Fabled Gables: 136 West Cota Street

136 West Cota Street

Original owner: Mr. and Mrs. George Hernster

Architect: Peter S. Barber

Approximate Year Built: 1884

On or near the year 1884, Bavarian-born George Hernster and his Prussian-born wife commissioned Peter Barber, Santa Barbara’s mayor and leading architect of the day, to design a spacious two-story home at the corner of Cota and De la Vina streets. His signature Victorian-style homes were often two-story buildings with shiplap siding, turreted hip roof, double-hung windows, transform doors, and double brackets under the eaves. In addition to stately mansions and simple cottages, Barber’s vintage architectural treasures were also seen in many early public buildings, including City Hall, the old courthouse, and the Arlington Hotel.

Hernster was one of Santa Barbara’s early merchants and liquor dealers, and he and his family occupied the home from its construction until 1948. After the Hernsters’ reign, it was owned briefly by John Massa and his wife. By 1956, Elmer Whittaker, a builder and preservationist of historic homes, had purchased and restored the residence as a birthday gift for his wife, Barbara. They allowed the downstairs to serve as a headquarters and clubhouse for several prominent women’s organizations — including the Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of the American Colonists, and the PEO Sisterhood — and Barbara Whittaker often referred to the residence as her “Pro-American house.”

In 1963, Donald Berger and his wife, Marianne, acquired the house from the Whittakers. Upon the change of title and ownership, a stern handshake agreement between Whittaker and Berger was that the home not be torn down or renovated in such a way that it deviate from Barber’s original 1884 architectural style.

To accommodate both their business needs and growing family, the Bergers converted the downstairs area into a thriving hair salon known as House of Donann (a mash-up of “Donald” and “Marianne”) and renovated the upstairs into spacious living quarters for the family. Marianne took comfort in having her two daughters close by while she was at work, with her youngest, Varni, often going downstairs to do her dolls’ hair and then her friends’. The Bergers employed up to 13 salon operators at their very busy and successful salon, which remained in business more than 50 years.

Today, Varni maintains Varni Hair Studio, a quaint studio at the same location in a smaller room. The remaining downstairs space is now rented to a doctor, and the upstairs serves as a residential rental unit. As promised to the Whittakers back in 1963, the house continues to be well maintained and lovingly cared for.


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