Calling it a failed public-private partnership, city officials are recommending the once-glorious home, built by botanist Francesco Franceschi, come down. The Santa Barbara City Council is expected to decide the fate of the now-decrepit building at its Tuesday meeting.
For the Pearl Chase Society and other activists who fought so hard to restore the home, it's a dark day for preservation.
"We have never given up hope on the house," said Barbara Lowenthal, president of the Pearl Chase Society. "We certainly don't support the demolition of this house."
Franceschi House's only hope might be a last-minute plea from Stephen Fenzi, the great-great grandson of Franceschi. Fenzi sent a letter to the city late Monday afternoon requesting a postponement of this "irreversible decision."
"The Franceschi/Fenzi family has been passionate about serving and beautifying Santa Barbara since 1893 and we, the Fenzi family, are committed to exploring the very best option to honor Dr. Franceschi's contribution and our family's legacy to Santa Barbara," Fenzi wrote in the letter. He wants new options explored.
The city opened the Franceschi House doors to the public on Monday for a site visit leading up to Tuesday's council meeting. Council members Frank Hotchkiss, Cathy Murillo, Randy Rowse and Mayor Helene Schneider attended the meeting.
The council members crept through the house's squeaky floor boards, ducked under spider webs, and marveled over the interior's classic craftsmanship, which shone bright, even through the decaying condition of the home.
The inside of the house features ghosts of life a century ago. Faded but majestic stairwells curve through the house. Yellow caution tape droops over decorative lights hanging from the ceiling. Vintage bathroom sinks and tubs sit against rotted walls.
Council members and officials wandered through the home like they were saying goodbye to an old friend whose time had come.
"This is difficult for us," Lowenthal said.
The Pearl Chase Society sent a letter to the city in April reluctantly agreeing to halt preservation efforts, but opposing the demolition of the home. The city and the Pearl Chase Society have been partners for the last 15 years in an elusive effort to restore the home to its original luster.
In 2001, the city had committed to paying $300,000 for the rehabilitation and the Pearl Chase Society would undertake the planning, development and fundraising to rehabilitate the house, and provide a $250,000 maintenance endowment.
But today it would cost several million dollars to restore the home. Before the Pearl Chase Society or anyone else could pull a building permit, the city would need to stabilize the hillside, the house, the retaining walls and complete geotechnical studies. That alone, in 2006, was estimated to cost $1 million.
The Craftsman-style house was once the home to Franceschi and his wife, Cristina, who purchased the property in 1903.
Franceschi sold the house to philanthropist Alden Freeman in 1927. Freeman then donated the property to the city in 1931 after the Mission Ridge Association agreed to provide $1,500 for two years of park maintenance, Rapp said.
The park and house have become one of Santa Barbara’s iconic locales, with panoramic views of the city and the Pacific Ocean beyond. It’s a quick and quiet hideout away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, a spot for paintings and photos and small gatherings.
The Franceschi House Master Plan had at one time ambitiously called for three primary uses: a public facility for educational and community; an interpretive center, museum and library; and home for a city-employed docent coordinator.
Now, much of the dream appears doomed.
Nancy Rapp, the city's Parks & Recreation director, said the council could choose to figure out a way to restore the house — at an unknown cost, but likely several million dollars — to just restore the outside of the house, or knock down the house and create some sort of educational memorial of the history. Those options would cost at least $2 million.
Santa Barbara's Riviera Association supports the destruction of the building.
"The Board of Directors of the Riviera Association continues to encourage the City of Santa Barbara to act to eliminate the eyesore and potential fire and vandalism hazard that the derelict Franceschi House has become," Shelly Bookspan, president of the group, wrote in a letter to the city.