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Santa Barbara, California

Franceschi Park

The home of one of California's most important horticulturalists wilts amidst a lovely park  

Perched high on the Riviera, in one of Santa Barbara’s most prestigious suburbs, a dilapidated mansion once known as Montarioso sits in ruins. This decaying but much-beloved historic landmark was once home to one of the area’s most prominent immigrant families; the grounds were known as one of the finest gardens in California. Ignoring the continued protests of locals, the city officials responsible for the sorry state of the house have scheduled Montarioso for complete demolition.

Built in 1893 by Francesco Franceschi, a 19th-Century Italian immigrant and renowned horticulturalist, Franceschi Park was the first home of the Southern California Acclimatizing Society, a group dedicated to botanical study and plant cultivation. Between 1894 and 1913, Franceschi imported over 900 species of plants to Santa Barbara’s mild Mediterranean-like climate, and in doing so completely transformed the landscape of southern California. The 40-acre property is 800 feet above sea level and had an excellent climate to grow eucalyptus, cedars, pines, bamboo, and orchids, as well as numerous varieties of tropical fruit, flowering shrubs, and vines that Franceschi introduced. The original two-story residence featured a number of bay windows offering beautiful 180-degree views through the garden from the Santa Barbara mountains to the North Pacific Ocean.

Franceschi owned the acreage until 1927 when Alden Freedman, a philanthropist and social reformer, bought the estate and added strange plaster medallions commemorating an array of places and people, including Italian immigrants and famous American historical figures to the manor’s facade. As a gesture of recognition of Franceschi’s work, Freedman dedicated the estate to the City of Santa Barbara in 1931, and they have been the custodian ever since. The city’s parks department, which was charged with the careful stewardship of the estate, declined to participate in a recent grass-roots movement to save the house, instead insisting Montarioso must be torn down.

Despite being one of the most significant botanical sites in California, Franceschi Park is neglected and unkempt. The gardens are overgrown; Montarioso itself has been vandalized and mostly boarded up. Freedman’s plaster heads are still visible on the exterior of the building but are in various states of disrepair.

Local urban legends suggest the former home of the Franceschis does not rest easily; tales of unexplained lights and sounds from the mansion are seen as evidence of paranormal activity or restless spirits. It is likely, however, that these reports are simply the normal reaction of the community with a derelict stately home in its midst; no investigative results or eyewitness accounts exist to prove Franceschi House is haunted.

Disappointing as the state of the house and the shyness of any ghosts imagined inside, Franceschi Park has spectacular views of the city and is a popular picnic spot for locals. Even its ruined state, Franceschi Park still rates as one of Santa Barbara’s best, and most memorable, attractions.

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