In 1947, Lillian Child, the owner of the Vegamar estate overlooking Santa Barbara’s East Beach above the now-Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, deeded her 17-acre “heavy wooded and beautifully landscaped” property to the Santa Barbara Foundation.
The deed stipulated that the City of Santa Barbara could utilize the estate for park, recreational, educational and promotional uses.
Child felt the foundation would best determine how the property could serve the interests and needs of Santa Barbara.
The deed allowed for Child’s lifetime tenancy. She also made a request that the hobos on the property should not be disturbed.
At the time of Child’s death in 1951, there were 31 hobos residing on her estate.
Many of them were over 60 years old, and on small pensions or Social Security. They lived in a little community that they kept immaculately well-swept and clear, even though their homes were ramshackle dwellings.
Soon after, the Santa Barbara Foundation was approached by people who wanted to buy the property for various uses.
The foundation’s studied conclusion was that the estate should belong in perpetuity to the people of Santa Barbara, and that the estate would be tremendous benefit to the city.
Furthermore, the foundation concluded that the organization was not in the business of property management.
Two years after Child’s death, the Santa Barbara Foundation deeded the Child Estate to the city, in 1953.
There was naturally great interest and many suggestions and offers in determining what to do with the property.
The Center for Creative Living of San Marino informed the city that it was interested in acquiring the estate “either as a gift or for a nominal purchase price.” The center envisioned an outdoor program for children and adults that would start as a summer undertaking before expanding to year-round.
In the meantime, there had been several years of discussion, debates and even ballot measures to build a civic auditorium at West Beach, about two miles to the west.
After 1953, when the foundation deeded the Child Estate to the city, the focus turned toward using the estate as the site to develop the civic auditorium, now that it was city property.
Thankfully, it was ultimately determined that the Child Estate was too valuable as a beautiful parkland to use for an auditorium, which could readily be built elsewhere.
In an Aug. 15, 1955, letter to editor in the Santa Barbara News-Press, Lloyd Moss reminisced about the private Feather Hill Ranch Zoo in Montecito back in the late 1920s. He put forth the idea of a local zoo.
The Feather Hill zoo, on East Valley Road at Romero Creek, had been a private poultry ranch owned by Christian Holmes II. The investor and sportsman had maintained a collection of rare birds, which then grew to mammals, including chimpanzees, an elephant, bears and mountain lions.
The concept for a children’s park and zoo on the Child Estate would slowly begin to gain traction over the next few years, but there were still more ideas for the property’s future to consider.
Next up, the California 19th Agricultural District became very interested in pursuing a horse show arena at either Hoff Heights, on Las Positas Road between State Street and Calle Real; Pershing Park; or the Child Estate. There was a particularly powerful push from the state for the beachfront property.
But long story short, the area would not be sufficiently large enough for the horse show design. That arena — the current Earl Warren Showgrounds at 3400 Calle Real — eventually would be established at what was once Hoff Heights.
In 1958, there was a concerted drive from the Santa Barbara Council for Retarded Children for a work-training center to be developed at the Child Estate. This was a very worthwhile idea, but too limited in scope to serve the greater community.
While these proposals either found homes elsewhere or fell short of being an appropriate use for city property, interest in a zoo concept was slowly gaining public support.
While proposals kept popping up, the city now had responsibility for the landmark location.
The city placed a Westmont College professor in the house to prevent vandalism. Officials also decided to hold off on any expenses for landscaping, which had largely been ignored by the Santa Barbara Foundation since Child’s death.
The fraternity was eager to get in the house as its other housing arrangements had fallen through.
The agreement made with the city was that the fraternity would lease the house for $300 a month, cover all the costs to move out the caretaker, and maintain the property itself.
The fraternity also would pay for utilities, and be credited for six months’ rent after providing the needed house repairs.
In retrospect, putting frat boys in a millionaire’s mansion may not have been the best idea; in fact, it may not have even been the best idea at the time.
Mayor Jack Rickard did not believe it was a proper use of the estate to install 25 frat boys there, but the foundation granted a waiver and deemed it would be alright. Yes, it happened.
Over the course of the 1950s, the city did nothing to ensure the upkeep of the estate or mansion, and allowed it to fall into disrepair. (Shades of Francheschi House?!)
The grounds were not being tended at all and were becoming overgrown with thick dense underbrush and weeds.
It probably did not help the condition of the house to have leased it to a UCSB fraternity; the ensuing turnover of residents did not provide sufficient oversight and continuity of care.
The house was was suffering from repeated acts of vandalism — particularly in the summer of 1959 when bricks were thrown, 17 windows were smashed and cans of shaving cream were sprayed throughout the house.
The once beautiful Beale mansion, ravaged by neglect and vandalism, was now considered a dangerous and attractive nuisance that needed to be removed.
It would cost $3,000 to $4,000 to tear it down, so the city proposed to save money by having the Fire Department burn the structure as a training exercise.
And so, later that summer, firefighters burned down the dilapidated house.
What About the Hobos?
There were 31 men living on Child’s property when she died on Aug. 28, 1951.
Over the course of the decade, several men died, others moved on. A few developed serious health issues or events landing them in General Hospital and then they moved to regular housing.
The men still living in Hobo Village were largely left alone, but their overall situation was going downhill.
With Child in the house, there had been a mutual watching out for one another. Now the property was all but deserted and seriously overgrown.
Outsiders were not only coming onto the estate and vandalizing the house, they were entering Hobo Village: they stole Jack Gilmore’s expensive radio, and even assaulted and robbed 89-year-old Joseph Shutte of $150 after entering his little shack.
These actions created a thorny area for the city in terms of liability. By 1958, officials saw that the house and property were attracting vagrants and vandals.
They determined to clean up the whole area.
No one wanted to push out the hobos. There was a sincere desire to honor Child’s verbal understanding with the Santa Barbara Foundation, and most citizens felt the men should be left alone.
But the question was: How would the city move forward on the property to benefit the community according to the deed, while respecting Child’s unwritten wishes?
The city decided to poll the now remaining 22 residents of the village to determine who was living there during Child’s lifetime when she deeded her property to the foundation.
Those men who had been residents at the time were allowed to remain indefinitely. The men (mostly younger) who were new to the area were generously given two years’ notice to move on.
A fund was created by the Santa Barbara Jaycees to pay for the utilities that Child had covered when she was alive.
By 1961, there were eight hobos left. By 1963, there were just three: “Mayor” John Craver (86), Frank Allan (83) and Frank Fay (63).
Then a fortuitous thing happened down the coast, in Montecito two miles to the east.
The Miramar Hotel was upgrading and replacing some of its blue-roofed cottages with two-story buildings. Three of these old cottages were donated to the city for the remaining men.
These “new” hobo cottages would be luxurious accommodations compared to the ramshackle shacks. The Jaycees arranged for house mover Lewis Doan to relocate the Miramar cottages to the Child Estate.
BUT! The city’s building director intervened to say the Jaycees had not followed set procedures. There was no permit! No posting public notice! No building department approval that the cottages were up to code!
He was, of course, correct — but the whole thing seemed a tad unnecessary from a more common sense perspective.
That is, the original hobo shacks had never been anywhere near up to code and the hobos had been living in this substandard housing for decades — while the city overlooked it all.
Meanwhile, the Miramar cottages — which only weeks earlier had been rented out to hotel guests for a handsome fee — presumably were structurally in good working order.
In the end, the cottages were moved and installed on the estate.
Sadly, this arrangement did not last long, however.
Allan died, then Craver was placed in a rest home as he needed medical oversight, and the younger man was asked to leave, since he resided in the hobo camp intermittently, following seasonal work.
Jungleville / Hobo Village / Childville would now disappear into history and into the memories of those who had seen or met the gentle men devoted to their benefactor and guardian while self-governing their tidy hamlet of patch-worked palaces.
But what about the Child Estate? How did it become A Child’s Estate?
Next up: Part IV — The Extraordinary Story on Who Created the Santa Barbara Zoo, coming next weekend.