They Call it Mellow Yellow… The Case of the Hidden Staircase

By Leslie Westbrook   |   March 18, 2021
Summerland’s iconic Big Yellow House

The Internet and townsfolk are all abuzz about the Big Yellow House’s new “yellow” paint job. About a month ago, I received a text with a photo of the building being painted. It read:

Dear Summerland correspondent,

The Big Yellow House is being painted cream.


Nancy Drew

I was relieved that the super bright, lemony yellow paint job of yesteryear – who said that was a good color? – was not being repeated.

Adding to the chit-chat on social media about the paint job, Summerland resident Jed Hirsch posted on Facebook: “Well, we can all be relieved that the old, broken “ IG Y LOW HOU E” SIGN IS STILL THERE!!” 

I decided to check it out for myself; plus, I was curious about the long-term and/or vacation rentals in the mixed-use building. I had discovered the units while searching for a vacation rental (for family) on Craigslist. They’re also on Airbnb. The décor is lovely, bright, tasteful, and there’s really good original artwork on the walls.

The property manager referred me to the building owner for questions, who chose to remain anonymous. The owner did inform me that the new color was in fact a “very pale yellow and the same color as The Miramar.”

A professional decorative painter/colorist with a keen eye was quick to name it “creamy white.”

In all fairness, the photo that “Nancy Drew” had sent me was of the paint job in progress and the base coat was lighter than the final coat, which I could see better if I enlarged the image. I wondered why the Summerland Architectural Review Board has been missing in action so much lately – especially with all the new, white buildings in town. Did the board have a say or did it even care? 

Summerland resident and Realtor Jim Witmer, who is the liaison between the Summerland Citizens Association and Summerland’s Board of Architectural Review opined: “At one time, I thought it had landmark status and HAD to be yellow. Santa Barbara County decides about paint, but they encourage people to come to the BAR first to save a lot of trouble. That makes dealing with the county much smoother.” He added that the Summerland’s BAR doesn’t have any power but is an advisory board.

The Big Yellow House has been painted “creamy white”
The mixed-use building offers monthly rentals from studios to three-bedroom units

The house’s commercial space downstairs is still for rent in the mixed-use building.  Several parties are currently interested, so get going if you want to be part of the effort to revitalize the Summerland commercial district. The former restaurant space – where kids stepped onto a huge old-fashioned scale and were charged for their meals according to their weight – features the wonderful, historic, tiled fireplace, and original woodwork that has been restored. 

The old, wooden staircase that leads upstairs has been sealed off; is that where Hector the Ghost lurks, I wondered? (He’s known to hang out in the basement, the former wine cellar and gift shop.) Instead of a stairway, an elevator in a tower whisks guests to the residential rentals.

The monthly rates for a studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom in the house range from $3,200 for a studio to $10,750 for the three-bedroom unit. Daily and weekly rates are available with a three-night minimum. The nightly rate for the three-bedroom, my favorite of them all, is $1,250.

Try googling “Summerland Lofts” on Craigslist or Airbnb to book.

Since the aftermath of the 2017 Thomas Fire and debris flow, the mixed-use building has been a thorn in the side of the owner, who purchased the residential-and-retail spot in January of 2011. A hot yoga studio came and went, as did a short-lived antique shop and art gallery. With Summerland now getting back into the swing of things, perhaps a new, anchor tenant downstairs will sign up for the site with a rich history. 

The former restaurant space in the Big Yellow House features a historic, tiled fireplace and original woodwork that has been restored

The house at 102 Pierpont Avenue was the home of Summerland founder, a Spiritualist who conducted seances here. The home was built in 1844 as the private residence of Mr. H.L. Williams. In the early 1970s, it was purchased by John and June Young and, thanks to June Young (also a founder of Santa Claus Lane), was anointed the Big Yellow House. Summerland was not happy when she painted the house a vivid yellow and topped it with a bright orange roof. But one and all came to embrace the restaurant and its family-style dinners that were loved by locals and tourists alike.

The current owner plans to leave the humongous sign and repair it, telling me that it will “belong to the tenant on the main floor.” He then suggested changing it to a sign that would read “Welcome to Summerland!” I like that idea. But I’m sure it would cause a controversy, just as the Facebook page’s chatter has done for the house’s new look.

I like the new paint job. It’s subtle and suits the building, even if it does add to the blandness of the new main drag.

Decades ago, the town had a local newsletter in which I wrote a story about the “many colors of Summerland.” At the time, I lived in a pink house with turquoise trim (it’s currently painted blue) and the town was dotted with all kinds of colorful buildings. The Bohemian feel of Summerland seems to have gone by the wayside, just like the seances of yesteryear. Meanwhile, tony new shopkeepers are busy turning the main drag into a sea of fresh, but boring white.

Imagine if the town had gone the other way and if drivers on Highway 101 saw a town reminiscent of villages in Mexico, casas in Cuba, or even the charming gingerbread houses on Martha’s Vineyard, where life is celebrated with colorful architecture. That would really put Summerland on the map!

Are There Really Ghosts?

The owner of the building and I also spoke about spirits and yes, he and others have had some spooky encounters here. Rod Lathim has written a well-known book that I’ve yet to read, titled The Spirit of the Big Yellow House, about his experiences with Hector the Ghost.

I’d really like to slumber there for a couple of nights and see if any ghosts might visit me. I have had a few paranormal experiences – including a most startling one the night after I visited the Big Yellow House. (Was that you Hector?) I’ve been told that I am a “sensitive” like my great grandmother, Rosalie, who was born on a Sunday with a caul. I’m willing and able to meet any spirit: just say the word “Boo!”


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