Montecito & Summerland

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History of Montecito

The site of present-day Montecito, along with the entire south coast of Santa Barbara County, was inhabited for over 10,000 years by the Chumash Indians. The Spanish arrived in the 18th century but left the region largely unsettled while they built the Presidio and Mission Santa Barbara farther west.

In the middle of the 19th century, the area was known as a haven for bandits and highway robbers, who hid in the oak groves and canyons, preying on traffic on the coastal route between the towns that developed around the missions. By the end of the 1860s, the bandit gangs were gone, and Italian settlers arrived. Finding an area reminiscent of Italy, they built farms and gardens similar to those they had left behind in Italy. Around the end of the 19th century, wealthy tourists from the eastern and midwestern United States began to buy land in the area. It was near enough to Santa Barbara for essential services while still being secluded. Desirable weather and several nearby hot springs offered the promise of comfortable, healthy living, in addition to the availability of affordable land.

The Montecito Hot Springs Hotel was built near the largest of the springs, in a canyon north of the town center and directly south of Montecito Peak, in Hot Springs Canyon. The hotel burned down in 1920; it was replaced a few years later by the smaller Hot Springs Club.

The architect George Washington Smith is noted particularly for his residences around Montecito, and for popularizing the Spanish Colonial Revival style in early 20th century America, as is Lutah Maria Riggs, who started as a draftsman in Smith’s firm, rose to partner, and later started her firm.

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History of Summerland

Tar from natural oil seeps in the Summerland area was long used as a sealant, both by the native Chumash peoples and by the Spanish builders of the Mission Santa Barbara, who used it as waterproofing for the roof. In 1883, spiritualist and real estate speculator H.L. Williams founded the town of Summerland. In 1888 he divided his land tract, on a moderately sloping hill facing the ocean, into numerous parcels. He promoted the tiny lots – 25 x 60 – to fellow Spiritualists, who bought them in quantity and moved to the area. The spiritual center of the town was a Spiritualist Church, with séance room, demolished only when Highway 101 was put through in the 1950s. Summerland is said to still be a center for supernatural occurrences.

During its early days, Summerland was called ‘Spookville’ and rumors of abnormal occurrences like those that that earned the town this nickname persist today. Supposedly, founder H.L. Williams’ former residence, The Big Yellow House, is haunted and always has been. Objects supposedly get moved around and doors open and close without human assistance.