A National Historic Landmark
Santa Barbara has five National Historic Landmarks – the Courthouse, the Mission, the Raphael Gonzales Adobe, the Santa Barbara Club, and Casa del Herrero. The Casa is a great tourist attraction and I have been lucky enough to be a docent there for twenty years. I would like to tell you about the origins of the estate based on an article that Medora Bass, the daughter of the owners, Carrie and George Steedman, wrote for a garden magazine, The American Woman’s Garden.
According to Medora the eleven-acre site was an old Spanish land grant, halfway between the mountains and the sea. “My mother was concerned because the garden would slope downhill instead of uphill as a proper garden should. Casa del Herrero means the House of the Blacksmith. Our place got its name because manufacturing metal products was my father’s business in St. Louis, Missouri and he jokingly referred to himself as a blacksmith.”
Medora loved the house and gardens and inherited it from her folks. Her sister Catherine didn’t care about it and continued to live back east. Medora’s folks, Carrie and George Steedman, had come to Santa Barbara with his diabetic brother to get insulin from Dr. Sansum, the only insulin in the United States at the time. They fell in love with Santa Barbara and bought the property in Montecito at 1387 East Valley Road in the early ‘20s to build a second home. They moved in in 1925, the day of the earthquake because there was no damage to their house. By 1930 they had moved from St. Louis to Santa Barbara full time. Mr. Steedman had heart trouble and retired here.
As Medora said, her perfectionist father began the house and gardens in 1922 and wanted them both to be purely Spanish. In connection with the garden she remembered the names of Ralph Stevens, Peter Riedel, and Lockwood de Forest and over and over the name of the architect George Washington Smith. Her father worked constantly on the blueprints. He made a trip to Spain accompanied by Arthur Byne and his wife Mildred Stapley who knew all about Spanish gardens and antiques. It only took Steedman five weeks to gather everything he needed from Spain: a fifteenth-century ceiling from a monastery, Moorish doors, furniture, tapestries, tiles, grilles, flower pots, and wrought iron gates. He photographed and made sketches in Seville, Granada, Ronda, and Majorca. Then he incorporated all this with his plans. All of these ancient things remain in the house today for our enjoyment.
According to Medora, “The garden went through many changes; the sound of the tile setters’ hammers was almost constant even after we moved in during the summer of the earthquake. If a pergola was to be added or a tree moved, a mock-up was built to ensure that the perspective and the proportions satisfied my mother and father. The project was my father’s dream, but he always respected my mother’s advice.”
The Steedmans spent the next 20 years developing the house and gardens. Medora said her father had so many ideas that he had apprentices working full time with him in his well equipped shop. We still have the aluminum garden furniture, unusual for the time when garden furniture was wicker. Dad also made lion finials for the terrace railings. Silversmithing then became his main hobby after the garden. In eleven years Steedman smithed over 100 silver pieces, especially his sculptured vases for Carrie’s camellias inscribed “To hold God’s gifts for your delight.”
Medora’s father died in 1940 and her mother was devastated. Medora thought gardening restored her mom to her cheerful, gracious self. Carrie Steedman became quite the horticulturist and was president of the Santa Barbara Garden Club, winning many prizes in flower shows. Roses and camellias were her favorite. One of her dad’s last projects was to set up a dark room to photograph his wife’s flower arrangements before they went into the house because he hated to have such beauty be so fleeting.
Medora’s mother died in 1963 and before she and her husband could move here her mom’s loyal gardener and horticulturist Joe Acquistapace took care of the property. He was here for 50 years and trained Ildo Marra (son of one of the old gardeners). As Medora said, “I always feel that the garden has only been loaned to me and that it really belongs to those who created and nurtured it. I have the joy of getting most of my exercise in it now that I have given up tennis and I have inherited my mother’s tasks in the rose garden.”
Medora said the courtyard with its Spanish tiled pool and black and white pebbled pavement is similar to that of the Patio de la Reja in the Alhambra. I think the Saint Francis statue and the Satyr Bacchus staring at each other among the camellias is someone’s idea of humor. Saint Francis was a rich playboy who imbibed too much before he got religion and became a saint. The large exedra was made out of cardboard first to try it all over the garden choosing the perfect site for the tiled bench. Medora had many white flowers in the blue and white garden in memory of her parents who often enjoyed the garden in the moonlight.
Medora’s father especially liked the medieval look of the fan shaped garden of tree roses. Medora reminisced, “A bench with a view of the ocean and the islands through the south archway is one of my favorite spots in the late afternoon. I have reached an age now when all I collect are sunsets.”
There is a gothic birdhouse/sundial that her father made which says, “Use well thy time/ Fast fly my hours/ Good works live on.” There used to be two white doves, but today there are no tenants. One of the favorite trees that visitors like are the dragon trees which seem to date from the time of the dinosaurs. Originally from the Canary Islands, the sap is blood red and used by the Egyptians for their mummy recipe and perhaps by Stradivarius on his red violin.
There is a whole orchard of citrus and other fruit trees which were helped along by the eight gardeners and Depression-era projects done by jobless men. The drainage of the clay soil was poor and orange trees don’t like wet feet so they dug trenches and laid pipes to drain each tree. They also built compost bins and garbage pits. They practiced organic gardening years before it became popular.
At age 73 Medora wrote, “I wonder if I am realistic in hoping that someone in the family will be able to afford to keep up Casa del Herrero. And I worry that I am neglecting my reading and work in the population and family planning. But then I remember the old Chinese proverb that ends ‘if you want to be happy for life, plant a garden.’”
I think Medora would be pleased with the stewardship of the Casa since it is a protected foundation, dedicated to the preservation of all she held dear with the door open for the public to see and admire what her parents created. The Casa still has relatives on the board who recall what it was like when they would come to visit grandma and grandpa and they tell us anecdotes of those times. When the pandemic is over, the casa will be open for 90-minute docent led tours. Just call 805.565.5653.