Q: What is the story behind the Potter Hotel fire?

The opening of the Potter Hotel off West Beach in 1903 was a milestone in Santa Barbara tourism

The opening of the Potter Hotel off West Beach in 1903 was a milestone in Santa Barbara tourism. The Potter soon eclipsed the Arlington Hotel as the top hostelry in the city and in a short time, wealthy industrialists from the Midwest and East Coast were choosing to spend their winters within the opulent confines of the Potter.

The hotel, with almost 600 guest rooms, was truly magnificent. The impeccably groomed grounds boasted a zoo and a rose garden with thousands of bushes. The dining room’s offerings were made with the freshest meats and produce from the hotel’s own farms. The Potter had all the amenities, including a ballroom, billiard rooms, a bowling alley, lounges, and gift shops. For the more actively inclined there was the Potter Country Club in Hope Ranch for golf, trap shooting, horseback riding, tennis, and other pursuits. The Potter Theatre on State Street offered concerts, vaudeville, plays, and films. The hotel came to enjoy a reputation international in scope.

Milo Potter sold the hotel in 1919 and it became the Belvedere. The following year, it became part of the Ambassador chain and was rechristened the Ambassador. Then came the afternoon of April 13, 1921.

At about 3:15 p.m., two hotel employees heard a roaring sound coming from an airshaft. Investigation revealed a fast-moving fire. At about the same moment, the hotel’s alarm system activated, warning guests of the danger and summoning the hotel’s fire brigade to action. It was not long before city firefighters were also rushing to the scene.

Within 30 minutes, it was apparent that the hotel’s main building was doomed. Winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour whipped the flames into what one newspaper called “a roaring volcano” and the intense heat forced firefighters to keep their distance. As Adrian Cooley of the fire department said at the time, “All the fire-fighting equipment in New York City would not have been able to save the hotel.”

One hour after the alarm had sounded, the roof of the main building collapsed and by six that evening, only smoldering wreckage and a few chimneys were left of what had been one of the finest hotels on the West Coast. Firefighters spent much of the night containing outbreaks in the ruins and securing the surviving outbuildings from danger, such as the power plant, laundry, and greenhouses. Windblown cinders and sparks caused serious concern; the canvas tops of nearby automobiles proved to be at risk. There was a scare around 10 p.m., when sparks touched off a fire on Stearns Wharf, but this was extinguished fairly quickly.

Sunrise revealed an almost total loss — the $2 million structure had sustained $1.5 million in damage. Amazingly, among the 140 guests and almost 300 staff there were no deaths or serious injuries. This was due in part to a number of individual heroic acts. The hotel telephone operator remained at the switchboard calling guests until the rain of burning embers forced her evacuation. Bellhops and a contingent from the local American Legion risked their lives conducting room-to-room searches for people. Boy Scouts were enlisted to keep the thousands of onlookers from getting too close to the inferno and from interfering with firefighters.

The majority of guests escaped with only the clothes on their backs. One man offered $1,000 to anyone who would brave the flames to retrieve his possessions. There were no takers. Another man, awakened from his nap, fled the hotel clad only in a kimono. One onlooker seemed especially upset at what was unfolding before him, tears coursing down his cheeks. As his knees began to buckle, Milo Potter was led away from the scene by friends. The cause of the fire remains a mystery to this day; suspicions of arson were never confirmed. The Potter Hotel, which had dominated Santa Barbara’s waterfront and economy for 18 years, was never rebuilt.

Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 West Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

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