In 1897, a retired tea and coffee merchant, John Beale, rode his horse from Pasadena to Santa Barbara. He decided to settle here and built a large manor house where the Santa Barbara Zoo is located today. He named his estate Vega Mar (Meadow by the Sea). Shortly thereafter, he married a New York divorcée, Lillian Brown.
Beale died in 1914, and in 1921, Lillian married John Howard Child. Vega Mar became known as the Child’s Estate. During the Depression of the 1930s, the kind-hearted Mrs. Child began to allow a small number of vagrant men to camp on a portion of the estate, right around where the entrance to the zoo is today. The men erected simple shacks of scrap lumber and other bits and pieces. Mrs. Child would visit the encampment from time to time, to make sure order was being maintained and to inquire after the welfare of the men. When she sold the parcel that included the encampment to the Mar Monte Hotel, she allowed the men to move to another part of the grounds.
John Child died in the mid 1930s, and by the mid 1940s, Mrs. Child was beginning to think about her own mortality. She wanted her 16-acre estate to be used for public benefit. In 1944, she offered it to the Regents of the University of California at a period when Santa Barbara State College was about to become a campus of the UC system. The regents turned her down.
She then turned to the Santa Barbara Foundation. She would turn over the property as long as she could retain life tenancy and, upon her death, the estate would be used for the benefit of the community. She also asked that the 30 or so men who were living in “Jungleville” not be turned out into the streets. In 1947, the foundation took her up on her offer and took over the responsibility for the taxes on the property.
Lillian Child died in 1951, and the debate began over exactly what to do with the estate. The property formerly passed into the hands of the foundation the following year. There were several offers to buy the estate for development. The Foundation held discussions with the state’s 19th Agricultural District about the possibility of the site becoming fairgrounds. Nothing came of this, and the district would later open Earl Warren Showgrounds.
In 1953, upon the occasion of the Foundation’s 25th anniversary, the property was given to the City of Santa Barbara. Archie Edwards, foundation president at the time, wrote, “The deed provides that the city may use the property for park, recreational, educational and promotional uses … the beneficence of Mrs. Lillian Child should be recognized.”
Uncertainty over exactly how to utilize the gift remained. The city did honor Mrs. Child’s wish and allowed the colony of men to stay. With volunteer labor, a utility building was constructed with a laundry and other facilities for them. Natural attrition slowly shrank the community; by the early 1960s, there were three men left. The last of these eventually moved to an area rest home.
During the course of the 1950s, the estate’s mansion fell into disrepair. By the end of the decade, ravaged by neglect and vandalism, the house was considered a dangerous nuisance. The city determined it had to go and instructed the fire department to burn it down. The mansion was torched in July 1959.
The Junior Chamber of Commerce led a fund drive to develop the grounds into a children’s park. Plans continued to evolve, but by the early 1960s, the idea of a small zoo took hold. The Child Estate Foundation was set up to act as the administrative organ. Thousands of man hours were donated to prepare the grounds; in one day, more than 900 feet of track were laid for the miniature train.
On August 4, 1963, A Child’s Estate officially opened. The initial collection consisted of a llama, two sheep, a monkey, and a goat; soon after, a black bear and orangutan were added. Today, the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens encompasses more than 80 acres and continues to build on a legacy of more than 45 years.