The foothills, which run from Mission Canyon east to Sycamore Canyon, now known as the Riviera, remained undeveloped until the 1870s. In those days this now highly desirable neighborhood was boulder-strewn, virtually treeless, with no easily accessible water supplies. It was a long haul from this barren area to downtown by horse and buggy and the hills were suitable neither for agriculture nor raising stock. No one wanted to live there.
The first glimmer of change in that attitude appeared in the mid 1870s, when Charles Storke bought 123 acres at $1.25 an acre toward the western end of the foothills. He then built a home at what is today 1740 Grand Avenue and proceeded to divide the remainder into lots of from one to four acres, then waited for the buyers to line up.
It didn’t happen. Lack of water was a serious drawback; Storke himself had to have water hauled up to his home by wagon. This was no easy task given the lack of roads and the rather primitive condition of the few tracks that were there. Townspeople began to refer to the entire venture as “Storke’s Folly.”
In 1886, another player came on the scene. Walter N. Hawley was one of Santa Barbara’s most enterprising entrepreneurs of the late 1800s. He had started out in the hardware and farm equipment business, but with the arrival of the railroad to town from the south in 1887, he hoped to capitalize on the anticipated land boom by going into real estate. Among his projects were two large office buildings he built on State Street. He had hopes the Riviera would prove to be another golden opportunity.
Hawley bought most of Storke’s remaining holdings and invested in road building and a sewer system. A few homes were erected in what Hawley christened Arlington Heights, but most locals dubbed Hawley Heights. Development ground to a halt due in part to the economic depression that gripped the nation in the mid 1890s. Settlement remained sparse on the Riviera for the next 20 years.
George Batchelder, a prominent banker from San Francisco, came to Santa Barbara about 1908 to begin his retirement. In the spring of 1913, he and his partners began buying up land in the foothills. Their interest had been sparked by the move of the Santa Barbara State Normal School (the forerunner of UCSB) from its downtown location to a new campus sited where the Riviera Theatre is today. The electric street car company, of which Batchelder was an officer, extended its line from the Old Mission up the hill to the new campus. Batchelder and his associates named their new development company The Riviera and the hillside neighborhood now had a name.
Improvements included new roads to enhance access and underground power lines to retain the rustic feel of the area. Growth continued apace. The last section of Alameda Padre Serra, the Riviera’s main thoroughfare, was paved in 1925. One of the final areas of the Riviera to be developed was the Las Alturas section, running from the 1200 block of Alameda Padre Serra to Sycamore Canyon Road. This was the result of a partnership among local newspaper publisher Thomas Storke, Charles Storke’s son; film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford; and William McAdoo, former Secretary of the Treasury and a good friend of Storke’s.
The development of the Riviera continued in fits and starts, slowed by the 1925 earthquake, the Depression of the 1930s, and the entry of the U.S. into World War II in 1941. It was not until the post-war years that the building boom on the Riviera, first envisioned by Charles Storke so long ago, really took shape. Today, unlike the 1870s, people very much like to call Santa Barbara’s Riviera home.