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Where Spain Reigns

A Montecito Estate Filled With Wrought-Iron Gates, Hand-Painted Tiles and Weathered Urns

November 10, 1996|Susan Heeger

During the 1920s, when George Fox Steedman decided to build a house and gardens in Montecito, he did what rich sophisticates did then--he traveled to Spain for inspiration. But while others came back with visions of white walls, tile roofs and bubbling fountains, Steedman returned with crates of Spanish gates, doors, urns, tiles and furniture for his estate-in-the-making, Casa del Herrero (House of the Blacksmith).

Steedman's fanatical attention to detail distinguishes his casa--designed by well-known Spanish Colonial Revival architect George Washington Smith--from others of its day. Inside, dark beamed ceilings, elaborate tile work and recessed leaded windows set off a remarkable collection of carved and inlaid tables and chests, rich tapestries and ironwork. Noted Santa Barbara architect Lutah Maria Riggs designed the finely wrought octagonal tower of the library, a 1930s addition after Smith's death. Equally compelling is the workshop next to the house where Steedman, a retired St. Louis industrialist, crafted silver vases, designed his own tools and forged Spanish-style aluminum furniture for his outdoor patios.

Steedman was just as particular about his gardens. Created by noted landscape architects Ralph Stevens and Lockwood de Forest and horticulturist Peter Riedel, the grounds were modeled on Spanish villa gardens to celebrate secluded outdoor life, the restfulness of green in bright sunshine and the cooling effects of water in an arid climate. While flower borders appear here and there, they don't detract from the purity of Casa del Herrero's courtyards, sheared hedges and palms. Potted ivy geraniums and traditional handmade tiles provide color, and water flows from one elegant outdoor room to another through a recirculating system that Steedman may well have engineered himself. Each landscape offers a glimpse of the next through a vine-clad arch or windowed gate. Every shady glade provides a place to sit, a tiled bench or a finely worked aluminum chair.

Recently opened to the public, along with the house and "blacksmith's" shop, the 11-acre site has been preserved largely as it was during Steedman's lifetime. Its enduring features include the motor court's octagonal fountain, black-and-white Spanish pebblework and palm plantings--an exotic mix of tall, multi-trunked specimens and smaller, silver-leafed trees. Wrought-iron gates lead to side gardens: a lawn flanked by a courtyard and a tiled exedra; an herb parterre overlooking an orange and lemon grove. Behind the house, the view unfolds across grassy terraces that step downhill between eugenia hedges and ivy to a fountain patio of broken stone and native oaks. Weathered urns direct the view across more lawn and stone to another iron gate. This one marks the unraveling of formal gardens into a rambling hill of desert plants, so beloved by Californians in the '20s.

Steedman died in 1940, but his family kept the estate and eventually formed a foundation to preserve it. The foundation's executive director, Laura Bridley, calls Casa del Herrero "a museum showing how people lived in the 1920s," Montecito-style. But even more, it captures the world of one man who came west to live in the land of his dreams.

Casa del Herrero is open by appointment only. Though it closes in December and January, reservations for tours in 1997 can be made by calling (805) 565-5653.

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