Address: 414 West Montecito Street
Status: Not for Sale
In 2003, when she first moved to Santa Barbara, Jeanne Martin had a dream about a gleaming gold harp decorated with elaborate figurines of cherubs. She had recently volunteered to become a docent at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, and she interpreted her dream to mean that perhaps she should be spending her spare time practicing her harp rather than starting the docent training program at the museum. She started training anyhow, determined to learn about the history of the city she had newly decided to call home.
Jeanne recounted this dream as she led us on a tour of the Fernald Mansion last Saturday. Six strangers and I were able to walk through the elegant Victorian home, upstairs and down, admiring the details of the house itself as well as the furnishings, keepsakes, and carefully recreated vignettes of lives from a bygone era. As I neared the next doorway, I saw a gold harp sitting in the center of the room, shining in the sun coming through the tall windows. Jeanne said that when she saw this harp on her first visit to the mansion, she recalled her dream and knew that she was right where she was meant to be.
The stories of the Fernald Mansion, the family who lived there, and their place in Santa Barbara history are as magical and romantic as Jeanne’s dream of the golden harp. Built in 1862 by Charles Fernald for his new bride, Hannah, the house was part of his pledge to give her an East Coast lifestyle in what was then rough-and-tumble Santa Barbara. Born in Maine, Charles came to California in 1849, lured by the gold rush. He didn’t strike it rich, but he stayed in San Francisco for a few years to study law. In 1852, he decided to move back east, but on his way first traveled to Santa Barbara to visit friends.
Instead of his intended quick visit, Fernald stayed in Santa Barbara and accepted the job of town sheriff. He also set up a law practice, founding the firm that became Price, Postel & Parma. On a trip to visit his family in Maine in 1860, he met and fell in love with Hannah Hobbs and enticed her to marry and move to Santa Barbara with him.
Built originally as a two-story brick structure, the house grew as the Fernald family grew and changed as did their status in the community. Through his career, Fernald held positions as district attorney, judge, and mayor of Santa Barbara. Charles and Hannah also had five children, so the house grew both in size and sophistication.
In 1880, the house was expanded and renovated into its current Queen Anne Victorian style, as evidenced by the abundant decorative exterior details. Despite the gingerbread elements, the outside of the mansion was kept a muted sand color. In contrast, the interior of the home is filled with vivid colors and opulent art and fixtures, reflecting various aspects of the Fernald family’s tastes and interests.
Nature, travel, music, biblical, and mythological themes recur throughout the house, as does evidence of Charles and Hannah’s lifelong love story. The transom window over the front door is a colorful patchwork design of flowers and shapes, with a centerpiece of a sparrow looking over the eggs in its nest. Charles called Hannah his sparrow, and the window was one of his anniversary gifts to her. Jeanne pointed out an elaborate silver candelabra in the dining room as another anniversary gift from Charles to Hannah and told us that collections of their love letters provide further documentation of their enduring romance.
The tour also offered reminders of the advances that have been made during the years since the house was built. For example, the home was originally lit only by candles, so the patterns in the wallpaper were designed to include gold to reflect the flickering candle light. One relic is a needlepoint screen near one of the fireplaces, which Jeanne explained was intended to protect the waxy makeup worn by ladies of the day from literally melting off their faces.
The home’s original location was on lower Santa Barbara Street, where Smart & Final stands today. Although members of the Fernald family lived in the house until 1958, the mansion is being restored to its condition in 1892, the year that Charles passed away. Both the painstaking restoration work and the herculean efforts to move the home across town were undertaken by the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
When Jeanne relayed that the Fernald family called their home “The Palms,” I realized with a start that my former residence, which we affectionately called “The Palm Avenue Clubhouse,” is less than a block from the mansion’s original site. Like Jeanne’s dream of the golden harp, my moment of Palm Avenue proximity to the Fernald Mansion made me feel a kinship to this amazing residence, grateful that it’s being taken care of and that we are all able to share it.
The Fernald Mansion is located at 414 West Montecito Street. Tours are available to the public with advance reservations on Saturdays at 11 a.m. Contact the Santa Barbara Historical Museum to learn more, or to schedule a tour, at (805) 966-1601. Background information on the Fernald Mansion came from Michael Redmon, director of research at the museum, and Jeanne Martin, PhD, cultural mythologist, harpist, and docent extraordinaire.