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El Mirador

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.

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