If you look down at Montecito from a hilltop, it's almost impossible to see much of the gardens, with their exotic plants and lovely stone benches and poetic reflecting pools. There are too many trees, for one thing, and even more hedges.
But unlike traditional fences, hedges have holes, lots of them, particularly if you are a child and not that far removed from the ground. As children in the 1960s we would pop through the foliage like hobbits, wandering along the edges of fantastic estates to get from one side of this rich man's Eden to another. One of my favorite memories is of emerging from a hedge to the sight of a long reflecting pool on which floated pearl-white swans. Years later I would think I had dreamed it.
You might find it alarming, these trespasses, except that we were shy children and nervous, much like hobbits, and would never have thought of harming anything. We also had a pronounced fear of caretakers, who we were sure would arrest us on the spot. So our glimpses of this fairy-tale beauty were often quick and fleeting.
My mother, on the other hand, was much bolder. She would think nothing of traipsing up to a deserted estate to wander inside some wreck of a house. There was one grand manse whose original owner had achieved notoriety by burying a gardener's cottage rather than wrestle with officials over having it torn down. The house later fell into the hands of a rich man's son who gutted it and then abandoned it like some fading beauty. Another time we wandered outside the Waterman house, built by the heir of a Pennsylvania mining and rail fortune, which had fallen into complete disrepair--its last owners had simply moved from one room to another as that section of plumbing or electricity or roofing started to fail.
It was a shame, because what had happened in Montecito in the early part of the 20th century was the passionate cultivation of estates so grand that they continue to amaze today. Many of the Eastern and Midwestern financial elite who came for their vacations stayed on, and some green streak in them took root. Among the most precocious of these nouveau gardeners was Ganna Walska, an erstwhile opera singer and collector of rich husbands. Her quirky vision resulted in Lotusland, a massive estate where entire sections are devoted to primeval cycads or otherworldly euphorbias or plants in shades of blue or larger-than-life topiary figures, not to mention the abalone-shell grotto.
While anyone can experience Lotusland, one of two estates open to the public, all the others--the El Miradors and Il Brolinos--are hidden behind their hedges. To see them, you would have to be a sprite, or one of the 20 artists attached to the Easton Gallery in Montecito who spent two years painting them for the book "Gardens of Santa Barbara."
In renderings so sensitive to light that they quiver, one sees the sumptuous Italianate grounds at El Mirador. Its benefactors, the Armours of meatpacking fame, were so taken with the land that they built a magnificent water garden but never completed a planned mansion.
Another Midwestern dynastic transplant was the McCormicks of Chicago. Their Riven Rock estate was home to a mentally ill son who, in periods of lucidity, helped plan the grounds.
The Italiante marvel Il Brolino had as its patron lumber heiress Mary Stewart, who turned over her estate to Pasadena landscape architect Florence Yoch. Not too far from Il Brolino was Arcady, where a Roman pavilion loomed over a heated swimming pool and dressing rooms. In almost Hearstian overkill, owner George Owen Knapp, a director of Union Carbide, also commissioned an oval outdoor pool, a children's pool, a lily pond, a water stair garden, teahouse and ballroom.
No one had thought to evoke Spain's greatest glory, the Alhambra, before St. Louis industrialist-turned-ironsmith George Steedman did it with his gardens at Casa del Herrero. More than one of the book's painters has captured its vivid tile work and outdoor rooms, open to the public on a reservation system (much easier to obtain than at Lotusland, which is booked ahead for months and months).
But, as we saw on our explorations, many of Montecito's estates, and the fortunes that created them, suffered in the ensuing decades. They didn't bother to chase us away when my best friend and I lounged by the unkempt pool at the San Ysidro Ranch. At the back of the Bacon estate, the fallen trees began to take on a gothic look. The one estate mutilated by vandals (horrible Gollums I imagine them to be) was the Bothin Teahouse, where the magnificent stone aqueduct and water gardens were ravaged.