[Noozhawk’s note: First in a series. Click here for the second story, and click here for the third.]
As you may know, we have systematically walked every street and every nook and cranny within the city limits of Santa Barbara. One of our most beloved neighborhoods borders Franceschi Park high atop the Riviera.
The park straddles Mission Ridge Road and is surrounded by a neighborhood that was privately developed and superbly designed a little over 100 years ago.
All lots were designed to have ocean views, all utilities were buried to prevent unsightly wires, and remarkably, footpaths, pedestrian stairways, shortcuts and sidewalks were incorporated into the neighborhood design.
Consequently, despite the steep hillsides this is a wonderful neighborhood for walkers of all ages.
Recently, the owners of a parcel bordering the municipal park have restricted the passage of most pedestrians by fencing and locking a gate across a historic public easement.
The code to the lock has been given by the couple only to those living on the street. We’re not surprised by the angry reaction of many walkers who have enjoyed the beauty of the area.
We were recently contacted by residents of the neighborhood who asked for our assistance in determining the legitimacy of the sudden appearance of a locked gate blocking the long-used public access into Franceschi Park. Specifically, the fence and locked gate are at the eastern end of Mira Vista Avenue and the park boundary.
While investigating this situation, we stumbled upon a trove of fascinating historical information about the well-known Italian horticulturist, Francesco Franceschi, and also about his successor, architect, socialist and philanthropist Alden Freeman.
It was Freeman — the son of Joel Freeman, treasurer of Standard Oil Co., which was founded by John D. Rockefeller, one of the world’s richest men — who donated to the property later named Franceschi Park to the City of Santa Barbara.
Franceschi, who arrived in Santa Barbara in 1891, is responsible for introducing about 200 plant species to Santa Barbara and Southern California, including the Italian stone pines that line East Anapamu Street near Santa Barbara High School.
Born Emanuele Fenzi in Florence, Italy, in 1843, he was the scion of a noble Italian family of prominent merchants and bankers.
Following the early death of his parents, Fenzi was raised by his banking tycoon grandfather.
There was great pressure on the young man to join the family business, but his interests tended more toward the study of plants than business.
Fenzi became a renowned horticulturist and a founder of the Italian Botanical Society in 1878.
Around 1890, the Fenzi Bank failed, decimating the family fortune and bringing scandal to its name. With the failure of the bank, Fenzi; his wife, Cristina; and three of their six children immigrated to the United States. Settling first in Los Angeles in 1891, they moved to Santa Barbara a few years later.
For reasons unknown, Fenzi and his wife adopted the surname Franceschi upon their arrival in the United States. Cristina retained her Christian name, but Emanuele henceforth became known as Francesco.
In 1904, Cristina Franceschi purchased a 40-acre parcel near the top of the Riviera, where the Franceschis built their family home, a redwood Craftsman-style house at the location of the current Franceschi House.
The deed and the building permits reflect Cristina as being the sole owner of the property, which we found interesting, and wonder if it had anything to do with the failure of the bank and the loss of the Fenzi family fortune.
After living in Santa Barbara for about 20 years and establishing himself as a local horticulturist legend, Franceschi and his wife left the United States for Italy in 1912. Upon their return home, they ditched their immigrant names in favor once again of Fenzi, the family name.
When Emanuele Fenzi, formerly known as Francesco Franceschi, died in Libya in 1924, his wife sold the Riviera property to Freeman, who was fabulously wealthy. Freeman, who lived in New York City, then made his way to Santa Barbara to begin renovation of the property.
Under Freeman’s watchful eye, the original California Craftsman-style house underwent a total transformation, emerging as an Italianate villa, complete with a variety of medallions celebrating historical figures, events and concepts important to Freeman.
Freeman’s anarchist, and later socialist, attitudes and beliefs are pivotal to the embellishment of what is now Franceschi House. They are equally important to fully understanding the current problem of a locked gate on a public easement, with property owners who allow access only to an elite few and deny it to the general public.
Due to his inherited wealth, Freeman had the luxury of purchasing whatever property happened to catch his interest. Around the time he acquired the Franceschi property, he also bought a Miami Beach property on which he built a mansion that later became the home of fashion designer Gianni Versace.
In 1997, Versace was murdered on the front steps of the mansion by a deranged man. After his death, the South Beach estate was transformed into a luxury hotel, Villa Casa Casuarina.
Franceschi House and Villa Casa Casuarina reportedly have a common feature. According to legend, Freeman brought back two bricks, once a part of the Dominican Republic home of Portuguese navigator Diego Columbus, son of explorer Christopher Columbus.
One brick reportedly was incorporated into his Santa Barbara home and the other in his Miami Beach house. While this story has not been authenticated to our knowledge, we can report with certainty that both of the Freeman houses sport similar exterior medallions and coats of arms plaques.
In 1931, Freeman deeded the Franceschi house and property to Santa Barbara. Freeman Investment Co. donated the property for use a public park. At the same time, a 30-foot easement running down the middle of what is now Mira Vista Avenue was also deeded to the city. It is on this public easement that the fence and locked gate have been installed.
This public easement has been under attack by private homeowners since 1950. Two of the owners of the parcel that borders the park, and on which the easement runs, in the past have attempted to encroach on the public easement by legal and extra-legal means.
Until now, city officials and neighborhood activists have successfully protected the easement.
Today a fence and a locked gate block the access to Franceschi Park. Our quest is to determine why and how this happened, as well as the legal rights and ramifications of the action. Check back with Noozhawk for a follow-up story about what we find out.
— Peter Hartmann and Stacey Wright make up the Urban Hikers team. Any opinions expressed are their own.