Moody tell another bidder that the hotel could easily be spruced up by painting the walls white and the roofs blue. Though the blue and white theme is more Delft than Doulton, Gawzner nevertheless preserved most of the original buildings and added improvements of his own.

The Miramar Gawzner Built

When Gawzner took possession of the hotel, he recognized that guests no longer arrived by yacht or train to spend a season. Modern guests seemed to be middle class autoists who stayed for a weekend. Such being the case, the hotel needed to be oriented toward the highway, so Gawzner moved the lobby and part of the dining room of the original main buildings toward Highway 101 and incorporated them into a new Colonial Revival-style building. What was left of the old house became Surf Cottage. Gawzner also moved several cottages and divided others.

In 1941, he added a neon Miramar sign and moved eight cabanas to the new pool. He added 16 small cottages to the beachfront and removed the pier by 1944, using its planks to build a new boardwalk. During World War II, the Army Ground and Service Forces (AG & SF), commandeered the Miramar (as well as the Biltmore and Mar Monte hotels) as a Redistribution Station. Soldiers returning from the battlefronts of Europe and the Pacific received a furlough here and were processed and evaluated for further duty.

After the war, Gawzner regained control of the hotel and continued to improve the property. He added another set of bungalows and another pool. In 1949, the Montecito Parkway project, which had stalled in 1937 at San Ysidro Road, was pulled through to Sheffield Drive. This project attempted to beautify the coast highway with median and border plantings as well as provide local access to residences and businesses through two side roads, North and South Jameson. Consequently, the Miramar lost the front end of its gas station as well as the 9-hole golf course. It also lost its curved entryway and the reception building now directly fronted South Jameson.

In the 1950s, Paul Gawzner built the Miramar Convention Center on the site of the old stable/garage. What was left of the original house was moved to the space behind the parking lot of the Miramar Convention Center and was used for storage.

In 1962, two-story motel-style units, which soon started to dominate the entire property, replaced the beachfront cottages. In the ’70s, two train cars appeared and the public was invited to join the Miramar Tennis and Health Club. Around this time, Jacques Renon was installed as lifeguard and security guard. Wearing European-style Speedos long before the short-lived trend hit California, Jacques became a Miramar landmark in his own right as he kept the hoi polloi well below the mean high tide line.

Long Live the Miramar

In its first 111 years, the Miramar was owned by only two families, the Doultons and the Gawzners. In 1998, Ian Schrager purchased the hotel for $31.7 million. Mr. Schrager developed a plan for the Miramar that won approval of residents and the various planning boards alike. He closed the hotel in 2000 and tore down what remained of some of the oldest buildings by destroying the reception and convention buildings. He also removed the rail cars, and many of the cottages were jacked up and placed on blocks. Schrager was unable to proceed with his plans after the financial consequences of September 11, and the Miramar languished for the next five years, its only seasonal guests being the swallows which built their mud houses in the eaves of the vacant buildings and the inevitable rot and decay that long periods of neglect produce.

In April 2005, Ty Warner, founder of the Beanie Babies empire, rode to the rescue of the Miramar only to abandon it to dry rot and dust when, among other issues, disputes with the Montecito Association became too much for him. In February 2007, Los Angeles-based mall developer, Rick Caruso, purchased the property for nearly $50 million. He has undertaken the task of learning about the Miramar and what it means to Montecitans by sponsoring several community meetings and inviting public input. He has especially requested that residents share their memories of the Miramar. (I’m sure that if Mr. Caruso didn’t know how many of us have Miramar Memories, he does now. Following are a few more.)

Six-year-old Ingrid Overaa (now Armstrong) lived on Posilipo Lane in the 1930s and basically grew up on Miramar Beach. Her father loved to fish from the Miramar pier and she loved to trot after him, begging him to let her fish. One day, he relented and offered to set her up. Ingrid imagined holding a beautiful pole and was disappointed when he attached a hook to some line that he tied to the pier. Being 6, Ingrid soon grew tired of fishing and ran home for a while. When she returned, her father was a bit grumpy. He had caught no fish. When they pulled in her line, however, there was a large fish on the end. Shaking his head and grumbling, he vowed never to take her fishing again.

A decade later, the old pier was gone, but the Overaas were still on Posilipo Lane. During the war, Ingrid’s father was the block warden for the Miramar and patrolled the beach each night making sure the dimout was enforced. It was a frustrating job, for no sooner had he insured that the lights were out all the way to the Edgecliffe, they came back on during his return journey.

In 2000, Cheryl Crabtree, writing for Montecito Magazine, interviewed Grover Barnes, who had been the Miramar’s bell captain from 1946-1981. Mr. Barnes was so popular with the guests that people would return to see him and bring their children and grandchildren to meet him.

Barnes remembers that starting in 1952, food and drink was delivered to the cottages by bicycle. Bellmen balanced the trays in one hand or on their heads. The more adept entertained the guests by riding with their arms folded or riding backwards. He also recalls that in addition to scores of honeymooners, the Miramar appealed to such Hollywood luminaries as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, BB King, Red Foxx and Bobby Kennedy.

In the early 1950s, room rates started at $2.50. In the restaurant, lunches started at 60 cents, dinners at 85 cents and Sunday dinners started at $1. Raging inflation by 1964 had pushed the room rates up. The cost of a cottage ranged from $7-$18 and a new oceanfront motel room set one back a whopping $24.

At one time or another during the Gawzner years, the Miramar’s amenities included tennis courts, shuffleboard, horseshoes, croquet, a private beach, two swimming pools, volleyball, ping pong, a children’s beach playground, card room, putting greens, snack bar, TV lounge, a raft, restaurant, night club and convention center.

Today, the 120-year-old Miramar has a new owner, and a new era has begun.

(Sources: Files of the Montecito Association History Committee and the Santa Barbara Historical Society.)