Commanding one of the finest views across Santa Barbara and far out to sea, the Franceschi House is the dilapidated centerpiece of city parkland high on the Riviera. For decades, conversation has gone back and forth between restoring the 5,800-square-foot historical building and razing it. That debate filled City Hall Tuesday afternoon, as Parks and Recreation Department staff recommended that councilmembers call off efforts to restore Franceschi and call in the wrecking ball.
Easier said than done. For one, the demolition would be expensive — a precise number has yet to be calculated — and second, the city would have to grace the site with an all-new homage to Dr. Francesco Franceschi and his many contributions to Santa Barbara’s horticultural heritage.
“Do you want to start us down that road — to look at what’s feasible?” Parks and Recreation Director Nancy Rapp asked the council.
With a 6-1 vote, councilmembers said yes, and they also kept the Franceschi restoration dream alive, officially giving the Pearl Chase Society — which has headed up preservation efforts for the past 15 years — six more months to secure funds for a full-blown rehab of the elegantly vintage but semi-crumbling four-story residence.
Arriving in Santa Barbara in 1893, Franceschi began establishing nurseries in the area, purchased the lot in 1903, and finished construction of the family home two years later. In 1927, his son sold the 15-acre property to philanthropist Alden Freeman, who donated it to the city as parkland in 1931.
Over the years, the city has entertained numerous restoration projects for the house — condemned in 1963 — and two formal recommendations to demolish it.
In 1971, councilmembers green-lighted a Franceschi plan that, while emphasizing preservation of horticultural resources, recommended razing the house because it had “little architectural merit, and restoration would probably be impractical.” Fast-forward to 1986, when a report, initiated by the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society, called for a phased restoration that got nixed because of financial constraints before it even got off the ground.
In the mid-1990s, the city’s newly assembled Franceschi Park Visioning Committee concluded that restoration wasn’t cost-effective and recommended demolition.
Then, around 2001, the property’s grandest plan envisioned classrooms and a library downstairs, event space on the main level, upstairs residence for a horticultural college student or two, and a parkland docent program. The Pearl Chase Society, which specializes in the preservation of historic sites, took over the endeavor — with a city commitment of $300,000 — to lovingly restore Franceschi and endow it with $250,000 for ongoing maintenance. By 2007, the society had secured more than half of the $2 million restoration price tag as the city dedicated $450,000 in state grant money to roadway, parking, and drainage improvements.
But this upward trajectory took a few near-fatal hits. Estimates to stabilize the hillside homesite — a precursor to any building-permit issuance — and update access per the Americans with Disabilities Act breached $1 million. At the same time, the original maintenance endowment was deemed insufficient. Making matters worse, both the city and the society were feeling the squeeze of tough economic times.
Now, with a deadline set for six months, the old house has received a reprieve of sorts. Its fate is now in the hands of the Pearl Chase Society.
Meanwhile, Rapp and crew are tasked with figuring out how much it will cost the city to prep the site for improvement or get rid of Franceschi House altogether.
“I don’t see the city being able to upgrade and maintain that house,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. “And people are … really wanting to save [it] because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”