People, Places and Things

Casa Dorinda – Montecito’s Downton Abbey II

Once upon a time, a little girl named Anna Dorinda Blaksley was born in St. Louis Missouri. Although she started life more than 2,000 miles from Santa Barbara, years before the advent of cars and airplanes, her life and legacy have left a lasting impression on this community and the people who have since lived here. Anna Dorinda Bliss is well loved for her philanthropy of both Cottage Hospital and the Botanic Gardens, but she is best-known as the creator and mastermind of Casa Dorinda, a magnificent estate known for its extravagance and grander.

After serving as home to Mr. and Mrs. William Bliss, the estate later served as a girls’ school, a military housing center and is now home to one of the country’s finest retirement communities for the elderly.

Anna Dorinda Blaksley was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1851, which was the same year the Pacific Railroad was breaking ground in that city. Her parents, Henry and Mary (nee Stoner), were a prominent citizens of St. Louis, who made their fortune in mercantile and real estate development. We are unsure of Mary’s fate, but have learned that Henry was known as a generous and kind man, who died at a relatively young age. When he passed, he left a fortune of about $500,000 to his two daughters, Anna and her elder sister, Sarah.

Anna was a beautiful and well-educated girl, who enjoyed the privileges of an upper-class lifestyle. She attended excellent schools both in the US and abroad, traveling throughout Europe with a female chaperone for two years following her graduation from high school. Sadly, almost immediately upon Anna’s return to the States, her elder sister Sarah died very unexpectedly. Sarah’s death came only months after the birth of her second child, a daughter whom she had named Edith. Despite her youth, Anna “adopted” Edith as her own, and for the remainder of her life endeavored to fill the shoes of the mother that Edith had never known.

In 1878, at the age of 27 years old, Anna married Demas Barnes, a wealthy and handsome New Yorker who was 24 years her senior. Anna’s husband was a successful businessman, and one of the primary investors in Centaur Company, producers of Fletcher’s Castoria, an elixir marketed as a laxative for children. He had also served as a Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives between the years of 1867 and 1869.

Their daughter, Mildred Barnes, was born a year or so after Anna and Demas’ marriage. While Mildred was Anna’s first (and only) child, she was the second of Demas Barnes’ two daughters. Cora Barnes, Anna’s stepdaughter was just seven years younger than Anna, and 26 years older than her half-sister, Mildred.

For several years Anna, Demas and Mildred lived quite happily in New York City, until Demas’ death at age 61. Little Mildred was a nine-year old child when her father died suddenly, leaving a substantial fortune to Anna, Cora and her. It’s estimated that at the time of Demas Barnes’ death in 1888, his estate was valued at $11 million. In 1911, when Cora died, she left her remaining fortune to both Anna (who had become her dear friend) and Mildred (her half-sister). In fact, it was largely due to the inheritance from Demas and Cora Barnes, that Anna Dorinda Barnes was later able to finance the construction and maintenance of the home in Santa Barbara, which she called “Casa Dorinda”. But more on that later.

Following Demas Barnes’ death, when Anna was 37 years old, she and Mildred continued living in New York City. It was there that Anna ultimately met and married William Henry Bliss, a well-known lawyer and U.S. Attorney. In April 1894, when Mildred was about 15 years old, her mother and William (who had originally hailed from Ohio) married. Like Anna, William had previously been married, and was the father of Robert and Annie Louise, who were nineteen and sixteen years old, respectively. Following their marriage, Anna and William Bliss lived on East 65th in NYC for several years, traveling extensively throughout Europe and the U.S.

In the years following her marriage to William, Anna and William Bliss made their way West on several occasions, visiting Santa Barbara whenever they could. When they traveled, they did so in style, staying at the famed Arlington Hotel, and taking in all that Santa Barbara had to offer Eastern visitors at the time. Newly on the map, Santa Barbara was becoming known for its hot springs/sulfur baths, temperate climate, leisurely recreation and wealthy, sophisticated visitors and residents. This was just the type of town that appealed to Anna Dorinda Bliss, and she set her sights on getting a piece of it.

And now for a momentary diversion to Anna’s daughter, Mildred; in 1908, when Mildred was 29 and her half-brother, Robert Woods Bliss was 33, they were married in New York City. Robert was a Harvard educated lawyer and career diplomat, who had already served in Italy, Russia and Belgium.

When World War I broke out, Mildred and Robert were living in Paris, but returned to Washington D.C. by the end of the war. In1920 Mildred and Robert purchased Dumbarton Oaks, in Georgetown, Washington DC. They made the estate one of their principal homes until donating the property to Harvard University in 1940. Today it’s still owned by the University and is a wonderful research library and museum, housing the Robert Wood Bliss collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and artifacts and promoting the study and research of gardens and landscape. It has he additional distinction of having been the site of the 1944 conference which led to the formation of the United Nations. This photo depicts Robert and Mildred Bliss at home at Dumbarton Oaks.

In 1923, Robert was appointed Ambassador to Sweden and years later was the Ambassador to Argentina. During all of his appointments and travels, Mildred faithfully joined Robert, returning to visit Casa Dorinda, as well as their home in New York City, when scheduling permitted. Mildred and Robert’s was a life of travel, philanthropy and art collecting, and with homes in NYC, Paris and Washington DC, it’s unlikely they had much time to dally at Casa Dorinda.

Mildred and Robert never had children, and when, at age 58 Robert retired from his diplomatic career, he and Mildred chose to live in Washington D.C, rather than at Casa Dorinda in Santa Barbara.

But back to Anna Dorinda and William Bliss…In 1916, when he was 72 years old and she was 65 years old, health conditions necessitated a move from New York City to a more temperate climate. And so the Bliss’ having become familiar with Santa Barbara’s reputation for good health and rejuvenation , made their way West to Santa Barbara. On their visit (during which they stayed at their favorite place, the Arlington Hotel), the couple decided to purchase a 16-acre parcel at 300 Hot Springs Road. In this purchase, they intended to build a magnificent home in which to live out their remaining years together in style. Being familiar with the work of architect Carleton Winslow, immediately after the transaction Anna and William made the trip to Los Angeles to discuss with Mr. Winslow the plans for a new home in Montecito.

In the winter of 1917, while their home was under construction, the Bliss’ returned to Santa Barbara to get away from the cold of New York City and oversee the construction of their house. They rented “La Manzanita”, a beautiful estate on Parra Grande in Montecito, and began hosting what would become decades of lavish entertainment and “society” events. This is Casa Dorinda in the winter of 1917, during the construction phase.

When the home was completed in 1919, the 80+-room mansion was most likely the largest home in Montecito. The mansion, which was home to just two “elderly” people, was staffed with 40 + servants, including a valet, a footman, a secretary, a grounds superintendent, a chef, cooks, maids, gardeners, security staff, a chauffeur, mechanics, and more. These servants tended to the Bliss’ every need and desire, maintaining the estate to the exact specifications of the very particular and quite Victorian “grand dame” of Montecito society.

The mansion, Spanish Colonial in architecture, included features that were quite ornate, approaching Baroque in style. As was the custom of the Victorian era, the bedrooms and private areas of homes were less splashy and considerably more humble that were the more “public” areas of the house, but they certainly had all the amenities one would expect of a home of Casa Dorinda’s caliber. Last week we shared photos of Casa Dorinda as it appears today, and while the quality of our antique images of Casa Dorinda (while the personal residence of the Bliss’) are not perfect, hopefully they will convey some of the home’s original splendor. This image, published in January, 1921 in Architectural Forum shows a view from the interior of the courtyard.

This view of the estate was published in Westways Magazine, and shows not only the mansion, but the gardens and the grounds as well. In all, Casa Dorinda comprised about 40 acres, which were cultivated as three formal gardens, a vegetable garden, flower gardens, the “Great Lawn” and a variety of trees, many of them oak and other indigenous species.

Carleton Winslow, architect of the S.B. Natural History Museum, The Valley Club, the L.A. Public Library, and the addition to the S.B. Library in 1924, began designing the Bliss’ home in 1916. Originally the property consisted only of the sixteen acres purchased in 1916, but as the project progressed more property was added. It’s believed that construction got underway in late 1916 or early 1917 and by the spring of 1919 the home was completed. The date of the first social event held at Casa Dorinda is a bit uncertain, however it may have been as early as March, when the Bliss’ had a reception for a former Ambassador to France; or it could have been for an organ rectal in June of that year, honoring a friend. In any event, we have read an account of the first formal dinner party being held at Casa Dorinda, and that took place in September, 1919 with 24 guests for a dinner, followed by after dinner guests arriving for entertainment. This image, published in January, 1921 in Architectural Forum shows what the mansion looked like in those early days.

Remember young Edith, Anna’s sister Sarah’s child, who was born only months before Sarah’s death? As previously mentioned, starting when Anna Bliss was in her early 20‘s, she assumed the role of “mother” to the child, attempting to fill the shoes of her deceased sister. And so, in 1918, as Casa Dorinda was under construction, Anna Bliss reportedly contacted her then 40-year old niece, (by now Mrs. Claude Kennerly) asking if she might like having her own “winter home” in Montecito. Edith replied that she, her husband and two daughters were delighted by the idea, and suggested that “Aunt D” purchase the property adjacent to Casa Dorinda for their use. Without delay, Anna Bliss is said to have immediately telegraphed back to Edith (who was living on the East Coast), “The house is yours, deed will follow”. As promised, Anna then purchased the adjacent property to the north of Casa Dorinda, an estate owned by the John Driver family, for use by the Kennerlys. The family, Edith,Claude, Dorinda and Noel reportedly spent many summers at the property. This Sanborn Map shows the two properties, which incidentally still remain separate parcels..

It’s reported that the construction cost of Casa Dorinda was about $245,000, which seems almost impossible for what the Blisses got. At 80+ rooms, the house consisted of all the usual rooms a home would have, plus a few extras. And this is where the Downtown Abbey business really starts to show – these are some of the estate’s noted rooms and amenities : the “Oriental Room”, the “Long Hall”, the “Tower”, the “Grand Staircase”, the “Great Lawn”, the “Flower Room”, the “Napoleon Room” and our favorite, the “Corridor of Delight”. These heavenly-sounding places were in addition to other grand rooms simply referred to as the music room, the dining room, the library, Mrs. Bliss’ bedroom suite, Mr. Bliss’ bedroom suite, the elevators and numerous guest bedrooms and sitting rooms. These photos, published in January, 1921 in Architectural Forum show the library, the “Long Hall”, the music room and the detail of the mantle the in the music room.

Aside from the rooms used by the Bliss’ and their frequent guest and visitors, the mansion had a variety of rooms in which the servants worked and lived. Unmarried servants lived inside the home, mainly on the second and third floors, while the married staff lived in outbuildings located on the estate. Beginning in the basement and working our way up, the staff at Casa Dorinda utilized the following rooms/facilities in their daily lives: the “drying yard”, wine cellar, refrigeration room, vegetable storage, fur room, servants’ elevator and the heating and forced air system for the home. The first floor housed the kitchen, butler’s pantry, pastry kitchen, servants’ hall, telephone room, mens’ cloak room, women’s’ cloak room (no mixing, please – this was the Victorian era after all!), cleaning room, valet’s room, footman’s room, housekeepers’ rooms, pressing room and office. The second floor had several guest rooms, sitting rooms and bathrooms, as well as a servants’ wing which housed the following: a trunk room, ladies’ maid’s room, service elevator, linen room, cook’s room, six maids’ rooms, the laundress’s room, the sewing room, a porch and baths. The third floor had a storage room, additional servant’s rooms as well as the servants’ ballroom, also call the “Solarium”. When we think of all the work, gossip and play that went on in these rooms at Casa Dorinda around the turn of the century and beyond, we can’t help but think there had to have been characters like Mr. Cason, Mr. Bates, Anna, Daisy, Mrs. Patmore, the evil Thomas and others who kept the house running like a Swiss watch…

Mrs. Bliss is said to have been very much the ruler of her domain, and although she was known to be generous with her staff, she was not always diplomatic with them. This photo shows Anna Bliss on the grounds of Casa Dorinda, which she is said to have inspected nearly every day, to be certain that every detail was just as she wanted it. Her team of 18-20 gardeners and landscapers, supervised by Philip Lucking worked around the clock, tending to what became about 40 acres of lawns, trees, vegetables and flowers. The fruits, herbs and vegetables were used in preparation of meals for the Bliss’s and their frequent guests; fresh flowers from the gardens were used in many of the rooms throughout the home, and even the smallest detail was supervised by Anna Bliss. She reportedly loved the grounds and gardens nearly as much as she loved the home, supervising the growing of almost every variety of lilly, a vast rose garden, violets and her favorite apricot-colored gladiola. There were also a variety of native and non-native trees on the property, and Mrs. Bliss is said to have loved them all. It’s rumored that she once remarked, “If reincarnation is possible I would like to spend my next life as an oak tree”. This photo shows Mrs. Bliss on the grounds of Casa Dorinda, possibly preparing to take her daily stroll around the grounds with her superintendent, John Weeks. We are not certain who also appears in the photo with Mrs. Bliss, but the caption of the photo, published in January, 1921 in Architectural Forum, states “Mrs. Bliss, center, supervised every detail”. It looks as though the man to her left may be holding architectural plans, so perhaps it’s Carleton Winslow.

This is William Bliss posing in front of an exmple of the home’s incredibly ornate ironwork.

Before we move on and describe for you some of the social events that took place at Casa Dorinda while Mrs. Bliss lived there, we thought we’d share a couple of interesting facts about the grounds. In addition to several garages, there was a two-story guesthouse on the property, as well as other “outbuildings” serving as a caretaker’s lodge, fire house, gate house and other “modern” amenities. Casa Dorinda had its own generator which could be used by the Bliss’ in the event of a loss of electricity. It also had its own water and pump house,which utilized much of the water that flowed in the creek running through the property. Lastly, Casa Dorinda had its own sewer system, which was quite innovative for the time. The sewer line reportedly ran from the house, down Olive Mill Road, past the Biltomore Hotel and into the ocean. In all, the self-sufficiency of the estate was once said to have made “life at Casa Dorinda a little like dwelling in a small village”.

A huge part of the allure of Casa Dorinda, and what has made it such an enduring part of Montecito history is the reputation it gained through Mrs. Bliss’ love of entertaining. Mr. Bliss,who was much more of a loner and introvert, reportedly grew weary of the dinner parties, garden parties, music recitals and other social events that were held at Casa Dorinda with great regularity.

When an event was scheduled and planned, no detail was overlooked and no expense was spared. If the weather was good enough, the party was held on the Great Lawn, where canopies were erected above tables ladened with perfectly prepared food and drink. Dancers, magicians and “other exotic entertainers” were brought in to amuse the guests. When a dinner party was given, it was always a formal event. Guests were usually first entertained in the “Long Hall”, after which the large double doors were opened into the formal dining room. Following an elaborate dinner with elegant silverware, china and Waterford crystal (all of which was hidden in “secret cupboards” and a silver safe in the dining room, and which were personally counted by Mrs. Bliss after the event), guests could then easily move through the second set of doors into the music room to be entertained by a variety of famous musicians, including Paderewski, Elman and Heifetz. This photo shows one of the infamous garden parties held on the Great Lawn.

In 1919, King Albert, Queen Elisabeth and Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium visited Casa Dorinda, staying at the estate for four days. Apparently the trip, arranged by Herbert Hoover, was somewhat impromptu as the Royal Family had arrived on the East Coast and had wanted to see more of the U.S. Unfortunately, Anna Bliss was on an extended tour of the Orient at the time, and was unable to make it home to meet and entertain the royal house guests; but they reportedly had a dandy time never-the- less.

Newspaper accounts report that 5,000 people showed up to greet the Royals at the Santa Barbara train station as they arrived into town. Their agenda was closely followed and quite full. It included swimming at Miramar Beach, taking tea at Mrs. Bothin’s Tea Garden, riding horses along the beach, taking a ride in the Loughhead (Lockheed) brother’s airplane, driving up to Knapp’s Castle, attending Mass at the Old Mission and planting Redwood trees at both Casa Dorinda and Alameda Park. This commemorative plaque now hangs in the entry at Casa Dorinda, in remembrance of the event. The second photo is, we believe, a Redwood tree. It is located in Alameda Park across from Alice Keck Park. We aren’t sure if either of the 1919 Redwood trees have survived, or if this is even the one planted by the royals, but it’s beautiful in its own right so we decided to include it just the same.

Following the royal’s visit, the City Counsel moved to name the easterly extension of APS “King Albert Boulevard”, a name that was ultimately adopted. In 1924, the name was changed to a more culturally appropriate “Camino Rey Alberto”, but by 1932 it was changed to its present-day name, Alameda Padre Serra, as a continuation of that street. This photo shows King Albert, Queen Elisabeth and Crown Prince Leopold during their visit to Casa Dorinda in October, 1919.

In June of 1925 when a strong earthquake hit Santa Barbara, Anna Bliss was in Los Angeles, and Mr. Bliss was home at Casa Dorinda. Amazingly, the mansion withstood the quake with minimal damage. Only the third floor and the tower suffered structural harm, but Mrs. Bliss immediately ordered that the entire house be completely reinforced with steel in case another quake were to hit. By this time, Mr. Bliss, who had long -tired of the noise and commotion that was ever present at Casa Dorinda, decided he’d had enough. He was reportedly “the first to leave Casa Dorinda” after the earthquake, and never again returned to live at the home. Instead, he took his “manservant” and moved into a modest home at 2003 Santa Barbara Street, which according to SB Building Department records, was built in 1920 by Henry Levy, a local businessman. There, Mr. Bliss lived until his death in 1932, at the age of 88. The house, located at the corner of Santa Barbara and Mission Streets still stands today, but is no longer original, having been expanded and renovated over the years.

Although he is said to have visited Anna Bliss at Casa Dorinda, we suspect that the “Corridor of Delight” saw little, if any traffic by William Bliss after 1925. The Bliss’ gave this name to a covered passageway that linked Mr. Bliss’ bedroom suite on the south side of the second floor, with Mrs. Bliss’ bedroom suite at the far north side of the second floor. This is how the “Corridor of Delight” appears today.

Anna Dorinda Bliss remained living at Casa Dorinda until her death in 1935 at the age of 84. In her final years, she is described as having been deeply saddened by the departure of her husband. In her last years she also began to require more help, as she began to decline both cognitively, and physically. Upon her death, Casa Dorinda passed to her only child, Mildred, and her son-in-law/stepson, Robert Bliss. By then Robert had retired from his diplomatic career, and he and Mildred were living at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington DC.

Mildred and Robert had no children, and in 1942 they offered Casa Dorinda to the Navy for use as a recuperation and recreation center for returning military personnel. The cost of maintaining the property proved to be prohibitive for the Navy, and the estate, while used briefly as housing for local Marine Corps officers stationed in Santa Barbara, eventually reverted to Mildred and Robert Bliss. In 1946, the Robert Bliss’ sold the property to Homer F. Barnes (no relation to Mildred), who opened a school for girls, thus ending a very colorful chapter in Montecito history.

The telling of the story of Casa Dorinda is far from over, as there is still much history to be told about the estate and the happenings and haggling that ensued during the years between Anna Bliss’ death and now…and perhaps one day the rest of the story (as we understand it) will be told…

Before we end, we’d like to acknowledge Anna Dorinda and William Henry Bliss, (and their children), for their incredible generosity during their lifetimes. Santa Barbara, and indeed the world, greatly benefited from the philanthropy of the Bliss family. In 1918 as Casa Dorinda was under construction, Anna and William Bliss donated a ship stocked with medical and surgical supplies to the Red Cross, as well as 23 ambulances and 3 staff cars to aid wounded soldiers on the front lines in Europe. They also donated the capital to create the Childrens’ Wing at Cottage Hospital, and Mrs. Bliss’ financial contributions saved the area of Mission Canyon that is now the Botanic Garden from residential development. The Bliss’ kindness, generosity and love of humanity & nature are enduring and inspirational to many of us decades after their deaths.

As always, we encourage you to go out and explore the neighborhoods, keep your eyes, ears and minds open to all that you encounter, and above all expect the unexpected.

About Peter Hartmann and Stacey Wright

We are two "fifty-something" year olds who are lifetime residents of Santa Barbara. Together, we have decided to walk each and every street within the City limits of Santa Barbara just for the fun of it. Peter is a dentist, and Stacey is a long-time County employee who helps the elderly without family to look after them. Read more

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