People, Places and Things

Casa Dorinda – Montecito’s Downton Abbey

This story is about a house. A magnificent house, in the heart of Montecito that has been many things to many people, since being built in 1919. Not only is the home remarkable, but the story that accompanies it is also quite rich and unique. We think you’ll agree that Casa Dorinda’s history has more than a few parallels to that fictional mansion across the pond known as Downton Abbey.

Before launching into the history of Casa Dorinda and the extraordinary (and quite generous) family that built and called it home for several decades, we’ll show and tell you about its current use. But – be sure to stay turned for next week’s story – Episode II – in which we fill you in on Casa Dorinda’s history; it includes spectacularly wealthy residents, a staff of 40+, opulent parties, prominent guests, (including royal visitors) patriotic use during the war effort, “interfamily” marriage, intrigue, financial despair and more…

In 1975, after decades of neglect, Casa Dorinda was opened as a “life care community” for the elderly. Operating as a non-profit by the Montecito Retirement Association, it’s now home to approximately 300 men and women, all of whom either live in their own apartments or cottages, live in the assisted care or memory care unit of the facility, or stay in the medical unit. To say that the property, the program, the staff and the residents of Casa Dorinda are anything short of astonishing would be a gross understatement. We got invited inside, and have a few photos to illustrate our enthusiasm for Casa Dorinda in her current incarnation.

Although we arrived at the front entrance, we’ll show you the less-often seen back of the original mansion, which was designed by Carleton Winslow, the same architect who designed the S.B. Natural History Museum, The Valley Club, the L.A. Public Library (he also designed the addition to the S.B. Library in 1924), and “La Quinta”, once home to actor Michael Douglas and his family.

Back to the front we go, with two photos – one showing it as it appeared when we arrived in the afternoon, and the second, as it appeared when we left after sunset…we hope we didn’t wear out our welcome…but there was so much to see and hear about at this amazing property.

Walking back outside, two of Casa Dorinda’s really gorgeous features are the courtyard (which saw some rip-roaring parties back in the day!) and the tower, which we ascended in the old Otis “Micro- Drive” elevator.

During one of the chapters of Casa Dorinda’s history, the mansion served as the campus of the Montecito School for Girls, a day school/ boarding school. But more on that in next week’s story… We did find an old photo depicting the school, and as you can see there was a swimming pool for the students’ use and enjoyment. The pool was not original to the home, and has since been converted into a croquet court. Does anyone know if Downton Abbey has a croquet court?

Back inside we’ll take you on a mini-tour of some of Casa Dorinda’s original rooms, and show you some of the amazing details of the mansion. These photos, snapped off as we wandered the campus with Sarah, (our hostess and guide) were taken as snapshots, and therefore don’t come close to doing justice to the beauty and elegance of this amazing property. But alas, they are all we have to share with you. The following three photos show the library, the main staircase, and a peek into the music room from the old dining room (now the game room).

We’ll be showing you some additional architectural and design details in a bit, but wanted to highlight the detail on the door in the previous photo.

When built in 1919, the 80-room Casa Dorinda was probably the largest home in Montecito. Aside from having servants quarters for a huge staff, a two-story guesthouse and other “outbuildings” the mansion itself consisted of a kitchen, dining room, music room, morning room, bachelor’s room, library, “long gallery”, “his and hers” bedrooms suites (at opposite ends of the house, connected by “the avenue of delight” an indoor bridge), a courtyard, guest rooms, several sitting rooms, several powder rooms and bathrooms, numerous fireplaces, an elevator, a magnificent tower and a massive formal garden. This room, originally referred to as the “Oriental Room” is located on the first floor, and has an interesting and unique ceiling.

Legend has it that Anna Dorinda Bliss had a fascination with the zodiac, and particularly for the Chinese zodiac. The panels in the ceiling of this room features what appears to us to be the dragon and the snake, both signs within the Chinese zodiac, although at Casa Dorinda they have been referred to for many years as the sphinx and the serpent. The story goes that Mrs. Bliss commissioned the ceiling, incorporating both her own and her husband’s Chinese zodiac signs into it. We verified that Mr. Bliss seems to have been born in the year of the dragon (1844), however unless Mrs. Bliss fudged about her age, she is most decidedly not a snake. Born in 1851, she would have either been a pig or a dog (we were unable to find her birth month), and since one of the UH was born under the sign of the dog, we see no shame in this…but maybe Mrs. Bliss preferred not be represented as such…

In what is now the game room, we got a peek at what had originally been the silver safe, located in the main dining room of Casa Dorinda, and is now discretely covered with a door.

And now for a few of our favorite interior details of Casa Dorinda. The first of these photos is looking into the old dining room (now the game room); the last photo shows the mantlepiece in that room, with a modification made by Homer Barnes when the property was home to the Montecito School for Girls.

Going up the main staircase, near the main entry of the mansion, are two exquisite stained glass windows, depicting historical events. The windows are original to Casa Dorinda. We found a signature on one of the panels by Henry W. Young , New York.

And although we didn’t show this detail when we originally showed you the main entrance, it’s just too lovely to leave out.

We found the ironwork on the property to be exquisite, and while we suspect these examples are original to the home, we can’t be 100% certain some of them weren’t later added.

This bit of ironwork is at the front of Casa Dorinda, and is reportedly another example of Anna Dorinda Bliss’ love of astrology, the stars and the symbols of the zodiac.

For many years we’ve been dying to go into the tower at Casa Dorinda, a landmark we’ve both known and loved for many years. When we found out we’d be ascending to it in the old, original elevator we were excited beyond words. Well, one of us was anyway. The other just kept talking…

And this was the view from above, on the afternoon of our visit. Simply breathtaking!

Before we show you some of the more modern improvement at Casa Dorinda, and tell you just a bit more about the residents of the facility, we want to share a couple of photos we took in August 2011 when the goats were on the property keeping the weeds in check. The goats and their amazing protector weren’t present on the day of our visit, but we were assured they’ll return when the grasses need cutting in this little corner of Casa Dorinda paradise.

This is the view looking back at the main house from one of the resident’s private cottages. Talk about deluxe. All we could say was WOW!


Although these elements of Casa Dorinda have been added following the Bliss’ occupancy there (to accommodate the subsequent residents) we think they are lovely and definitely worth a look.

We thought this was pretty convenient, and has got to be the smallest Santa Barbara Bank and Trust Branch of all.

Casa Dorinda is an amazing place, serving the residential, social, artistic, emotional and medical needs of many of Santa Barbara’s citizens. It’s a “facility” that defies easy description, because despite being a residential care for the elderly it’s so much more. Most of the residents at Casa Dorinda live independently and most are active in the same ways as those of us “younger folk”. They live, work and play. They take classes, pursue hobbies & recreation and socialize with their peers. Our brief tour of Casa Dorinda was an unexpectedly delightful eye-opener. This is the computer lab and photo room.

This is the ceramics room, and two ceramic pieces (birdhouse and fisherman) made by Alice, a “90- something” resident who has lived at Casa Dorinda for many years. We’ll show and tell you more about Alice in next week’s story. She is truly an amazing woman with a truly wonderful life story.

This is the gallery outside the painting studio, showcasing some of the residents’ work.

This is a shot of some of the origami currently being created in the crafts room. Once the needed number of cranes are created, they’ll be used as table decorations in the main dining room for one of the special occasion events.

Casa Dorinda offers residents a variety of amazing options to enhance their lives and lifestyles. There is a jewelry making studio, several meeting rooms and a community garden. Many important decisions are made through boards and committees, most of which are made up of the residents, themselves. This photo shows the backdrop from a play, preformed at Casa Dorinda, that was written and produced by Pat Wygant, one of its residents. The play, “Hoboland” is about a “hobo” who leaves San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, and finds himself living at “Hobo Jungle”, the modern-day site of the Bird Refuge. We think the backdrop (now hanging in one of the hallways) is pretty nifty.

This photo shows the community display case, which each month features the collection of one of the residents who wishes to share it with others. Being that our visit was during the holidays, the case displays a collection of snow globes, music boxes and other things Christmas. Next moth there will be a collection of just about anything you could imagine.

And we leave you with a photo of one of the resident’s flowerbeds from the community garden, where the resident gardeners at Casa Dorinda plant, tend and harvest flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs, for use in their own homes as well as in the main dining room.

Our tour of Casa Dorinda was great fun and much appreciated. Thank you to Sarah for her gracious hospitality and thank you to the residents of this grand old mansion for allowing us into their home. Next week we’ll go back in history and tell you more about Casa Dorinda’s beginnings, the Montecito School for Girls and some of the key players in a really fun and fascinating part of Montecito’s past.

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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