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  • Writer's picturejeff wing

Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden – The Eden That Oil Built

Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden will be tended and cared for in actual perpetuity—like Bruce Dern’s space-borne forests in the sci-fi eco-epic Silent Running, but without the waddling little gardener robots.

In the very heart of our domed Xanadu-by-the-Sea, there exists a publicly beloved green idyll; a sun-dappled shire of exotic flora laced by twisty gravel paths carpeted with the finest crushed granite. There are sensory gardens and mad-looking trees ablaze with blossoms, little streams surmounted by little bridges, kids sprinting through the maze-work as joyous as you please, and the occasional lovebirds trying to capture a little magic under the sheltering arms of the much-carved oak that anchors the middle of the place. A large, painterly pond fronts the 4.6-acre wood, jammed (at one time) with huge, ponderous koi gliding in and out of the water’s shadows, turtles with insolent expressions sunning themselves on the rocks, and perfectly duck-colored ducks—the best kind!

This is the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, a lovingly curated nature-lover’s wet dream which, thanks to the careful planning and founding stewardship of many dedicated locals, will be tended and cared for in actual perpetuity—like Bruce Dern’s space-borne forests in the sci-fi eco-epic Silent Running, but without the waddling little gardener robots [at least for now].

When standing in the middle of all this madly photosynthesizing largesse, it can be difficult to comprehend that all this was bought and paid for with that most odious emblem of all that is wrong with the world today; Oil Money. No complaints here. Though if they could just divert a little more of that Texas Tea into making the Sensory Garden recordings decipherable, that’d be cool. Push the big, well-meaning silver buttons for recorded guidance these days and the narration emitted by the little speaker could be Rudy Vallee murmuring through a badly bent megaphone.

So, how did big bad oil (or ‘ole’ as paunchy wildcatters in the movies pronounce it) manage to gift Santa Barbara such a priceless jewel as the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden? The tune goes something like this (and many thanks to Anne-Marie Castleberg’s terrific and loving volume, “Alice’s Garden”).

Baby SB Given Form By Men in Mustaches

Within a couple years of California being declared a state (1850—but you knew that) Santa Barbara’s foundlings pushed their western-style hats back, thoughtfully stroked their awful frontier mustaches, and got busy figuring out what would go where in the newish city. In their wisdom, they set aside several contiguous parcels on what is now the Upper East Side, to be used as public parkland. On a map they designated the area “Garden de Alameda”; roughly “The Garden Walk”. Having so designated the area, they moved on to other things, and the parcels changed hands several times in the ensuing years.

In 1903 or so, a wealthy widow named Mary Miles Herter hired a highfalutin design firm to build her a splashy Mediterranean style mansion on a piece of land she’d purchased in Santa Barbara. She called the place Mirasol. The grand main house and carefully landscaped environs would take up the whole city block between Micheltorena and Arrellaga streets on the south and north, respectively, and Garden and Santa Barbara streets to the east and west. Yeah, the future Alice Keck green zone.

Comeuppance in the City of Lights and a Mansion in the Garden District

Some two decades before, Mrs. Herter’s husband, New York Interior Design millionaire and gifted artist [not to mention self-regarding gadfly] Christian Herter had departed the U.S. for Paris to better his art through study, leaving Mrs. Herter and the kids back in the States. Despite the fact that the idea of Karma had not yet fully taken hold in the Western world at that time, Mr. Herter was nevertheless felled by tuberculosis within a year of his leave-taking. Just sayin’.

The square city block in the middle of Santa Barbara’s original “Garden de Alameda” was beginning to draw development schemes like a cupcake draws flies

By 1909, their son Albert Herter, a self-made textile and design giant himself, and a painter of some repute by that time, had moved with his wife Adele into his mother’s sprawling estate as they helped her furnish and complete the interior. When his mother passed away in 1913, she left Mirasol to Albert, and he and Adele wasted no time realizing what must have been on their minds all along: the transformation of the property into a lushly planted bungalow village, the main house becoming a luxury hotel which they named El Mirasol, [Spanish for “The Mirasol”]. In its day the hotel would garner a rep as THE destination for the uber-wealthy in search of privacy, quietude, and the company of other outlandishly well-off people.

From Vanderbilts to Ruin

In 1920 Albert and Adele Herter sold El Mirasol to a guy named Frederick Clift, who owned Santa Barbara’s Biltmore; and from here it gets a little nutty. Clift maintained the gold-plated reputation of El Mirasol for two decades and sold it in 1940, and from there the hotel and property bounced from owner to owner. In 1962 the property was purchased by Morgan Flagg, an art collector and developer. By this time, though, the property had been a going concern for half a century and the once grand El Mirasol was beginning to look a little the worse for wear. The bungalows, too, were becoming rough around the edges. The costs of maintaining the estate began to eat away at Mr. Flagg, and in ’65 he sold to a Jacob Seldowitz.

When a year or so later fire gutted part of the main house, the property took on the character of an investment millstone hung gaudily around Mr. Seldowitz’s neck, and he came up with the idea of razing the entire estate and building a nine-story hotel on the parcel, complete with a 400-car underground parking lot and a 2500 seat arts complex. The surrounding neighborhoods, by then robustly populated, did not take a shine to the idea, and the first whispers of maintaining a certain “character” unique to Santa Barbara began to dominate the conversation.

The Planning Commission acquiesced to the expressed wishes of the worried Santa Barbarians, and Seldowitz’s request was denied. To which he responded by quickly selling the hotel’s contents, gathering the necessary permits and preparing to plow the whole thing under anyway. The storied El Mirasol, and the ostentatious mid-town lifestyle it had represented, was soon to be replaced by an overgrown, untended, vine-choked city block nearby residents would steer well clear of. But not yet…

The property next fell to a consortium of development hopefuls who optimistically christened themselves the El Mirasol Investment Company. The square city block in the middle of Santa Barbara’s original “Garden de Alameda” was beginning to draw development schemes like a cupcake draws flies, the value of the lot becoming ever more apparent as SB herself began to attract a regular tourist stream. The consortium’s for-profit plan? To put up an eleven-story condo tower. The Planning Commission turned them down. The consortium appealed, and the City Council, possibly ruminating dizzily over “tax base” (a familiar thought bubble around City Hall, one supposes) returned with an approval.

The Aptly Named Pearl Chase

A very vocal opposition to the condo plan, led by a fierce little steamroller in a floral hat named Pearl Chase, were all over this one. Chase, who had arrived in Santa Barbara as a young lady, would, in her productive, restless, and locally activist life, play a singularly huge role in the very look and feel and character of her beloved adoptive town. It was Chase who spearheaded the Spanish style red tile roofs and arched paseos that would typify the post-1925-earthquake redesign/rebuild of SB. Chase would have none of this high-rise condo jibber-jabber.

She and her colleagues hammered City Hall until the Council was moved to actually rescind their earlier permission. The consortium was stymied. The bulldozers went ahead and leveled the lot, and the property entered the aforementioned Munsters period; overgrown with weeds and vines, and even the occasional derelict car. Locals avoided the area. The El Mirasol era had ended with a wrecked whimper.

Blue Bloods Out. Holistic Vegetarians In

The disappointed El Mirasol Investment Company offered the land to the Museum of Art, who managed to raise enough to buy the land, but then hadn’t the money left to relocate the museum to the new site, which had been their plan. The President of the Museum Board, Carol Valentine, came up with a wild idea. She convinced her fellow board members to allow the Community Environmental Council (CEC) to make free use of the art museum’s newly bought parcel for several years as an experimental urban farm.

The CEC, determined to show that sustainable agriculture could take place in the middle of an urban area, even a rough-and-tumble concrete jungle like Santa Barbara, assembled, and for several years successfully managed, the El Mirasol Educational Farm. Thousands of delighted and curious locals partook of the project. It’s not known if any Rockefellers stopped by.

Wealthy Lady with Last Name “Park” Fated to Fund One

By 1972, though, the museum’s cup runneth over with all things Mirasol and they moved to quickly unload the albatross of a property to anyone who could afford it. The CEC did everything it could to buy the land on which their now fully functioning Educational Farm was flourishing, but couldn’t gather the funds. As the process rolled forward, the CEC peeps loudly suggested to the Powers That Be that whoever purchased the property should capitalize on the Chlorophyll Kingdom they’d already laboriously created and turn the property into some sort of horticultural park.

On the quiet periphery of all the fuss, a couple guys took keen notice of the idea. Accountant Reginald Faletti and attorney Francis Price (he of powerhouse firm Price Postel and Parma) thought the idea had legs, and confidentially said as much to their client; a financially liquid, extremely private local lady named Alice. Her father had founded the Superior Oil Company in 1922 and made a killing on the flammable sludge. His name was William Myron Keck. NPR listeners will recognize the name of his philanthropic wellspring, as it is invoked in the preamble to most NPR programs; The W.M. Keck Foundation.

Alice Quietly Buys and Gifts Crown Jewel

On September 28, 1975, papers were quietly and quickly drawn up transferring funds in the amount of $800K to Faletti and Price for the purchase of the land, on the condition that Alice Keck Park’s identity as sugar mama not be revealed while she lived, and that the city accept the free gift in the form of a horticultural park, and nothing else. When the City of SB learned of the proposed purchase by the then-secret donor, and her conditions, they were not pleased. Planners had envisioned something with tennis courts, plastic benches, water coolers, people gamboling about in lil’ white shorts, and so on.

But museum board president Carol Valentine had approached Elizabeth de Forest of the Botanic Garden board. The SB Botanic Garden would sign on as future steward of what would become the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden. When these vegetation boosters enlisted (yeah) fire breathing, Santa Barbara-adoring Pearl Chase to gather her forces and get the city planners to see the light…well, they saw the light. The city relented, Faletti and Price closed escrow on the long-embattled city block on the upper east side, and the deal was done. The arrangement included language that stated their purchase was for the “…sole purpose of dedicating the property to the City of Santa Barbara for use as a free public park.“

Keck, Park, and Mr. Leonarduzzi

Alice Keck Park died in 1977 at the tender age of 56, and the closing years of her life were characterized by a tantalizing bit of romantic intrigue. Alice’s husband, David Park, passed away a mere three years after their marriage, in Paris. David was the grandson of Montecito’s Charles Caldwell and Hellen Park, after whose domicile that village’s lovely Park Lane is named. At any rate, with David gone, Alice began a period of solitary travel, and by 1962 had made the close acquaintance of a physical education teacher in Northern Italy named Bruno Valentino Silvio Leonarduzzi.

They eventually moved to Colorado, whose “common-law” marriage laws meant there would be no publicity surrounding their union, which was a must for the intensely private Alice. For reasons unknown, the two parted abruptly in 1973, and never saw each other again. When she passed, it was discovered that the will Alice had written in 1967, while in the throes of her time with Mr. Leonarduzzi, did not mention him, even in passing. Mr. Leonarduzzi was, in effect, Alice’s secret second husband.

How to Mix Oil and Water

On December 5, six months after Alice’s passing, a telegram reportedly arrived in Santa Barbara, addressed to Alice Leonarduzzi. In Italian it read “Happy Saint Barbara’s Day. Thinking of you always.” Obliged by law to locate any potential claimants on the estate, an attorney working on behalf of Ms. Park’s posthumous interests tracked down Mr. Leonarduzzi. After a brief tussle with Alice’s estate, her Italian common-law husband accepted a $5M settlement. By then, the horticultural park that could not bear Alice’s name in her lifetime had been given the honorific it bears today; the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden.

As happens more often than is commonly celebrated, this wealthy benefactress leveraged her oil fortune to improve her beloved adoptive town, which she’d first laid eyes on as a child. The mighty philanthropic W.M. Keck Foundation likewise continues to blaze a trail of beneficence—from USC’s Keck school of Medicine to the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Key, Hawaii. Check it out. The Keck oil fortune is all over the place, driving scientific discovery, whetting and encouraging both public curiosity, and pithy discourse about the larger world. Think of it as a life-enhancing oil spill.


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