Left to right: Martha Graham, Lotte Lehmann, and Leopold Stokowski in front of Lobero Theatre, Pacific Coast Music Festival, 1955

For almost 20 years, famed orchestra leader Leopold Stokowski maintained a home in Montecito. From the 1930s until well into the 1950s, Stokowski played a very active role in the musical life of the South Coast.

He was born in London in 1882, the son of a Polish father and an Irish mother. He studied organ as a child then also took up the piano and violin. Eventually, he studied all the orchestral instruments in order to better understand the workings of the orchestra. At 19, he was appointed the organist at London’s St. James’s Church. In 1905, Stokowski took a position as the organist and choirmaster for a church in New York City. His interest turned toward conducting, and he landed a position as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. In 1912, he became conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a position he would hold for a quarter of a century.

Early on, Stokowski realized that radio was the perfect medium to bring classical music to the general public. He became familiar to millions around the world due to his many performances over the airwaves. He collaborated with The Walt Disney Studios in producing the 1940 classic Fantasia, a wondrous blend of animation and classical music.

Stokowski also believed in the importance of education in music. In town, he was a key advisor for more than a decade to the Pillsbury Foundation School, which exposed children to music at very young ages. Stokowski also supported the Music Academy of the West, as well as musical programs at the Howard School in Montecito, where his two young daughters were enrolled.

Violinist, composer, and conductor Henry Eichheim introduced Stokowski to Santa Barbara. Eichheim was an expert on Asian music and instruments, and he and Stokowski had toured that continent together.

Stokowski began construction of a house on Toro Canyon Road in 1934. He made a point of hiring itinerant workers, down on their luck during the height of the Depression. Stokowski and his family moved in the following year. He named his new home The Monastery — an escape from the hectic schedule of his globe-trotting musical career. He constantly tinkered with the house, remodeling and adding rooms. He also became a bit of a farmer, planting 10 acres in avocados.

In the late 1930s, Stokowski, now divorced, began an affair with film actress Greta Garbo. The Toro Canyon home became their getaway, and residents often saw them around town, attending the theater or dining at the Restaurante del Paseo. By the early 1940s, Stokowski was spending less time here. In 1945, he rented the house to the famous aviator Beryl Markham and her husband.

That same year, at the age of 63, he married 21-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt, who vastly preferred the East Coast. In 1953, he sold the house, furnishings, and an astounding amount of memorabilia for $32,000, but he did not cut all ties with the South Coast. In 1955, he conducted four performances as director of the Pacific Coast Music Festival here. The chamber of commerce and the city honored him with the title Excelentísimo Señor Don de Santa Bárbara for his myriad contributions to the area’s culture.

Stokowski was an active 95 when he died in 1977; his calendar was booked through his 100th birthday. He had traveled to the far corners of the world; still, Stokowski felt Santa Barbara was one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen.


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