For the first time in 70 years, changes may be coming to the fabled Knapp’s Castle. Recent visitors to the site have been surprised to see construction equipment, vehicles, and a motor home at the popular Santa Ynez Mountain ruin.
Conjecture about what’s going on has ranged from reports that the area is being readied for an upcoming film shoot to the start of a construction project that could eliminate the ruins altogether. “Visited Knapp’s Castle this past Friday for the first time in years,” one person commented on the Santa Barbara Hikes website. “I was disappointed to find that the lodge area is now crowded with a trailer and a large amount of construction equipment and debris.”
Built in the early 1900s by George Owen Knapp as a private mountain lodge “that in natural beauty and grandeur will have few to equal it on the American continent.” Construction on the lodge was completed in 1920 and for many years served as a popular retreat for Knapp’s guests who were treated to after dinner entertainment courtesy of resident pipe organist Dion Kennedy.
In 1940 the 160-acre Knapp property was purchased by Francis Holden, a close friend of the famous opera singer Lotte Lehmann. The two had planned on making it their mountain home. Within weeks, however, the main buildings were destroyed in a forest fire that left behind it a scattering of stone archways, solitary chimneys and other stonework that has become known since as Knapp’s Castle.
A search of the assessor’s parcel map information indicates that a portion of the Knapp property recently changed hands. Purchased in 2004 by Castillo Cielo Holding Company LLC of Colorado, a 31.3-percent interest in the property was obtained by Calvin L. Smith in February 2010. It appears that Smith may be the person responsible for the recent changes.
The most prominent of these has been the construction of what appears to be a series of bench-like steps facing the lower arches that appear to be the start of an outdoor amphitheater. The work is being done using native stone. Other improvements include adding reinforcement to some of the walls and chimneys as well as the outer walkways.
Los Padres Forest officials seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the changes at Knapp’s Castle. “From our perspective, this is a personal matter on his or her property,” said Forest Service spokesperson Andrew Madsen, who said his agency was alerted to the situation last week and sent a ranger out to see what was happening. “They can do whatever they want to do so long as they’re permitted. That’s fine by us.” A check with County Planning, however, indicates that no permits have been filed for the work.
Note: After this story went to print, a site visit was made by Santa Barbara County Planning Department officials and a “stop work” order was issued for the Knapp construction.