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Do You Know Dwight Murphy?
If you think Pearl Chase was the force behind Santa Barbara's post-earthquake makeover, author Edward Hartfeld says you'd better meet Dwight Murphy.
In Santa Barbara, where the importance of preserving the Spanish architectural styles of the city’s first European settlers is comparable to the significance of jazz in New Orleans, and where “Los Angeles” — with all its sprawl — has long been considered a dirty word, it’s worth asking who’s responsible for starting the legacy.
In fact, many people think they already know. In their minds, that mantle belongs to Pearl Chase, the woman widely credited for ensuring, in the wake of the devastating 1925 earthquake, that Santa Barbara rebuilt itself in the architectural image of its Spanish forebears.
But local resident and new author Edward Hartfeld is here to tell them there’s an unsung hero, one who nobody seems to remember. In his highly deferential first book, California’s Knight on a Golden Horse, Hartfeld even suggests that the contributions of this man — Dwight Murphy — significantly outweigh those of Santa Barbara’s oft-cited woman of the century, in whose honor remains the still-thriving Pearl Chase Society.
“I consider her to be the micromanager of Santa Barbara’s beauty and preservation, which are all small projects,” Hartfeld said. “Dwight Murphy was the macro-manager, and literally the architect of Santa Barbara’s development after the earthquake.”
Hartfeld likes to give this thumbnail description of the book.
“It’s really the story of how Santa Barbara’s renaissance came about — making it the city we know today,” he said. “The whole thing was primarily driven by Dwight Murphy from behind the scenes.”
Yet, he said, Murphy’s only memorial in town consists of a namesake field near the waterfront known mostly for attracting a sketchy element at night.
Born in Illinois in 1884, Murphy was the heir to his father’s extremely lucrative railroad equipment business. According to the book, which bears the subtitle “Dwight Murphy, Santa Barbara’s Renaissance Man,” Murphy was the silent, behind-the-scenes, often high-dollar influence that made possible a myriad of still-existing Santa Barbara landmarks.
They include Earl Warren Showgrounds; East Beach; Stearns Wharf; the Fiesta equestrian parade; Lake Cachuma and the nearby Bradbury Dam; and a bevy of public parks, including the Bird Refuge, Cabrillo ballpark, Mission Park, Franceschi Park, Pershing Park and, ironically enough, Chase Palm Park along the oceanfront.
Murphy also co-founded, with Chase and two others, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. (Hartfeld acknowledged that this was Chase’s idea.) What’s more, during the Great Depression, Murphy created a model of providing jobs to unemployed workers that was emulated by President Herbert Hoover.
Yet, throughout his life, Murphy took pains to ensure that most of his accomplishments occurred in anonymity.
“He was almost paranoid about publicity,” Hartfeld said. “He was a very rich man, which might have had something to do with it, but he was also extraordinarily modest.”
Now, Hartfeld said he is trying to give Murphy the credit for which he is long overdue. With that goal in mind, Hartfeld spent tens of thousands of dollars on self-publishing a book that he expects will fail to pay for itself.
“From the dollars and cents side, it’s a loser,” he said of the book, which includes a forward written by acclaimed California historian Kevin Starr, a USC professor emeritus and a 2006 recipient of the National Humanities Medal. “But that’s not the idea. The idea is to get a memorial for this man.”
Hartfeld said he will use the proceeds from the book to create a memorial — perhaps a life-sized sculpture — in Murphy’s honor. Hartfeld isn’t certain where he’d like it to be, but says, with a wink, that the memorial might look good at Chase Palm Park. (Click here to visit the book’s Web site.)
So far, Hartfeld has had some success. Just seven months after printing 2,000 copies of the book, he has sold 840, at $25 apiece. The Santa Barbara Public Library purchased 10 off the bat, and the local group “Friends of the Library” declared it to be the “Read of the Month” in November. He has also given several lectures locally.
Mary Louise Days, Santa Barbara’s former city historian and a member of a local group known as “Pearl’s Girls,” said she believes Hartfeld’s account is fair.
“He’s not too negative — he’s just trying to make sure the others are recognized,” Days said, although she doesn’t necessarily agree that Chase was a micromanager.
“I don’t know that she micromanaged every committee, and I’m not really sure what macro-manager means,” she said.
Days added that back in the 1920s, women — Chase included — often did not have money, and seldom were allowed to sit on the most powerful boards.
A retired business executive and a graduate of Santa Barbara High, Hartfeld decided to write the book in 2002, shortly after he began researching the work of his late father, John H. Hartfeld, who served as superintendent of the Park Department under Murphy.
Hartfeld said he was shocked by the wealth of information he discovered.
“I knew nothing about my father, except for a rumor he threw out the first ball at Cabrillo ballpark,” he said. Hartfeld had known even less about Murphy. Now, he is a walking encyclopedia of the man’s life.
Despite its biographical bent, Hartfeld’s 230-page book is heavy on local history, opening not with Murphy’s birth, but rather a poetic description of the land’s plush landscape, whose sublime suitability for human habitation was first realized by the Chumash.
The beginning pages make the case that Santa Barbara, with its scenic beauty and near-perfect climate, tends to attract or create a tranquil, peace-loving people.
In the late 1700s, for instance, instead of following the usual script of killing each other over land, the Chumash and Spaniards exchanged gifts at ceremonies.
The point, it seems, is to establish how Santa Barbara has been a special place since the beginning of time, and as such, deserves to be settled upon and developed in a special way until the end of time.
When the Murphy family first arrived from Illinois in 1905, Santa Barbara was not being developed in a special way that accentuated its innate charm, Hartfeld said.
Instead, word was circulating across America and around the world that it was a fabulous place to escape the bitter cold weather in the East. Santa Barbara was turning into a vacation getaway for the wealthy, who used the city as a spa and health resort. Massive hotels were built in the late 1800s to accommodate them.
The rest of the city grew and developed in a way that was then typical of a burgeoning Southern California community.
“Santa Barbara had no more charm than the average Midwestern farm town,” Hartfeld said.
In a sense, he says, Santa Barbarans got it wrong the first time around. But the 1925 earthquake gave them a second chance.
“Twelve people died, but the silver lining was it so decimated the commercial district that it provided a golden opportunity for the reconstruction of the city in the Hispanic architectural style,” he said.
Eleven days later, it was Dwight Murphy, then 41, who co-founded and headed the city’s newly formed Master Planning Committee. At Murphy’s State Street office located in El Paseo — California’s first shopping center — a group of preservationist-minded civic leaders charted a course for rebuilding the city to reflect its Spanish heritage.
In just five years, an abundance of local icons sprung forth: the Courthouse, the Arlington Theatre, the Biltmore Hotel, a redesigned business district, the strengthening of the annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta and the beautification of the waterfront.
Through it all, Hartfeld says, Murphy was the invisible visionary and financier, while Chase, as head of the city’s Plans and Planting Committee, was the visible enforcer.
“She was the beauty cop in town,” he said. “If anybody wanted to put up a sign, she would go after them hammer and tong.”
To be sure, Hartfeld gives Chase credit for saving the sprawling Moreton Bay Fig Tree near the train station from the chainsaws of an oil company, as well as ensuring that Southern Pacific Railroad rebuilt its unsightly roundhouse in the image of a Spanish bull ring.
But he said Chase’s activist influence was dwarfed by Murphy’s big money.
For his part, Murphy benefited from some luck and good timing. A half-decade before the onset of the Great Depression, he sold his father’s company and made so much money he was able to retire at age 40.
As a result, Murphy was one of the only wealthy Santa Barbarans whose fortune survived the financial black plague of the 1930s, Hartfeld said.
“The wealthy people in Montecito lost their shirts in the Depression like everybody else,” he said.
Even the city government was practically broke.
Murphy’s major contribution to Fiesta centered on his love for horses. An avid rancher, he decided to rejuvenate the earthquake-battered celebration by saving a type of Arabian horse — the palamino — from near extinction.
Murphy bred the horses at a ranch he leased on Paradise Road off San Marcos Pass. (To this day, it serves as the U.S. Forest Service’s Los Prietos Ranger Station.)
By the late-1920s, Murphy boasted a team of about 15 palaminos — which are a color, not a breed, and are widely admired for their golden hue and mild temperment.
Beginning in 1929, Murphy invited dignitaries from across California to ride the handsome horses in the parade. Among the takers were the likes of movie stars, mayors, senators and even governors.
“They had to be in Spanish costume,” Hartfeld said. “He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on silver saddles, and decked out horses. … When you saw them coming down the street, it was just breathtaking.”
True to form, Hartfeld noted, the limelight-shy Murphy apparently rarely, if ever, rode one during the parade. Hartfeld said that during his six years of research for the book, he never found any photographic evidence that Murphy took part in the parade for which he was largely responsible. However, he added that Murphy’s equestrian work was the only thing for which he gained any sizable amount of media coverage.
It was also during the late ‘20s that Murphy used much of his own money to purchase large sections of the waterfront, so they could be preserved and beautified.
Hartfeld said the deals tended to be brokered behind closed doors.
By Hartfeld’s telling, Murphy’s desire for secrecy was aided and abetted by politicians and a media mogul.
The series of waterfront land deals along Cabrillo Boulevard between Milpas and Chapala streets were prompted by two City Council members, who secretly asked Murphy and his close friend — Max C. Fleischmann, heir to Fleischmann’s Yeast — to take a gamble for the public good. The idea was that the wealthy men would buy the property, and the City Council would attempt to reimburse them through voter-approved bond measures.
Meanwhile, Murphy was best friends with T.M. Storke, the owner and publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press, who tacitly agreed to keep Murphy’s maneuverings out of the news, Hartfeld said.
If the means of these schemes were somewhat less than admirable, their successful ends are still widely admired today. Various swaths of waterfront land were purchased by Murphy and Fleischmann, and various bonds were subsequently approved by voters. As a result, Santa Barbara today has East Beach, the breakwater on the harbor, Stearns Wharf, and ... Chase Palm Park, Hartfeld said.
“Without these deals, they would have fallen into commercial hands, and been developed commercially,” he said.
In a similar manner, Murphy’s wheeling and dealing led to the 1955 acquisition and development of Earl Warren Showgrounds on Las Positas Road.
It all began with the still-existing Santa Barbara National Horse Show, which Murphy kept alive using his personal fortunes through the Depression and World War II, Hartfeld said. By the early 1950s, the horse show was a smashing success, and the organization that ran it had saved up an impressive $1.5 million.
Thinking Santa Barbara should have a state fairgrounds for the show, Murphy — the president of the show’s organization — made an offer to Gov. Earl Warren. Murphy would use the entire surplus as seed money to purchase 136 acres of land that now sits beneath the showgrounds, the Santa Barbara Golf Club and Adams School, provided California agreed to purchase the rest.
Hartfeld insists is only because of Murphy’s modesty that the fairgrounds and events center isn’t known today as the Dwight Murphy Showgrounds.
“There was every reason in the world to name it after Murphy, but he had this passion for anonymity,” he said. “Warren was a good friend, so he got it named for Warren.”
The city later purchased the land that now accommodates the school and the golf course.
Finally, Murphy also played a major role in finding jobs for the unemployed during the Depression, Hartfeld said.
As chairman of yet another board — the Parks Commission — Murphy made sure to hire unemployed victims of the Depression to work on the parks that were built. All told, he quadrupled the size of the developed park system, Hartfeld said. Meanwhile, the workers were paid from a fund created by local wealthy philanthropists at Murphy’s behest.
In the early 1930s, Santa Barbara’s worker program caught the eye of Hoover, who encouraged cities across the nation to follow the model. A couple of years later, when that method proved unsustainable, Hoover enacted a massive stimulus package called the President’s Organization for Unemployment Relief, in which the U.S. government gave loans to each of the states. The presidential appointee to head up California’s program was none other than Murphy.
Through it all — the purchasing of waterfronts, the breeding of palaminos, the creation of jobs during the Depression era, and the founding of influential civic committees — Murphy subscribed to a core philosophy obligating people of great wealth to use their riches to help those less fortunate, and to do so anonymously, Hartfeld said.
In fact, Hartfeld said, Murphy — who died of a heart attack in 1968 at age 84 — never would have had a namesake field, were it not sprung upon him by Hartfeld’s father and members of the park commission at a grand-opening ceremony.
“It was a surprise for him — otherwise he probably would have refused,” Hartfeld said.
“He turned down a lot greater offers,” he added, noting one in particular: an attempt by Hoover to appoint him as an ambassador to Peru.
Looking back, Hartfeld said he never set out to write a book. In fact, the only writing he’d ever done before this venture was business letters. But seven or eight years ago, he was contacted by the city parks department, which was putting on a centennial celebration, and needed help in researching former city employees. In his case, they needed informatiohn on his father.
When it became apparent to him that his father was one of the right-hand men to an architect of the Santa Barbara that exists today, Hartfeld said he knew he had to write a book.
“I felt pretty damn bad that my father had done so much for the city, and I had done nothing,” Hartfeld said. “Most important, I thought it would be a real tragedy if I didn’t write the story for Santa Barbara history.”
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