Photo of the Sexton House at The Steward, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel, courtesy of Twenty Four Seven Hotels
Unveil the captivating history of some of Santa Barbara’s most iconic and storied hotels, where the allure of this coastal city has beckoned travelers for generations. In the aftermath of the 1925 earthquake, many of Santa Barbara’s historic hotels were reborn, each with its unique story of resilience and revival. These cherished properties became not just places to stay but living testaments to the city’s ever-evolving history.
Over the years, these hotels have hosted countless travelers, from Hollywood’s brightest stars to prominent historical figures, all drawn to Santa Barbara’s unrivaled charm. During your next visit, opt to stay at one of these distinguished properties to truly immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of Santa Barbara’s past.
Hotel Virginia, formerly referred to as the Virginia Hotel, is significant as a historic hotel; it, like only a few others, was a pre-1925 building that was reconstructed in the Spanish-style design following the earthquake. The original 1916 building at 17 West Haley Street was a two-story brick hotel built by Charles Maas and was the first commercial property on Haley Street in downtown Santa Barbara. After the devastating 1925 earthquake, city commissioners and architects rebuilt Santa Barbara to comply with the proposed City Beautiful design guidelines, an initiative that allowed Santa Barbara to be constructed uniformly in the Spanish Revival-style architecture with the help from Los Angeles architect, C.K. Denman. These very same guidelines are what defines the city’s unique architecture today.
After the quake struck the city, Hotel Virginia was resurrected and made into a three-story hotel alongside its neighbor, the Traveler’s Hotel. Each hotel operated separately until 1977, when they joined together as the Virginia Hotel. The hotel then closed in 1997 and reopened in 1999 as the Holiday Express Inn Virginia Hotel; it was then that the City of Santa Barbara recognized Hotel Virginia as a local historic landmark. Hotel Virginia is now a Tapestry Collection by Hilton and continues to serve up Santa Barbara charm in one of the most bustling parts of downtown.
Following the infamous 6.3-magnitude earthquake in 1925 that shook up most of Santa Barbara, the original Hotel Santa Barbara was left in ruins. But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the State Street property was rebuilt to its original glory—and more!—under the name of Saint Barbara. According to the hotel’s website, during Prohibition, there was a rumor that the property had a secret, steady supply of liquor and a gaming room to consume it in. At the time, Hollywood’s biggest stars used this hotel as a popular getaway. But the popularity of The Barbara Hotel was rather short-lived—after World War II, it closed its doors for well over a decade.
In 1975, Hotel Santa Barbara was purchased by longtime Santa Barbara residents Rolland and Venetia Jacks and was reopened to the public by the name of the Schooner Inn. After a much-needed revitalization in 1996, it was renamed to Hotel Santa Barbara. Ever since, it has remained a staple institution for travelers near and far. Hotel Santa Barbara is now owned by Geronimo Hospitality Group and is open for reservations while undergoing yet another renovation to help modernize the space and continue over 100 years of history in hospitality.
As noted in Santa Barbara historian Neal Graffy’s book, “Historic Santa Barbara: An Illustrated History,” one of the most prominent moments in real estate in Santa Barbara’s history involved what’s now known as Hotel Milo, located along picturesque Cabrillo Boulevard. This piece of Santa Barbara’s storied past began when Milo M. Potter, a Los Angeles hotelier, purchased the 36-acre property known as Burton’s Mound for $35,000 in 1901. But before it was Burton’s Mound, the sacred land was known to the Chumash as Syuktun, meaning “where two trails run.”
In 1903, The Potter Hotel officially opened and thus established Santa Barbara as the ultimate vacation destination. The grounds included amenities like tennis courts, a zoo, a palm and fernery building, cactus gardens and more. In 1919, Potter sold the hotel, and it was renamed a few times since then: the Belvedere, the Ambassador Hotel, then the Ambassador. It burned to the ground in 1921, leaving nothing but ashes at the site of the once bustling, luxurious property. Fast-forward to 2001, and the hotel was operating by the name Hotel Oceana. It wasn’t until 2014 that the property was rebranded as Hotel Milo, paying homage to the original hotelier.
Built in 1880 on the land once owned by nursery owner and horticulturist Joseph Sexton and his wife Lucy, The Sexton House, a two-story Italianate-style home designed by architect Peter J. Barber, still stands asa designated historic landmark among the grounds of The Steward. The Sexton House (and Sexton himself) played a key role in the agricultural development of the Goleta Valley during that period. Sexton’s specialty was the importation, propagation and sale of decorative plants and fruits, such as avocado varieties from Hawaiʻi and Mexico (though he passed away before the orchard became economically sustainable). Specifically, he was known for popularizing pampas grass as decor during the late Victorian Era. Rumor has it, the Sexton family can trace their roots to one of the earliest documented recipes for avocado toast.
After Sexton’s death in 1917, the property sustained damage during the 1925 earthquake. After necessary repairs, the house remained relatively untouched until 1954, when the Sexton family sold it. After decades of neglect, the property was acquired by Choice Hotels International (and converted into a Quality Suites Inn) in the mid-1980s and restored between 1990 and 1991. Today, the house remains as a historic relic on the lush property of The Steward, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel. During your stay, visit one of the tallest, and oldest, bird of paradise plants in Santa Barbara today, a cherished living keepsake from Sexton’s legacy.
Originally owned by Robert and Julia Simpson, Scottish and New York state transplants, this Victorian marvel was constructed in 1874 and stands as one of the best preserved Victorian-era buildings in California. Fast forward to 1921, when Mary Simpson’s estate sold the house, now encompassing the era of railroads, automobiles, electricity and indoor plumbing. E.P. Dunn, proprietor of the elegant Arlington Hotel (now the Arlington Theatre), took the reins. Despite surviving the 1925 earthquake that claimed the Arlington Hotel, the Simpson House saw diverse ownership, including Katharine McCormick, an advocate for women’s rights and arts patron. In 1976, it found its current stewards, Glyn and Linda Davies, who meticulously restored it into a charming bed-and-breakfast inn that opened in 1985. Honored with a Structure of Merit award and historic landmark status in the early 1990s, Simpson House Inn stands as a beautifully preserved Victorian gem, a testament to its rich history.
The ranch has a fascinating past as a working citrus ranch throughout the 1800s, the San Ysidro Citrus Ranch, then the Johnston Fruit Company. In 1889, a stone citrus-packing house was constructed, eventually becoming the renowned, Michelin-touted Stonehouse Restaurant. Today, executive chef Matt Johnson crafts seasonal menus featuring ingredients sourced from the resort’s organic garden.
For over 130 years, San Ysidro Ranch has been a haven of tranquility, drawing discerning travelers, world leaders and Hollywood luminaries, according to the resort’s website. Its guest list reads like a who’s who, with visitors such as Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill, Sinclair Lewis and John Huston, who penned “The African Queen” screenplay during his stay. San Ysidro Ranch also witnessed the midnight wedding vows of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and hosted John and Jackie Kennedy during their Camelot honeymoon in the cottage now named in their honor.
Nestled on De La Vina Street in Santa Barbara, The Upham Hotel, one of Southern California’s oldest establishments, carries a rich history dating back to 1871. according to the book, “The Upham Hotel: Celebrating 125 Years of Santa Barbara Hospitality,” written by Laura Kath Fraser, The Upham Hotel was originally known as the Lincoln House and operated by the Amasa Lincoln family, and was later passed through various hands until 1898 when Cyrus Upham transformed it into The Upham and ran the hotel until 1911. Upham’s dedication expanded the hotel, adding a two-story annex, known as the Lincoln House. It was later purchased by Ira Goodbridge, who added a number of quaint guest cottages. Recognized as a city landmark in 1980, The Upham Hotel preserves its 19th-century Santa Barbara charm and continues to welcome guests to experience a slice of history in the heart of the city.
As stars gravitated toward Hollywood, Santa Barbara can claim its own piece of filmmaking history. Not only was it a cherished playground and place of refuge for A-list celebrities, but the region was also home to Flying A Studio between 1912 and 1921, producing nearly one thousand silent films during its short tenure. According to Montecito Inn’s website, silent film legend Charlie Chaplin, captivated by the region’s charm, gathered a small group of investors to bring Montecito Inn to fruition in 1928. This upscale gem went on to draw guests from near and far to the Santa Barbara area. Today, this historic hotel still stands as a testament to its glamorous past.