A High-Style Craftsman Bungalow

Storied Craftsman Upper East Home

Credit: Betsy J. Green
The home’s longest owner was an ambulance driver in France during World War I. | Credit: Library of Congress

Address: 1920 Laguna Street

True to the bungalow style, the home at 1920 Laguna Street has wide eaves resting on exposed rafters and rectangular porch posts. With its long, low silhouette, this 1913 abode stands out from most other Craftsman Bungalows in Santa Barbara, which have a more vertical orientation and a steeper-pitched roof. 

This home was probably designed by an architect, but building permits in Santa Barbara in the 19-teens did not list the names of architects. The estimated construction cost was $3,500. I was impressed to find a photo of this house in A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester, a book available at the Santa Barbara Public Library.

Craftsman homes originated in Southern California and were popular from 1905 to 1930. They are meant to blend in with the landscape and were often painted in earth tones. The Gamble House in Pasadena, designed by Greene & Greene, is the most famous example. An especially interesting detail of this home is the porch railing design, which is repeated in the front-yard gate. The home is on the Santa Barbara Structure of Merit list.

The Home’s First Owners

John Blair Oliver and his wife, Marion MacDonald, built the home. Oliver had grown up on his family’s farm on the Mesa. In fact, I have an entry about his family in my book MESApedia. The Olivers arrived here in 1868 and bought a 100-acre farm south of today’s Cliff Drive and west of La Mesa Park — about where Oliver Road runs today. They had 30 acres of olive trees, grew hay and corn, and raised cows, pigs, and chickens.

The Olivers lived in the Laguna home part-time. John was a mining engineer who often lived outside Santa Barbara. In 1913, he was working at a gold mine in Needles, California. Earlier, he had worked in Mexico and Montana. Sometimes his wife joined him; sometimes she lived at a hotel here and rented the home. Marion won prizes for her hooked rugs and raised purebred cats. Their son, Reginald M. Oliver, was also a mining engineer and sometimes lived in the home with his wife.

Images by Betsy J. Green

Carrillo Recreation Center Connection

The Olivers sold the home in the mid-1920s, and a series of families owned the home until the 1930s, when it passed into the hands of Bertha Geneva Rice. She was the director of the Carrillo Recreation Center. Rice was also involved with a number of local organizations, such as the Motor Corps during World War I. The local paper wrote, “Whenever it has been necessary to move patients to the emergency hospital … to carry food and other supplies for the sick, or any of the other services needed, Miss Bertha Rice and her corps have been on the spot.” Rice was also the director of the Western Out-of-Doors Conservation League, one of the founders of the children’s parade El Desfile de los Niños, and president of the St. Cecilia Club for many years.

With her in the home was a woman named Vesper Wallace Bell, who also worked at the Recreation Center. When Rice died in 1941, Bell inherited/bought the home. She lived here until 1975 — about 40 years. Bell, nicknamed Wally, had been an ambulance driver in France during World War I. The Library of Congress website describes the work of the women ambulance drivers: “These are the noble women who did work which would tire any man, they managed, repaired, and drove any kind of automobile through the streets of Paris day and night during the war. In the inky nights of Paris, they plowed through the streets at all hours, never stopping. They were highly praised for their courage by all who had to do with them.” In 1975, Bell sold the home to Charles J. Mistretta and moved to Casa Dorinda, an organization which she had helped establish.

Joanne and Ed Northup bought the home in 2007. They like the home’s distinctive Greene & Greene style, and also enjoy its walkable location.

Please do not disturb the residents of 1920 Laguna Street.

Betsy J. Green is a Santa Barbara historian and author of Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood, Santa Monica Press, 2002. Her website is betsyjgreen.com.


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