Q: ‘Can you tell me about a grand estate called El Mirador?’ —Tom Millward A: As the late 1800s faded into the early 1900s, a number of America’s wealthy from the East Coast and Midwest discovered the beauties of the oak-covered hills of Montecito and built palatial residences there for either permanent or part-time residence. Among these newcomers was Jonathan Ogden Armour of Chicago.
He was the son of Philip D. Armour, founder of one of several Chicago meat-packing empires that had earned that city the sobriquet, “hog butcher to the world.” Philip founded his company in 1863 after spending a number of years in the California gold fields. Upon his death in 1901, control of the company’s fortunes fell to his son. The family had already visited Santa Barbara more than once and continued to do so, staying at the Potter Hotel near West Beach or as guests at El Mirasol Hotel, located where Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden is today.
The Armours began buying portions of the former Charles Eaton estate, Riso Rivo, along what is today Cold Springs Road, in 1916. By 1918 the Armours’ holdings had grown to some 70 acres. The family christened their estate El Mirador, meaning The Viewpoint. Armour engaged Arthur Hehn of Chicago to design a number of new buildings and to landscape the grounds. Plans for a magnificent mansion were put on hold, in part because of U.S. involvement in World War I. In 1920, a smaller main house, in two parts connected by a courtyard, was completed. Charles Urton, who built the Granada Building in downtown Santa Barbara, was the contractor.
In 1922, Lolita Armour married John J. Mitchell Jr. in Chicago. Mitchell was the son of the president of a major Chicago bank and later would become an early director of United Airlines. The Mitchells split their time among their Chicago penthouse, El Mirador, a Montecito beach house, their 12,000-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, and property they owned at Zaca Lake. In 1930, Mitchell was one of the founders and the first president of the men’s fraternal equestrian group, Rancheros Visitadores.
Elmer Awl was put in charge of developing the gardens and grounds of El Mirador. Awl had known the Armours in Pasadena and he eventually moved to El Mirador to transform the grounds into one of the most fabulous estates in Montecito. The centerpiece was the 500-foot-long formal Italian garden, with streams cascading down its seven terraces. The old Eaton home was torn down shortly after a 1921 fire damaged it and was replaced by a fanciful underground grotto with stalactites and stalagmites carved from rocks in a nearby creek. The grotto was surmounted by a two-story, wisteria-covered pergola.
In addition to the gardens, the estate had a dairy, a poultry farm, vegetable gardens, and avocado and lemon orchards. The estate also boasted a small zoo with two bears, a wallaby, and macaws — this in addition to any number of dogs and cats. The tea pavilion floating upon the man-made lake was a popular spot for dinner parties while the amphitheater could seat up to 1,000 people to enjoy performances by the likes of dancers Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. To keep the gardens green a 1.3-million-gallon reservoir was utilized to harness the waters of Cold Springs Creek. Awl supervised a crew of up to 30 gardeners to look after all of this. The Mitchells divorced in 1941, but even by that time financial constraints had caused reduced upkeep of the grounds. Lolita continued to make El Mirador her home until her death in 1976. As was the case with so many of the grand Montecito estates, the property was eventually subdivided and the parcels sold off. At its height, however, El Mirador was one of Montecito’s jewels.