Gardener’s Eden

Historic Casa del Herrero offers a rare glimpse of an estate from California’s golden age, and demonstrates the sheer beauty of preservation

Casa
?Seen from the sleeping porch on the second floor, the tiled Star Fountain is one of the most distinctive features of the garden's south vista. The trees separating the lawns are standard oleanders.

Credit: ?Basil Childers

With a peerless Mediterranean climate and dramatic stretches of coastline, central California has lured explorers and settlers for centuries. But few of them created a personal Eden as remarkable and inimitable as George and Carrie Steedman's. Their Montecito home, Casa del Herrero, may be the finest example of residential Spanish Colonial Revival architecture open to the public anywhere in the world. And the gardens surrounding the house are spectacular survivors from the golden age of California garden design. "They haven't been changed," says Molly Barker, executive director of Casa del Herrero. "They're an incredibly important example of gardens from the Country Place Era."

George Fox Steedman, originally from St. Louis, Mo., made a fortune managing his father's foundry during World War I. In the 1920s he purchased an 11-acre parcel of land east of Santa Barbara. There, between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, he built Casa del Herrero—the House of the Blacksmith. The name referenced Steedman's family business and his very personal passion for decorative metalwork.

Because Steedman was fascinated by Spanish architecture (which seemed ideally suited to Montecito's coastal climate), he hired George Washington Smith, an architect known for Spanish Colonial Revival designs, to draw the plans for a house. To create a sumptuous garden, Steedman engaged Ralph Stevens, already recognized as a gifted landscape architect.

Stevens drew the original plans for the garden, incorporating intimate garden "rooms" that would serve as extensions of the house itself. He continued to make suggestions as the gardens grew, though Steedman often tweaked the plans—adding parterres or inserting flights of steps in key areas.

"My sense is that Steedman eventually turned to the celebrated designers Lockwood de Forest Jr.and Francis T. Underhill in 1925 to unify the garden design," Barker says. "The incredible garden we see is the result of their combined efforts."

Approaching the house today, visitors first notice the elegance of the facade. All the design decisions here—the entry door carefully placed off-axis, the central fountain, the lush plantings—were the result of extensive collaborations among Steedman, Smith, and Stevens.

As the landscape comes into view, it is clear that the Old World elegance of the house spills into the garden, linking the indoor and outdoor spaces. Fine examples of handcrafted metal furniture, some of which Steedman designed and made himself, underscore the message that these are outdoor "rooms."

Like other gardens from the Country Place Era (a landscape design movement that flourished in the first half of the 20th century), Casa is animated by historical motifs—many of them from western Europe.

Just to the east of the house, the small Spanish Garden patio, designed by Smith, is a miniature version of El Generalife in Granada, Spain. (Its proportions echo those of the living room.) From here, views open out through a sparkling white arcade onto the Blue-and-White Garden, and the distant tiled seating area, or exedra, that serves as a fitting eye-catcher and an eloquent termination of the garden's east axis.

The most memorable landscape feature is the south vista, which stretches from the house toward the ocean. More Italianate than Spanish, the landscape is accentuated by water features, including fountains and a rill, that draw the eye toward the end of the garden.

Casa del Herrero shares a ridge with such other famed Montecito estates as Constantia, Il Brolino, and the Bacon Estate (where Oprah Winfrey lives today). All benefit from breathtaking mountain views to the north and ocean views to the south. But only Casa del Herrero has retained its original period furnishings and personal effects. And only Casa has retained its original landscape glory.

After Steedman died in 1940, Carrie Steedman remained in the house until her death in 1962. Their daughter Medora Steedman Bass lived on the estate until her death in 1986, and her son, George, fortuitously created the Casa del Herrero Foundation in 1993 with the help of neighbors and community supporters.

"The garden was probably at its peak from 1931 to 1940, when Mrs. Steedman would have had 14 gardeners working here," Barker says. "By the time the family gave it to the foundation, I understand that workers had to hack back the giant bird of paradise 'trees' at the entry court and remove abundant growth around the south exedra." The clearing and preservation efforts initiated before the gardens opened to the public in 1993 continue even today.

"One of the reasons we can maintain this property with only two gardeners and volunteers is that it's such a strong structural garden," Barker continues. "It's not so much about flowers. They are just accents to the green garden. The tiles are really the flowers here."

Now on the National Register of Historic Places, and a recipient of a 2003 Stewardship Excellence Award from The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Casa del Herrero is poised to flourish in the new millennium. "It's unparalleled—truly the perfect marriage of spatial and visual relationships on a human scale," says Charles A. Birnbaum, president of the foundation. "It's intimate, unassuming, incredibly tactile, yet restrained in its use of color."

The garden remains a breathtaking—and utterly authentic—Eden, which triumphs in offering a memorable glimpse of the Country Place Era in the Golden State.

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