The Fithian family came to Santa Barbara in the late 1800s and soon was numbered among the most influential inhabitants of the South Coast. The paterfamilias, Joel Adams Fithian, was born in New Jersey in 1839. During the Civil War, he formed and commanded a company of volunteer infantry. He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming an inspector general, and saw action in a number of campaigns. He retired from the military a few months after the end of the war.
Fithian began a banking career that took him to Richmond, Virginia; New York; and Paris. His growing family spent quite a bit of time in Europe. One son, Joel Remington, was born in France and attended schools in France, Germany, and Switzerland.
Fithian, with his two sons, Joel and R. Barrett, arrived in Santa Barbara in 1892. It was not long before he was buying property in the area, including a ranch at the western end of the Carpinteria Valley and a site near Channel Drive.
Perhaps his best-known real estate venture was the building he had erected at the southwest corner of State and Ortega streets in 1895-96. Little expense was spared in construction; marble quarried from Santa Catalina Island was used throughout, and one newspaper account pointed out the building was equipped with the latest “siphon-jet toilets.”
The outstanding feature of the Fithian Building was its tower equipped with a large Seth Thomas clock and Westminster chimes. It was known colloquially as the Lower Clock Building to distinguish it from the Upper Clock Building at 936 State Street. The Fithian Building was heavily damaged in the 1925 earthquake; the tower was removed, and the building was remodeled in the Spanish Colonial style.
In addition to his ranching and real estate ventures, Fithian also threw himself into community affairs. An avid golfer, he was shocked to find that one could not indulge in this sport in Santa Barbara. He was one of the chief founders of the Santa Barbara Country Club and had a three-hole golf course, later expanded to nine holes, along the ocean between Santa Barbara Cemetery and the present Biltmore Hotel. The club later became Montecito County Club.
Fithian took ill upon his return from yet another trip to Europe and died from pneumonia in 1898. One son, Barrett, inherited the Fithian Building, while another son, Joel Remington, was bequeathed the Carpinteria ranch.
The latter developed one of the first citrus groves on the South Coast, which he expanded to over 3,000 acres. He later served as president of the Johnston Fruit Company and played an important role in transforming the company into a farming cooperative.
Like his father, Joel R. Fithian dabbled in real estate and was one of the primary developers of the Sandyland area, just west of Carpinteria. He helped bring electricity to Carpinteria. In Santa Barbara, he was a key figure in the celebration surrounding the visit of the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet in 1908 and in the first modern Fiesta in 1924.
A history buff, he developed a fine collection of Old West vehicles, the centerpiece of which was a fine Concord stagecoach. He partnered with Francis Underhill in operating a short-lived sightseeing company that would take visitors by stage up San Marcos Pass from the Potter Hotel.
The family slowly divested itself of its local holdings. The Fithian Building, however, still bears the name of this most important family.