[Noozhawk’s note: One in a series. Click here for previous columns.]
The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation has proven itself adept at much that it undertook over its more than 50-year history. Not least was its commitment and ability to acquire properties that advanced its preservation goals.
Besides El Paseo, there were literally dozens of real estate transactions that SBTHP has been involved with. In this column, I will mention three as indicative of the expansion and fulfillment of the organization’s interests and goals.
The 1995 purchase of the Santa Inés Mission Mills properties, the acquisition and gift of the Castagnola parking lot in the area of El Presidio de Santa Bárbara in 2003, and the 2007 acquisition of Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens Restaurant and Bar represented multiple transactions, as each would eventually be conveyed to California State Parks.
I had no real estate experience prior to working at SBTHP, but I learned fast by the seat of my pants in the sale of El Paseo. Just about every complexity one encounters in the real estate world came to the fore in that transaction — some of which has been described in previous columns.
The three here under scrutiny had their share of difficulties, but they all turned out to have satisfactory conclusions, financially as well as advancing SBTHP institutionally.
The acquisition of the Santa Inés Mission Mills happened after a series of conversations with Ellen and Harry Knill, owners of the Solvang property. Their interest in history in general and California in particular had led them to purchase the historic mills in the 1980s.
Built circa 1820 as part of the Mission Sana Inés complex, there are two mills, one a grist mill and the other a fulling mill. Most people know what a grist mill is but few know about the fulling process used to remove the lanolin from wool and tighten the fabric.
Also on the 38-acre property are two reservoirs for water storage to operate the mechanical devices (these someday will be rebuilt).
The mills buildings were in remarkable condition and were partially restored by the Knills. Over several years, the couple had been discussing with me the possibility of SBTHP acquiring the property. Eventually, with the stock market booming, and our having some unrestricted funds, I brought their proposal to the SBTHP board, and it agreed to purchase the property.
Unlike at the presidio, there were limited funds to operate the mills as a park, but we proceeded anyway because of the importance of the site, which is today part of a National Historic Landmarks designation. Jerry Hass was again helpful with this acquisition.
Once SBTHP acquired ownership, we worked with the State of California to purchase the property as a future state park. I took then-state parks director Ruth Coleman and her family to see the site and eventually she and her staff programmed money to purchase the property in 2008. SBTHP continues to manage the property for the state and eventually it will be designated a State Historic Park.
Mission Santa Inés has been generous in granting access easements to the mills from the mission at 1760 Mission Drive. In addition, SBTHP acquired adjoining acreage from Aaron Petersen that includes additional access to the site.
SBTHP has also planted olive trees on its acreage with the help of Craig Makela and his employees; Makela is a presidio descendant, former owner of the Santa Barbara Olive Company and, until he recently stepped down, a longtime board member of the trust. The trees are now being harvested annually and produce an extra virgin olive oil for sale by SBTHP in its online store.
Someday, the mills will become a fabulous state historic park, and I will allude to some of its potential in a future column. In the meantime, the mills are available for occasional guided tours while awaiting their future glory.
A second noteworthy SBTHP acquisition was the so-called Castagnola parking lot. The property surrounds the Moullet House on the southeastern corner of East Canon Perdido and Santa Barbara streets. Now a sandwich shop, the Moullet House was previously a print shop and before that the liquor store of Lino Castagnola, of the well-known Santa Barbara family.
Castagnola had maintained ownership of the parking lot that contained the last major section of the original presidio footprint in private hands. An SBTHP board member suggested we try to enter into a lease to manage the parking lot with Castagnola and his wife, Helga; another board member was dubious about the value, but it was proposed, the Castagnolas accepted and we entered into a long-term lease.
To the management committee’s pleasant surprise, the parking lot in short order began turning a profit for SBTHP, due to the shortage of nearby public parking.
Castagnola’s wife died suddenly during this time, and I made contact with him. He had retired to Ashland, Oregon, where my wife, Michele, and I also owned a house because of our interest in the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival there.
On our visits to Ashland, we would stop to see Castagnola, who took a special interest in Michele when he found out about their sharing a common Italian heritage. On one visit, he had his CPA present and announced that he was going to donate the parking lot to SBTHP and half of its value to his church in Ashland after his death.
After he died in 2003, SBTHP had the property appraised, took ownership and paid Grace Lutheran Church in Ashland half of the appraised value. The property was sold to the state in 2009 and it turned out to be a $1 million gift to SBTHP — not to mention bringing into state ownership a significant section of the original presidio foundations.
The purchase of Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, at 126 E. Canon Perdido, has a similar happy story attached to it.
In 2006, Tommy Chung, son of longtime owner Jimmy Chung, decided to sell the restaurant and the house in the back. Because of our interest in Asian history, and the fact that site was inside of the area of the original presidio, we made an offer. It turned out there was a higher offer, but the younger Chung chose us, because he felt we would respect the history of the property. And he was right.
I felt great trepidation, however, because we borrowed heavily in 2007 to purchase the property — with the 2008-2009 Great Recession looming. I took a group, including Chung himself, to Sacramento to make our case for funding the state acquisition. Coleman and her staff came through with funding for about half of the site’s appraised value.
I suggested we do a lot split and it turned out the restaurant and garage area appraised at the amount the state had available, and escrow finally closed in 2014. A donation of properties by Sue and Jim Higman provided most of the funds needed to retire the rest of the mortgage.
Earlier, after a tenant business failed in 2008, Bob Lovejoy opened his sandwich shop, Three Pickles, in Jimmy’s, and later restored the bar to its original 1950s appearance. This was another classic example of tenant improvements redounding to the benefit of SBTHP.
Sadly, Lovejoy died of a stroke in 2018 at age 69. In 2016, he underwrote a party for me celebrating my retirement in the restored bar renamed the Pickle Room. That was so typical of him — and he happily agreed to SBTHP installing an exhibition of Chinese history in the bar.
Without question Bob Lovejoy was one of my all-time favorite tenants during my years at SBTHP. Ellen and Harry Knill, Lino Castagnola, Sue and Jim Higman, and Ruth Coleman also loom large as stars in the SBTHP firmament.
— Jarrell Jackman is the former executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. After receiving his Ph.D. in history from UC Santa Barbara, he taught for six years in Europe and Washington, D.C. In 2015, he was honored as a knight of the Royal Order of Isabel la Católica by Spain’s King Felipe VI and was named an honorary state park ranger by the California State Park Rangers Association in 2016. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.