One of only four properties in Santa Barbara to be designated on the list of National Historic Landmark properties (the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Mission and the Rafael Gonzalez House being the other three), Casa del Herrero, 1387 East Valley Road in Montecito, welcomes visitors by reservation to the exquisite house, gardens and workshop.
As a native St. Louis resident transplanted to Santa Barbara, I was drawn to the beauty of this place and its St. Louis connection.
George Fox Steedman, a talented industrialist who made his fortune running the family’s foundry, Curtis Manufacturing Co., left his Westmoreland Place mansion in St. Louis in the early 1920s. The stress of supplying the British with bombs and casings during World War I and the discovery of a heart abnormality led him to follow his doctor’s advice to seek a quieter life in a different environment.
Purchasing 11 acres in Montecito, he entered into a symbiotic partnership with renowned architect George Washington Smith and noted landscape architects Ralph Stevens, Peter Reidel and Lockwood de Forest, of Central Park fame.
Traveling with friends from St. Louis to Spain, he purchased carved wooden doors, iron grilles, Gothic ceilings and any Spanish or Moorish tile he could find, bringing it all together to create one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in America.
Moving day was June 29, 1925, when at 6:45 a.m. neighboring Santa Barbara’s great earthquake struck, destroying some of the city’s finest structures. Thanks to construction of steel-enforced masonry, Casa del Herrero survived without a crack.
Steedman’s happiest hours were spent in a workshop that he designed. There he would perfect his silversmith craft, produce America’s first aluminum garden furniture and invent items taken for granted today — the stereo sound system, lighted walk-in closets and entertainment centers.
A student of Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University, he created a fellowship at Washington University providing an annual scholarship to an outstanding student of architecture. He established the Steedman Architectural Library at the St. Louis Public Library with an inscription on the mantelpiece, “May students search these shelves for records of honest work and good design and so find inspiration for great achievement.”
The Casa’s magnificent gardens — outdoor rooms, really — are a reflection of the man. A romantic, generous, humble man of great intelligence and creativity. A private family man. A Renaissance man.
For 70 years, Casa del Herrero has been in the Steedman family hands. George Steedman died in 1940, his wife, Carrie, in 1963 and their daughter, Medora, lived in the house until her death in 1987, when the property eventually became a nonprofit organization with tours to the general public available by reservation only.
The St. Louis connection lives on in former St. Louisans Hilary Niemann, board member, and her mother, Jane Burkemper, docent.
“This incredible Andalusian style casa is preserved exactly as it was when the Steedmans lived here, with tennis trophies still on the shelves, Carrie’s needlepoint waiting on her settee and one of George’s silver projects sitting on his workbench,” Burkemper tells visitors. “It’s as though they decided to go for a drive in one of the brand-new Buick roadsters he gave his wife for her birthday every year, and forgot to return.”
Another of his many gifts to his wife is the four-sided sundial in the garden, his inscription to her a touching reminder of the philosophy and remarkable life of this man:
“Use well thy time.
Fast fly my hours.
Good work lives on.
The night brings rest.”