The Unusual History of the Tea Fire’s Point of Origin

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Before last week, Santa Barbara’s Tea Gardens — a picturesque private park of bizarre aqueduct systems, broken-down statues, Romanesque arches, and stunning ocean views in the foothills above Westmont College — were a highlight of local lore for their quirky history and legendary status in the underground of skateboarding. Now, the 340-acre estate — long a popular party spot for trespassing teenagers and solitude-seeking co-eds — is forever infamous as the birthplace of the similarly named destructive inferno born within its borders just before sundown last Thursday evening. Though the cause of the fire is still under investigation by county, state, and federal authorities, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Public Information Officer Captain Eli Iskow, “The Tea Fire was definitely human-caused,” with the specific point of origin being a bonfire — left behind by an as yet unnamed group of college students — near the large arches at the bottom of the property.

Built in 1916 by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Bothin, who lived just uphill from the area near what is now Mountain Drive, the property was envisioned specifically to play host to luxurious and private tea parties. Planting much of the area with exotic African flora, the Bothins had an elaborate aqueduct system put in place throughout the property featuring several stone pools, assorted water works flowing down the property’s natural sloped geography, and the aforementioned statues, arches, and an amphitheatre. By 1917, the “Tea Gardens,” also called Mar y Cel (Sea and Sky), were known throughout Santa Barbara as representing both a premiere social event as well as an actual place. It should also be noted that two separate reservoirs found on the original Tea Gardens grounds became part of the Montecito Water District.

The Bothins’ tea parties continued in earnest until Henry’s death in 1923, at which time the hot-beverage gatherings went on hold for a number of years until his wife, Ellen, eventually resumed the activities until her passing in 1965. It was during the 1950s, and, to a greater extent, the back half of the 1960s, when the Tea Gardens, in a role that they continue to play to this day, became a popular party destination for uninvited guests. Gradually replacing the chamomile, Earl Grey, and finger foods of the Bothins’ era with reefer, beer, and blotter, trespassers would escape to the fantasy, albeit deteriorating, landscapes of the Tea Gardens to take in the sights, crank up the good times, and occasionally take a dip in the pools. (Rumor has it that there was once a rope swing of world-class proportions hanging off an oak tree near the upper pool). Despite changing ownership at least three times since the Bothins, the Tea Gardens, always a private parcel, remained a steadfast — and illegal — stop on the party train for Santa Barbara youths until modern times. CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE


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