In the Montecito hills, off of El Bosque Road, sits a bastion of peace and serenity in today’s busy world. Heading up the oak tree-lined driveway to the grand stone house at the center of La Casa de Maria, one can’t help but be overcome with feelings of calm and tranquility, as if driving into the distance brought one back to a quieter, simpler time.
This property was originally part of the San Ysidro Ranch, owned by Taylor Goodrich and John Harleigh Johnston. Richard Hogue, of Montana, purchased 20 acres of the ranch in 1886, and named it El Prado Rancho (the meadow). At the time there was an orange orchard on the property, but a few years later Hogue obtained road access and water rights and created the first lemon orchard in the area. Some of those old lemon trees can still be seen in front of the stone estate house that now resides on the property.
In 1924, Hogue sold the property to Emmor J. Miley, a building contactor and one of the pioneers in Kern County oil development. As an oilman, Miley made a sizeable fortune, some of which he planned to show off in his new estate.
Renaming the property Rancho El Bosque (the woodlands), Miley hired architectural designer Mary Craig to design a showpiece house.
Craig was the widow of architect James Osborne Craig, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1922 at the age of 33. In his short career Mr. Craig played a large role in the development of Spanish Colonial architecture in Santa Barbara, including designs for El Paseo downtown and the Bernard Hoffmann House on the Riviera. Though she did not have any formal design training, Mary had worked at her husband’s side and took over his practice when he died, going on to become a notable architect in her own right, designing Plaza Rubio, the group of cottages below the Santa Barbara Mission; the W.C. Logan Building arcade (222 E. Carrillo Street); the Anacapa Annex to El Paseo; and many private homes in the area.
The 13,000 square-foot Miley home, which remains mostly intact today, features hand-carved teak ceilings, nine distinctive Italian stone fireplace mantels, and courtyard tiles from Spain and Czechoslovakia. It was Miley who put in the monkey tree and star pine tree that now highlight the entrance to the property, and most notably, it was Miley who commissioned hand hewn stone quarried from the fields and banks of nearby San Ysidro Creek for the house and walls around the estate.
“ Mr. Miley used to come up every weekend to see how the work was progressing,” recalls Mary Skewes-Cox, daughter of Mary and James Osborne Craig. “We would go to church on Sunday morning and then from church we went to the Miley’s. They were living in a house on the property and we would go and have breakfast with them and then my mother would go over the work with Mr. Miley. I was just a little girl at the time,” says Skewes-Cox, who is now 87.
“I remember driving around the property. They quarried all that stone for the house on the property. But all of the stonework came right off of that land,” she says.
According to Maria Herold of the Montecito History Committee, “You will see in the inside hall that there are vertical striations of stone. On the inside staircase is where you can see it best. This is a very time-consuming and therefore very expensive treatment of stone that you don’t really need to do, but they went to all the trouble of doing this very special treatment. And of course, the outside is spectacular because of the way the stone is cut. It’s a masterpiece.”
“The beautiful stonework in which the local sandstone was quarried from the place and cut by hand was not done by any particular firm of stone masons, Instead it was done by individuals and very fine stone masons engaged by (building contractors) Snook and Kenyon,” according to a 1985 letter from John de Blois Wack, who later purchased the property.
Pamela Skewes-Cox, the granddaughter of Mary and James Osborne Craig, is working on a book about their lives, along with co-author Robert Sweeney, an architectural historian. In researching Mary Craig, Skewes-Cox found that “she wasn’t outspoken and she didn’t advertise herself in an aggressive way at all, she sort of just kept her nose to the grindstone and she met people and she was very social and people liked her. But it was unusual for a woman in that time to be professionally-oriented.”
She continues, “My mother remembers going up to property with her mother to discuss building this very, very elegant house. They had no lack of money at the time that they were discussing the design and she had free reign to do this elaborate and very expensive home and they were not nervous about it at all because they had money and money to spend and they really wanted a showplace.”
Unfortunately, Miley ran into financial difficulties with the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, and he was forced to sell the estate before his dream house was completed.
“He literally had to just stop construction,” says Pamela Skewes-Cox. “Fortunately Mary Craig had a mechanic’s lien on the property which meant that if Miley forfeited she and her draftsman, Ralph Armitage, owned the property until they were paid for their work.”
In 1932 John and Ethel de Blois Wack purchased the estate for $100,000. John was a successful Wall Street investor who had come to the area to raise horses and play polo at the Bartlett field in Montecito and the Fleischmann fields in Carpinteria. He later became president of the Santa Barbara Polo Association. His father was the co-founder of Field and Stream magazine and as a young man he was an editor there. John and Ethel were both avid aviators who flew their private plane all over North America, often checking in on their cattle operation in Arizona.
Soon after the purchase, the Wack’s hired architect Chester L. Carjola to finish the estate house. There has been some debate over how “finished” the house was at this point.
Pamela Skewes-Cox would like to set the record straight. “We have determined by looking at the drawings, my co-author and I, that the great majority of the house was completed, even though the Miley’s had not moved in yet. The working drawings that were done later for Mr. Wack by the architect Carjola, those show basically a finished house and you can see on the drawing where it says unfinished. We studied those pretty carefully and so a great deal of the detail, even the ceilings, were conceived by Mary Craig with Mr. Miley’s input. A lot of people say, ‘well it wasn’t finished and Carjola finished it.’ It’s Mary Craig’s house, there’ s absolutely no hesitancy in my saying that.”
Mr. de Blois Wack’s 1985 letter also states, “it is my feeling that Mrs. Craig should be looked upon as the architect.”
“Mary Craig wasn’t asked by the Wack’s to finish it, for whatever reason, but she was friends with the Wack’s,” says Pamela Skewes-Cox.
When the house was completed in 1933, the property included a swimming pool and tennis courts, as well as additional structures, including a little cottage for Mr. Wack’s mother, Mrs. Lillian Wack, which is now called Santa Teresita; the Browning house for Mr. Wack’s piano accompanist and his family; a garage, stables, and a gardener’s cottage later named the Bayberry House. There was also a large studio called the study, which has since burned, where Mrs. Wack, an accomplished artist, painted portraits in oil.
The Wack’s plunged into the local social scene with gusto and became known for their parties. They were music aficionados—Mr. Wack had even done some professional singing—and one of the wings looking out on the rear court was used as a music room with stone walls, high-beamed ceilings and balcony for an orchestra. Many famous musicians performed at the Wack’s parties, including conductor Leopold Stokowski, who did Walt Disney’s Fantasia; Ozzie Nelson and his swing band; Victor Trucco, assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, and the great baritone John Charles Thomas, who served for a year as director at the Music Academy of the West.
Mary Skewes-Cox recalls grand parties at the Wack’s house. “I was in my teens when the Wack’s owned it. They had a coming out party for their daughter Ethel and it was a lovely, lovely party with things going on all throughout the house. I remember the tables were set up on the tennis court and there was music and dancing and it was a wonderful party.”
Held in August of 1941, Ethel Wack’s debutante party had 700 guests; the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra played on the tennis court, which was converted into a terrace for dining and dancing; Ozzie Nelson’s band was in the art studio for more dancing; and there was a sit-down dinner for all of the guests.
The estate was also a site for Pearl Chase’s garden tours. In addition to the citrus orchards and spacious lawns, both Miley and Wack had imported many exotic plants. There was also a “sun garden” with rose and camellia bushes, and a “shade garden” with begonias and ferns.
After a decade in the house, Mr. Wack found that his growing numbers of thoroughbred horses didn’t have enough room on the estate, and the grounds were too rocky for his horses, so in 1942 he put the place up for sale and moved to Hope Ranch to open Yolo Breeding Stables on a 42-acre parcel.
Meanwhile, Mother Eucharia, Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in Hollywood, asked her cousin, realtor Charles Dunn, to help her find a quiet place for a novitiate, to train their novice nuns. Dunn first looked at the estate ,which later became Marymount School on the Riviera before recommending the Wack estate in Montecito, which the sisters purchased in December of 1942. Because it was during World War II and many estates were up for sale, the sisters were able to purchase the estate for $32,500. On Easter Monday 1943, four sisters moved in, one of them sister Regina McPartlin, and 12 aspiring novices.
They made the upstairs of the main house into a dormitory by dividing the rooms up with freestanding metal frames and curtains, thus the walls and hardwood floors were never marred. “When we stayed in those rooms, because we just had those little cells, we never saw what the whole room looked like. Even though in the morning after we got up and made our beds and got dressed we were supposed to open the cell curtains, when you were in there your curtain was closed. It was really funny because many years later we returned and the cell curtains had all been removed and everything. People were like, ‘Whoa, look at that beautiful ceiling. Was that there when we were here?’ And that was kind of a common experience. All of those teak ceilings,” says Stephanie Glatt, a former novice who is now the director of La Casa de Maria.
“I guess we were busy learning to be nuns and being spiritual and praying and we didn’t spend a lot of time in there. It’s just that it was so strange because everybody felt like the house had been remodeled and it hadn’t, it was just our perception.”
All of the novices (aspiring nuns) and postulants (aspiring novices) had chores assigned to them. Glatt recalls working on the vegetable porch. “There was a big cutting board out there … and of course, we’re supposed to be working in silence. They used to bring the vegetables in newspapers and at that time we’re supposed to be totally sequestered from the world, so we weren’t supposed to read the newspapers. … They would always put the newspapers upside down so we couldn’t read them. It was kind of funny because your eye would catch a part of a headline and you’d kind of try to see what’s going on out there, and then somebody would read the headline and say, ‘Did you see that?’ (Laughs) when we were all supposed to be working in silence.”
The number of postulants and novices continued to increase and under the guidance of Sister Regina the stables were renovated with two dormitories upstairs and two downstairs. A two-story extension was added to the art studio (which burned in 1972) with a recreation and sewing room upstairs and two classrooms downstairs.
The basement entertainment room was transformed into a refectory, where the women would eat all of their meals. “On feast days we decorated tables. Decoration meant the tables, which had blue linoleum tops, and we would get rolls of white butcher paper and roll the roll down and tape it on the underneath side, and then put flowers on. I’m sure every year some group was asked to decorate the tables and every year some group went out and cut poison oak, not knowing it was poison oak because of the lovely color,” laughs Glatt. “They would put it in vases and then someone would go, ‘Oh my god, you got poison oak.’”
The ballroom became a chapel and the musician’s balcony became a choir loft. “You should have heard 90 of us singing in there,” says Glatt. “The choir loft that was pointless because there were 90 of us in the chapel. But the sisters that taught at Mount Carmel lived there and some other visitors would come and they couldn’t fit in the chapel, so they all kind of huddled up there.”
While the aspiring nuns pursued religious life on La Casa’s grounds, the peaceful surroundings were also gaining a reputation in Hollywood. Stars like Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, and Ricardo Montalban came for retreats, holding prayer services in the Novitiate by day, while staying overnight at the Biltmore. In 1955, La Casa de Maria Retreat House formed on the property and became the first retreat center for Catholic married couples.
During the 1960s, there were conflicts between James Francis McIntyre, the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles who oversaw the Immaculate Heart community and the sisters. They eventually shed their habits in 1970 and became the Immaculate Heart Community, an ecumenical group of men and women. Since 1974, the community has operated the Immaculate Heart Center for Spiritual Renewal in the historic old stone house, opening its doors for private retreats for people of all faiths.
With its long and storied history, the grand house still has new stories to tell. “I always feel that somehow that spirit is still there, you know that all those prayers everybody said there weren’t lost,” says Glatt. “It’s like they’re still hanging out.”
Special thanks to Pamela Skewes-Cox and Maria Herold of the Montecito History Committee for their assistance in researching this story.
Originally published in Montecito Magazine, Fall 2008.