Before last week, Santa Barbara’s Tea Gardens-a picturesque private park of bizarre aqueduct systems, broken-down statues, Romanesque arches, and stunning ocean views in the foothills above Westmont College-were a highlight of local lore for their quirky history and legendary status in the underground of skateboarding. Now, the 340-acre estate-long a popular party spot for trespassing teenagers and solitude-seeking co-eds-is forever infamous as the birthplace of the similarly named destructive inferno born within its borders just before sundown last Thursday evening. Though the cause of the fire is still under investigation by county, state, and federal authorities, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Public Information Officer Captain Eli Iskow, “The Tea Fire was definitely human-caused,” with the specific point of origin being a bonfire-left behind by an as yet unnamed group of college students-near the large arches at the bottom of the property.
Built in 1916 by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Bothin, who lived just uphill from the area near what is now Mountain Drive, the property was envisioned specifically to play host to luxurious and private tea parties. Planting much of the area with exotic African flora, the Bothins had an elaborate aqueduct system put in place throughout the property featuring several stone pools, assorted water works flowing down the property’s natural sloped geography, and the aforementioned statues, arches, and an amphitheatre. By 1917, the “Tea Gardens,” also called Mar y Cel (Sea and Sky), were known throughout Santa Barbara as representing both a premiere social event as well as an actual place. It should also be noted that two separate reservoirs found on the original Tea Gardens grounds became part of the Montecito Water District.
The Bothins’ tea parties continued in earnest until Henry’s death in 1923, at which time the hot-beverage gatherings went on hold for a number of years until his wife, Ellen, eventually resumed the activities until her passing in 1965. It was during the 1950s, and, to a greater extent, the back half of the 1960s, when the Tea Gardens, in a role that they continue to play to this day, became a popular party destination for uninvited guests. Gradually replacing the chamomile, Earl Grey, and finger foods of the Bothins’ era with reefer, beer, and blotter, trespassers would escape to the fantasy, albeit deteriorating, landscapes of the Tea Gardens to take in the sights, crank up the good times, and occasionally take a dip in the pools. (Rumor has it that there was once a rope swing of world-class proportions hanging off an oak tree near the upper pool). Despite changing ownership at least three times since the Bothins, the Tea Gardens, always a private parcel, remained a steadfast-and illegal-stop on the party train for Santa Barbara youths until modern times.
By the mid ’70s, skateboarding luminaries and Mountain Drive residents like Tom Sims and Chucky Barfoot were stylishly carving the walls of the pools-bone dry thanks to drought and drainage-in a surfing-inspired approach, helping usher in a new era of skateboarding performance. However, by the end of the decade, the City of Santa Barbara, looking to put the squeeze on the “illegal” skate sessions after one particularly brutal injury to an area youth, dynamited the middle of the property’s biggest and most popular bowl. In the many years since, the pools have enjoyed a few periods of skateboarding revivals by riders risking arrest, but none nearly as memorable or influential as those early days.
In mid 2000, Cima del Mundo-a Santa Barbara-run, preservation-minded business entity-owned the property and placed some 150 acres of it in a permanently protected land easement held by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. Though the deal did not include the actual portions of the property that feature the pools and various other structures, it did call for the deeding of a short public trail, making legal the long-standing portion of the popular Cold Spring Trail that traverses the northwest corner of the property. Cima del Mundo has since sold the property to yet another owner, though who exactly holds the deed is classified information according to the Land Trust. As for the status of the entire Tea Gardens property since last week’s devastation, William Abbott, the conservation director for the Land Trust, explained this week that “significant portions, if not all, of it has burned.”