Insert Dorothy Parker joke about horticulture here

Up on a hill above Santa Barbara, amongst the blue dicks and the golden shower tree and the other plants that might make you giggle, there is a crumbling house covered in medallions honoring thinkers and artists and scandalous women. Also a house or two. It’s not entirely clear what all these things have in common, but it feels like there is some sort of connection. Maybe. I don’t know. It’s a bit of mystery.

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William Harvey, another William Harvey, King Philip, Kate Dickinson Sweetser, Leonard Robbins, Will Durant, Captain Thomas Abbey, the “Tent of Mars,” Peter Ochremenko, Violet Oakley, Vuchinich, Nan Britton, George Record, William Jennings Bryan, Emma Goldman, a prairie schooner, William Penn, Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecroft.

Any ideas?


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  1. I just came across this blog! Can you fill me in please? Vuchinich did these I believe! And he is there on the wall too! Someone had to insist that he put himself up there. Vuchinich would not have been so presumptive! I can’t wait to read what you found out! Thank you! Is this house still standing? Sincerely, Mary Opoien (Schwitalla)

  2. Yes. I know everything you want to know about Montarioso, Alden Freeman (the man who commissioned the medallions), and what connects them all.

    • Please share! Would love to hear.

      • It’s a complicated story that begins in 1905 when the steadfast wife of Francesco Franceschi arrived in Santa Barbara from Florence, Italy, with 3 of their 6 kids in tow. By mutual agreement, she had kept all the kids at home while Francesco (whose real name was Emanuele Orazio Fenzi) came to the New World in 1893 to find new fortune after the Italian depression ruined the family bank. (Yep, she was a single parent – albeit with a wealthy family surrounding her – for a decade while her husband tried his hand at commercial horticulture on the other side of the globe.)

        Three grown children stayed in Italy (one became a prominent navy admiral), when mom and one grown daughter came to Santa Barbara with the 2 grade-schoolers. She brought her own money and bought 40 hillside acres for them to open a nursery plus build a house. They called their home and surrounding plant nursery, “Montarioso,” airy mountain in Italian. That story has been well told and available elsewhere. Ultimately they retired to Italy in 1913, moved to Libya when it became an Italian colony, and both died there.

        In 1926 Alden Freeman, wealthy son of the first Treasurer of the Standard Oil Company (the nasty Rockefellers’ monopoly), visited Santa Barbara and bought the house from Franceschi’s son. Freeman claimed to recognize the world renown of Franceschi’s horticulture and wanted to create a memorial park to him. Freeman remodeled the house in his idea of a Mediterranean villa in honor of Franceschi’s roots. To the stucco exterior, he had installed 80+ medallions on subjects of his interest.

        Freeman wanted to donate the House to the City of Santa Barbara as a memorial. In 1930, they wouldn’t take it; “property not big enough.” So Freeman bought another 13 acres to add to the 2 acres of the house, and offered again. The City wouldn’t take it; “too close to the Stock Market crash” and maintenance money was shaky. An outside group offered to donate $1500 for each of the next 2 years; the City took it.

        And essentially has let the building decline for the following 8 decades. I think they call that “demolition by neglect.” They talk the usual blah-blah about a “passive park,” but the truth is the well-to-do neighbors love having a relative wilderness, a private park as it were, that doesn’t attract much outside interest.

        Each of the medallions has a story in its own right. I have been researching them since 2001 and have a collection of artifacts and ephemera about Freeman and many of the medallions. Many of the stories have been published in The Capital, Newsletter of the Pearl Chase Society, Unfortunately, there is no online archive of the articles.

        But the story does not end there. Freeman built his own home in Miami Beach in 1930. He named it Casa Casuarina and filled it with all the medallions we have in Santa Barbara, plus more! There are 122 medallions in Casa Casuarina and due to 3 factors, they are in much better condition (near perfect, in fact) than ours. First and foremost, the Miami Beach medallions are mounted on the walls surrounding an interior (but open to the weather) courtyard. They have been somewhat protected from the elements.

        Second, Casa Casuarina has been actively owned since its building in 1930. It was a small hotel for all the years since Freeman died there in 1937. The owners ran successive businesses there, mostly under the name of the Amsterdam Palace. It was in their interest to maintain all the strange decorations on their hallway walls. Until 1992. Things changed for Casa Casuarina in 1992 that I hesitate to (but will) mention because I’m a historian, not a glitterati.

        Third, in 1992 a new owner bought the Amsterdam Palace. He wanted to convert it to his personal home. He bought and demolished a small hotel next door to add to his grounds. He had artisans and decorators build the addition next door and restore the original Casa Casuarina according to required strict historical standards. The home is a “conforming structure” within Miami Beach’s Architectural Historic District, the first 20th century district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It now is a boutique hotel and fancy restaurant.

        Oh. The purchaser who bought it in 1992 and fixed it up as his own home? He died in 1997. His name was Gianni Versace.

      • WOW! This is amazing. Thank you so much for this! Fascinating stuff, Rick.

      • In spite of rolling on in a long post, you’ll notice I didn’t say a word about individual medallions, other than that each has a story. If readers would like to know more about individual medallions here on Montarioso or in Miami Beach’s Casa Casuarina: Ask! Contrary to my earlier bold proclamation that I know “everything,” there is plenty yet to learn and I look forward to hearing from other readers and sharing what I do know.

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