Franceschi’s Head on a Precarious Perch?

Erosion Below Park Landmark Raises Concern

Erosion on the slope below the bust of Francesco Franceschi from February's rains raised concern that it could tip over, but the city says it won't.
Doc Searls

“The biggest bust in Santa Barbara is about to go down” could be awarded the provocative headline of the year award, and unsurprisingly it was written by Doc Searls, a former journalist and current Internet guru at Harvard’s Project VRM (vendor relationship management) and UCSB’s Center for Information Technology. It’s the enormous stone head of Dr. Francesco Franceschi that sits atop a boulder above Mission Ridge Road that concerns Searls, but City Parks & Rec disagrees with his assessed length of survival for the bust on its current perch.

After the last heavy rainfall, Searls was walking the Riviera neighborhood when he noticed that the slope below the boulder was seriously eroded. He embarked on a blogging and tweeting photo campaign in the hope of getting people interested, he wrote in an email, stating in the blog, “that boulder and Franceschi’s head are going to be shards on the road soon if the city, or somebody, doesn’t save it.”

Doc Searls

The potential demise of the bust might just be the latest concern for the park that bears the doctor’s name, which contains the dilapidated home of the horticulturalist, who died in 1924. The house was in danger of being bulldozed last June when a last-minute intervention by the Pearl Chase Society postponed the demolition for six months. The rains that eroded the park made inroads through the roof, too, which is being repaired by Parks & Rec.

City engineer Brian D’Amour told The Independent that he had gone out to examine the boulder and agreed the erosion was noticeable near the sculpture. He had compared it to a photo from 2012, and his determination was that the “erosion is not currently a threat to the sculpture or the rock that it sits upon.”

Prep for placing the bust atop the boulder in 1993

Franceschi’s bust came to look out over the city by around 1928, Rick Closson of the Pearl Chase Society said, and was sculpted by Herbert Bengen. Franceschi was one of a number of turn-of-the-century botanists who experimented with plants in Santa Barbara’s florid climate. He lived in S.B. for about 20 years, growing an enormous variety of plant species here, before returning to Italy.

The hillside in 1993 below Franceschi Park

By 1992, the bust had tumbled off the rock and landed amid eucalyptus trunks below, where “local provocateur” Ashleigh Brilliant found it in the dense foliage. As related in Brilliant’s book I Want to Reach Your Mind … Where Is It Currently Located?, “The great botanist happened to be an Italian,” a connection that spurred Santa Barbara’s large Italian-American community, led chiefly by the late Ugo Melchiori, to organize an effort to lift the bust back atop the rock with a crane and then cement it in place.

Franceschi's bust, back on its boulder, nose repaired by Donald Davis, 1993

The park’s issues continue, however, with the latest being a report of a lower gate to the public park remaining locked. Parks manager Santos Escobar said the city was “trying to get to a speedy decision on that.”


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