Lotusland, CA

July 2017 marks another great journey to California’s Central Coast, and on this trip was a special visit to Lotusland, located in the Santa Barbara region of the Central Coast. I had previously been in the area just a year before in March to see Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, which is absolutely stunning in the Spring [see my post here], and after exploring the city for just a day I quickly deemed it as one of my favorite places for its convergence of idyllic culture, excellent climate, seaside community, and recreation opportunities. Any place anchored by a strong university, inclusive cultural institutions, and plenty of access to outdoor spaces is a winner in my book.

Ganna Walska Lotusland is the home and gardens of the late Ganna Walksa, who purchased the property in 1941 and spent the next 40+ years creating which is now a top ten garden in the world (according to the UK’s The Telegraph in 2017). The dynamic and counter-ordinary life of Walska mirrors the grounds of the estate through the reflection of her strong personality, ideals, and philanthropic values. As an outsider and visitor, my connection to a site is always enhanced when the history of the site is interpreted accurately, reveals the humanity of the site occupants, and furthermore embraces all historical events and circumstances as a teachable moment and learning opportunity. For example, If previous occupants owned slaves, this type of history should not be forgotten nor omitted because this continues a healthy dialog of societal awareness and progression [in this particular case, social justice]. The same can be said for disclosing the true and accurate lifestyle of founder Ganna Walska, whose life tells an amazing story of relationships, performing arts, and philanthropy from the Roaring 20’s to Post War America. The well known accounts about Walska’s mantra as “enemy of average” from a Polish opera singer to socialite and six marriages simply enhances the visitor experiences as one strolls the grounds that Walksa molded by hand. The staff at Lotusland should be commended for keeper her story alive.

This 37 acre property was originally purchased by Walska with her sixth husband as a refuge for Tibetan Monks. But the monks never came, and Walska nevertheless spent the rest of her life using the grounds as a canvas for outward expression of her personality, which was rich in drama, whimsy, and the unexpected. Upon her death in 1984, Lotusland became a nonprofit botanic garden and opened to the public almost ten years later in 1993. Unlike many gardens which equate organizational success to unsustained physical expansion, Lotusland to this day continues to respect the gardens as Walska left them. This greatly preserves the visitor experience as though one is merely visiting Ganna’s house for a garden tour, as opposed to an amusement park.

Here are some of my most memorable highlights and observations:

  1. I was lucky enough to meet with the Lotusland curator during my visit to learn more about their public-facing horticulture philosophy. Education is a major tenet of their mission, and the garden welcomes thousands of school aged children from the county each year to fulfill part of the life science curriculum. A phenomenal management approach to know is that the gardens are managed organically, which not as common in display gardens where aesthetics are most weighted. This practice along with tea composting and a large insectary garden makes them leaders of sustainable practices among peer display gardens.
  2. The landscape architect in me always loves to learn about and help manage the constraints and challenges of a site, and at Lotusland its not physical or geological, but instead political. The property’s location and zoning in a residential area in the exclusive hillside community of Montecito limits the number of outside visitors per year to the property. If i recall, they are limited at this time to 15,000 visitors annually. This is a sure limitation and challenge to organizational goals in audience expansion, which may also be connected to revenue development, but its also easy to respect this constraint as it relates to the Lotusland Mission of aspiring to be renowned globally and treasured locally. A good way to make something renowned is to make it exclusive. A common way of making something exclusive is to limit exposure to the masses. A common way to treasure things locally, is to keep out the tourists and ensure the community has a sense of ownership. In light of these highly generalized and oversimplified statement, I think Lotusland is on the right track, and I’m even happy that these constraints are in place to preserve the Walska story.
  3. Architecture. Architect Reginald Johnson designed the main house for the original owners E. Palmer and Marie Gavits. It was completed in 1920. Johnson was an influential architect in California in the early 20th C. The Gavits later hire George Washington Smith in 1925 to construct a perimeter wall, pavilion, stable, swimming pool, bathhouse and several other outbuildings. Smith was well known at this time for popularizing the Spanish Colonial Revival style in Santa Barbara, and has a very interesting biography out, albeit pricey.
  4. Landscape. In the early 1940’s, Walska commissions landscape architect Lockwood de Forest, Jr. to design and install an orchard, succulent garden, and various gardens around the cottages. De Forest also replaced the traditional landscaping in front of the main house with cacti. Beginning in 1943, son of the original estate owner Ralph Stevens, Santa Barbara Superintendent of Parks, begins working on garden projects at Lotusland including designs of the iron gate on Sycamore Canyon Road, the new swimming pool and shell-strewn “beach,” rooster grotto, the theatre and blue gardens, and horticulture clock. Other local collaborators over the ensuing decades included: local artist Joseph Knowles, Sr. (enhancing the crescent-shaped pool); orchid grower Fritz Kubish (original bromeliad garden); Staff gardener Frank Fujii and stonemason Oswald Da Ros (Japanese Garden); William Paylen (Fern Garden); and Charles Glass and Robert Foster (various garden renovations);
  5. Incredible collections. Lotusland is renowned simply for its unique and exclusive arrangement of exotic plants in what can only be described as a dramatic sense of place through the strategic procession of rooms. The fern garden experience is as close to Australia as one gets with the anchoring of Australian tree ferns and well as a full and wide array of other ferns to compliment. The Water Garden room is straight out of a impressionist painting from southern Spain with a backdrop of cypress, Spanish colonial style outbuilding, and commanding lotuses and waterlilies. There’s an outstanding collection and garden each dedicated to aloes, cacti, and cycads which are each full of surprises in color, texture, and other senses. Overall, one can visit to enjoy the beauty, but this is also a plantsman’s garden and a place for plant geeks.
  6. A new Japanese Garden is under way, and this area was presently closed for renovation, and I’m really looking forward to the end product.
  7. Don’t miss: the 50ft+ long espalier lemon tree pergola; the magnetic rock [see images below], and the Spanish colonial style patios and terraces next to the house.

Check out my site visit photos here


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