Val Verde In My Mind

You know those kinds of memories where you're not really sure whether it is a real memory, or a memory of watching yourself in a home video, or even a memory of how you imagined a story someone told you?

Well, I recall going on a hike with my sister soon after she moved to Montecito, when I was about 14, and that the trail, which she had found with a friend on a previous hike, took us right up to the backyard of an abandoned mansion.

I remember peering through bushes for glimpses of the mansion in its slightly decaying glory and my sister telling me that there were rumors that one of the descendants of the former owner still lived in there and tried to keep it up, as evidenced by the still-pruned shrubs and other such details. Supposedly sometimes hikers (trespassers) spotted someone swimming in the pool, but neighbors never saw cars come or go.

She also told me that in the 1920s, when the house was in its heyday, the owner often held glamorous days-long parties for celebrities up from LA and East Coast polo players who vacationed in Santa Barbara.

I asked her years later where that hike was, and she didn't have any recollection of it, and said the story I described didn't ring any bells. That is sounded somewhat like Val Verde, but that Val Verde was run by a foundation and that there's no way some squatter lived in there.

Love the stripes above. The clock propped on the floor makes this shot perfectly eery.

Click for the rest:

Ever since, Val Verde has become woven into that memory as the images of what I saw, but I've never stopped wondering if I imagined what we saw on that hike or the stories she told me. Maybe we just went on an ordinary hike and she told me about Val Verde and I imagined the rest? Or did the whole thing happen, and she just doesn't remember, and the hike and that mansion are still out there for me to rediscover?

I still think about it whenever I hike a new trail in Montecito, wondering if I'll come across that old house... Interestingly, Ann Mitchell's dreamlike photos of Val Verde, the black and whites above, capture the way I remember the house I saw... mysterious, shadowy, and intriguing.

Regardless, Val Verde is beautiful and worth sharing, and I'm convinced that whatever the case, Val Verde itself has some mysteries to it. From my research, I learned that Val Verde was built in 1915 by architect Betram Goodhue, and that it was the first single-home family built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style in the US. The landscaping was done by Lockwood de Forest, who also later remodeled the buildings.

It is called the best-preserved California home in this style, and is considered one of the finest examples of this style of architecture in California. It is also the best-preserved California home in this style, and is considered one of the finest examples of this style of architecture in California.

Tiles from the facade of a Middle Eastern building thought to date to the third century.

I couldn't find much information about Henry Dater, the original owner who commissioned it, but I did run across the intriguing snippet that the house was "once a retreat for the nation's gay cultural elite," though it wasn't clear during what years this was true. It was actually quite difficult to find information about the house, especially surprising given its architectural significance.

The next piece of history is that in 1955 Heaton Horth Austin, an heiress from Chicago, bought Val Verde as a wedding present for her husband, Dr. Warren Austin. The Austins started the Austin Val Verde Foundation, which preserved the property until it went bankrupt (after their death) just a few months ago.

Unfortunately, even while held by the foundation, it wasn't open to the public because Montecito residents thought it would cause "traffic issues" to have tourists coming to see the house, even though traffic studies proved this wouldn't happen. The only access to the home the foundation was allowed to give was through the few parties per year they were permitted to throw.

After filing for bankruptcy, seemingly because Montecito residents managed to block the foundation from any means of making money, it was purchased by a Russian millionaire, Sergey Grishin, for $15.2 million in September of this year. ($15.2m? Only?! I'm serious! It's a landmark and it's like 20 acres!) He hasn't stated what he plans to do with the property, and its fate remains a mystery.

Ok and lastly, what is this about? I came across this blurb is from a Santa Barbara Independent (our newspaper) obituary.
"Betty Gallagher, the wife of the first president of the Associated Press, who helped him run the Berlin bureau after World War II, died Thursday. She was 93.
She died at her home in her Val Verde Casa Dorinda home."
Printed like that! With Val Verde crossed out! What does that mean? What do those writers at the Independent know?!

Images and information from Austin Val Verde: Impressions of a Montecito Masterpiece by Ann Mitchell and Jay Belloli, Austin Val Verde: A Montecito Masterpiece by Berge Aran, and the Santa Barbara Independent.

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