The Life of Dr Francesco Franceschi and his Park (Part II)

Dr Francesco (EO Fenzi) Franceschi with his wife Cristina in Tripoli, Libya

Dr Francesco (EO Fenzi) Franceschi with his wife Cristina in Tripoli, Libya

Dr Francesco Franceschi, the Italian horticulturist and botanist born in Italy in 1843 as Emanuele Orazio Fenzi, lived in Santa Barbara for only twenty years, but he had a profound impact on the California landscape due to his numerous plant introductions and his continuous promotion of the Santa Barbara region as a Riviera-like paradise. During this time, he became a significant American horticultural figure. He never prospered financially, however, and left Santa Barbara to take a job with the Italian government, introducing new plants to what was then the Italian colony of Libya in North Africa. A portion of Montarioso—his forty-acre botanic garden, nursery, and residence overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean—later became Franceschi Park. The park has been greatly altered from the time Franceschi lived there with his family and includes some acreage that was never part of their property, but it still retains some significant Franceschi-era plantings and features. It also reflects distinctive characteristics from several subsequent periods in the history of the American landscape. The first installment of this article appeared in the July 2002 issue.

Franceschi’s nursery business, the Southern California Acclimatizing Association (SCAA), and his botanical work always required more money than they generated. After his wife purchased Montarioso in 1903, he began to lay out the property as a botanical garden to showcase plant introductions from around the world that he considered suitable for Santa Barbara’s mediterranean climate. His writings reveal that his interest was not confined to exotic plants, and the story of his trip to the Channel Islands to obtain a native Catalina ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus) has become something of a legend since it was related by one of his granddaughters in Pacific Horticulture (October 1976). His sons were forced to bail out the boat when waves threatened to sink it, and the coast guard, thinking they were smugglers, fired on them.

Ernestine Fenzi Franceschi at Montarioso in 1912; the stone wall and steps exist today in Franceschi Park. Photograph s courtesy of Warren E Fenzi collection, unless otherwise noted

Ernestine Fenzi Franceschi at Montarioso in 1912; the stone wall and steps exist today in Franceschi Park. Photographs courtesy of Warren E Fenzi collection, unless otherwise noted

Probably due to lack of funds, Franceschi incorporated the SCAA in 1907 and entered into a short-lived and disasterous partnership with Peter Riedel, a horticulturist and landscape architect from Holland who had two nurseries in nearby Montecito. As “Landscape Gardeners and Nurserymen,” they did design-build contracting and had dozens of men carrying out their plans and planting their stock at various Santa Barbara estates.1 Franceschi consulted with Dr AB Doremus, Santa Babara’s first park superintendent, and raised from seed many of the trees that were eventually planted in the park and street tree program, including the famous tunnel of Italian stone pines (Pinus pinea), planted in 1908, that still shades Anapamu Street. The partnership with Riedel ended in lawsuits in 1909. Riedel got the Southern California Acclimatizing Association business and its downtown location; Franceschi stayed at Montarioso and began the Montarioso Nursery. His daughter, Ernestina, became the proprietor, and his son, Cammillo, the manager. Franceschi was in charge of new introductions, growing little-known plants from seed just as he had always done.

He continued to write about his introductions and described his desire to establish “the first Botanical and Horticultural Institution on the coast of the Pacific.”2 During the summer  of 1909, in need of financial assistance, he asked the city to support the conversion of Montarioso into “The Santa Barbara Arboretum.” At the time, he had, on about ten of his forty acres, hundreds of different species, some of which were unique in the United States. His arboretum proposal was considered by a civic committee; they acknowledged that his plant collection was the most comprehensive known to be growing in the open anywhere in the country, but took no action on his proposal.

On to Libya

Presumably acting for his parents, Cammillo began to sell off portions of the Montarioso property in 1910. Two years later, Franceschi accepted a job with the Italian government to introduce new plants of agricultural and ornamental value to Libya in North Africa. He and his wife, Cristina, returned to Italy in 1913, and the entire family resumed using the name Fenzi, which had been left behind in 1891 when they lost the family fortune and decided to make a fresh start in America.

Franceschi, now Fenzi, wrote Frutti Tropicali e Semitropicali…(Tropical and Semitropical Fruits…) for the Italian Colonial Agricultural Institute. 3 He moved to Tripoli, Libya, with his wife in 1915, beginning a new phase in his career, at the age of seventy-two. It was also a new phase for his talented daughter, Ernestina. The Montarioso Nursery in Santa Barbara belonged to her4, but she soon departed to help her father in Libya, leaving the nursery to her brothers, Cammillo and Franco.

Mario Calvino, another notable Italian horticulturist, and the Fenzi family are the sources for most of our knowledge of Franceschi’s life in North Africa. Through them, we know that he reorganized the Library of the School of Agriculture, began an herbarium of endemic plants, started a collection of date varieties from the oases in Tripoli, and improvised a lathhouse of palm fronds to protect his seedlings. The emphasis of Franceschi’s landscape work was tree planting. From 1916 to 1919, he planted the garden of the Secretariat and the courtyard of a prison, and he supplied thousands of eucalyptus of various kinds—all grown at his nursery—to the state railroads and the military. Species were selected and planted based on his analysis of the soil at each site.

Franceschi’s nursery in Tripoli, Libya, from which he introduced many fruit and ornamental trees

Franceschi’s nursery in Tripoli, Libya, from which he introduced many fruit and ornamental trees

In addition to his work for the government, Franceschi also had a nursery “concession,” and, in 1919, bought the adjacent property, Cascina Rosa, to establish a fruit nursery of citrus, olives, carobs (Ceratonia siliqua), plums, and pistachios (Pistacia vera). While eucalyptus were considered the most significant contribution by Franceschi and Ernestina to Tripoli, the pair also reportedly introduced hundreds of new plants to Libya, including avocado (Persea americana), natal plum (Carissa grandiflora), bamboos, Echium, one of the California saltbushes (Atriplex lentiformis), pitanga (Eugenia pitanga), and selections of guava (Psidium sp.). Calvino noted beautiful old carob trees, tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), and tipu trees (Tipuana tipu) in a garden planted by Franceschi. At some point, Franceschi officially retired but continued to write articles until 1924, when he died in Tripoli at the age of eighty-one. According to a newspaper clipping, “Dr Franceschi Fenzi Boulevard” in Tripoli was named for him in 19345. Ernestina never married, and continued to operate the nursery concession in Tripoli until 1962, when many Italian colonists were expelled from Libya.

Franceschi's wife purchased Montarioso, and he promptly wrote of its splendid views, still a feature of Franceschi Park today, with Santa Barbara laid out below and a hazy Santa Cruz Island in the distance. Photograph by RGT

Franceschi’s wife purchased Montarioso, and he promptly wrote of its splendid views, still a feature of Franceschi Park today, with Santa Barbara laid out below and a hazy Santa Cruz Island in the distance. Photograph by RGT

Montarioso

With his wife and son Warren, Cammillo Fenzi moved into the house at Montarioso from a cottage elsewhere on the grounds around 1916, shortly after Ernestina left for Libya. He operated the Montarioso nursery until 1918. Franceschi’s dream of having his plant collection become a public botanic garden was realized after he died when Cammillo sold the house and 2.14 of the original forty acres to Alden Freeman in 1927. A wealthy East Coast philanthropist, Freeman admired Franceschi and wanted to memorialize him by creating a park. Freeman bought back additional acreage that had been previously sold and added land below Mission Ridge Road that was not part of the original Franceschi tract, hoping to create a hillside open space with trails extending down to Milpas Street. He remodeled the house, changing it from dark, woodsy, Craftsman style to light stuccoed, Mediterranean style, as a tribute to Dr Franceschi’s Florentine heritage. Freeman covered the exterior walls of the building with plaques and medallions commemorating Franceschi, historic events, the era of the Progressive Party, and notable individuals. These unusual art objects are only today receiving study.

Franceschi House in 2002, with tall palms planted by Franceschi; the unfortunate garage jars the otherwise Mediterranean feel of the house as remodeled by Alden Freeman in the late 1920s. Author’s photograph

Franceschi House in 2002, with tall palms planted by Franceschi; the unfortunate garage jars the otherwise Mediterranean feel of the house as remodeled by Alden Freeman in the late 1920s. Author’s photograph

Stone walls and steps from the Franceschi period were retained in the garden. The original entry drive turnaround was enlarged and paved to become a terrace with a fountain in the middle; to the west, a new concrete walk led to a semi-circular stone bench. Freeman, an amateur architect, inserted formality into the landscape consistent with his redesign of the house, furthering its resemblance to a Mediterranean palazzo by adding terraces, concrete balustrades, axial staircases and fountains, and an arbor. A striking addition was the “Fenzi Memorial,” a sandstone bust of Franceschi, carved by art student Herbert Bengen, that was mounted on an enormous boulder visible from the neighborhood below.

Freeman’s alterations were a tribute to both Franceschi and to the period, when the architecture and landscape of the Mediterranean region provided inspiration for designers in Southern California, the Southwest, and Florida. In 1931, Freeman gave the house and the rare plant collection around it to the people of Santa Barbara. Structures and major trees in a portion of the property he donated are documented in a recently rediscovered topographic survey completed by the city engineer in 1932.

A relief sculpture, celebrating Peace, added by Alden Freeman to the terrace wall of Franceschi House. Photograph by RGT

A relief sculpture, celebrating Peace, added by Alden Freeman to the terrace wall of Franceschi House. Photograph by RGT

WPA plan for Franceschi Park, approximately 1936. Author’s photograph

WPA plan for Franceschi Park, approximately 1936. Author’s photograph

Franceschi Park

Soon after Franceschi Park was donated, the prominent landscape architect and park commissioner, Ralph T Stevens, produced a drawing to guide its development. He proposed an even more formal design for the garden, probably to relate to Freeman’s Mediterranean-style alterations. Stevens’s plan was never carried out, no doubt because of the economic realities of the Great Depression. Letters indicate that Stevens was also a force behind a Federal Works Project Administration (WPA) plan of about 1936. The entry drive off Franceschi Road was added (leading to a parking lot configuration from Stevens’s earlier plan), as were walls of stacked broken concrete, two barbeque areas, and numerous winding paths through the vegetation. Franceschi’s lathhouse was removed, the old family garage was converted into a shed, and a second cottage was added. A new garage was built uncomfortably close to Franceschi House. Many elements from both the Stevens plan and the WPA plan were never constructed, and the park today reflects a blend of the two along with the changes initiated by Freeman. The lower park contains a fine stone staircase off Dover Road that matches the Stevens plan and may be the result of Depression-era unemployment relief funds. Aside from the addition of restrooms and entry gates, and the deterioration of several Freeman elements, there have been few major changes to the hardscape in the last fifty years.

Changes in the vegetation are another matter. When the WPA plan is overlaid on the city engineer’s 1932 topographic survey, it is possible to ascertain the actual location of some of Franceschi’s original trees, including two of his special avocados. Fourteen palms remained in his “amphitheater” in 1932—all fairly drought-tolerant species. Some remain today nearly one hundred years after their planting. (A current plant survey is incomplete at this writing.) The attitude toward Franceschi Park since it became a city property has always been to continue planting exotics, both species known to Franceschi and new ones. However, records for both new plants and removal of dead trees are spotty, making the recent history of the plantings difficult to track.

Greyia sutherlandii, a South African tree along the entry drive at Franceschi Park, probably planted by Will Beittel in 1963. Photograph by RGT

Greyia sutherlandii, a South African tree along the entry drive at Franceschi Park, probably planted by Will Beittel in 1963. Photograph by RGT

Ironically Peter Riedel, Franceschi’s former partner, lived in Franceschi House from about 1938 to 1953 as a horticultural consultant for the city, teaching classes and raising plants for street trees and parks, just as Franceschi had done. A plaque at the entry gate says Riedel planted the avenue of trees that leads to the parking lot, but few mature specimens remain there today. The late Will Beittel, an important Santa Barbara horticultural author who served as city arborist from 1956 to 1963, also lived in the house, teaching nighttime horticulture classes and raising trees for the city. Beittel added plants to the garden too, as did the noted horticulturist EO Orpet, members of the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department, members of the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society, and students in Santa Barbara City College’s Department of Environmental Horticulture.

Flower and foliage of Greyia sutherlandii. Photograph by RGT

Flower and foliage of Greyia sutherlandii. Photograph by RGT

Beittel’s 1963 survey of the horticultural specimens in Franceschi Park was the first, and he was the first person to try to piece together the park’s history in his 1984 book, Dr. F. Franceschi: Pioneer Plantsman. He lamented the decline of the house and grounds due to deferred maintenance, budget cuts, and drought, but noted that there were over fifty species of plants introduced by Franceschi still growing in the park. A number of these have since died. Today the Pearl Chase Society (a Santa Barbara non-profit preservation organization) is raising funds to rehabilitate Franceschi House and convert it into a horticultural interpretive center, and the City of Santa Barbara’s Franceschi Park Master Plan Advisory Committee is wrestling with issues concerning the park as a whole. Despite its neglect, or perhaps because of it, much of Franceschi Park’s integrity in terms of the design, materials, and vegetation is still intact. While the park is a tribute to an internationally respected horticulturist, other significant figures in the city’s history are represented here, along with several eras in the evolution of the distinctive Santa Barbara landscape.

I again wish to thank Warren E Fenzi, Ernestina Franceschi Fenzi, Karen Bartelt Adams, John Bleck, Carol Bornstein, Lauren Weiss Bricker, Edward Cella, Rick Closson, Dan Condon, Jeff Cope, Mary Louise Days, Billy Goodnick, Bill Grant, Laurie Hannah, Wendy Hawksworth, Clair Martin, Joel Michaelsen, Laura Morrison, Christine Palmer, David Postado, Michael Redmon, Caren Rager, Terri Sheridan, and Noel D Vernon for their help in assembling this article.


For Further Reading

Bailey, LH. Gentes Herbarum 4. Erythea 4:3 (February 23, 1937), 94-98.

Beittel, Will. Dr. F. Franceschi: Pioneer Plantsman. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society, 1984.

Butterfield, Harry M. “Dates of Introduction of Trees and Shrubs to California.” A typewritten manuscript prepared for the Landscape Horticulture Department, University of California, Davis, August 1964.

Calvino, Mario. A Glory of Italian Horticulture: Dr. Emanuele Orazio Fenzi. An appendix to Mario Calvino: un rivoluzionario tra le piante. Tito Schiva. CITY: PUBLISHER, 1977.

Closson, Rick. Alden Freeman, Bicoastal Philanthropist. The Capital: Newsletter of the Pearl Chase Society 4:3 (March 2001), 20-21.

———. Alden Freeman: Montarioso’s Donor. The Capital: Newsletter of the Pearl Chase Society 3:10 (Oct. 2000), 1-2.

———. Dr. Francesco Franceschi. The Capital: Newsletter of the Pearl Chase Society 4:4 (April 2001), 23-24.

———. Rediscovered 1932 Blueprint for Franceschi Park Shows Original Plantings and Buildings. The Capital: Newsletter of the Pearl Chase Society 5:4 (April 2002), 22.

Chamberlin, Susan. A History of Franceschi Park, Santa Barbara, California. Eden: California Garden and Landscape History Society Journal 5:1 (Spring 2002), 5-13.

De Forest, Elizabeth. Old Santa Barbara Gardens. An article in The Pacific Horticulture Book of Western Gardening. George Waters and Nora Harlow, editors. Boston: David R Godine, Publisher, 1990.

Fairchild, David. The World Was My Garden. New York: PUBLISHER, 1938.

Fenzi, Ernestina Franceschi. Dr Franceschi and the Catalina Ironwood. Pacific Horticulture 37:4 (October 1976), 15-16.

Franceschi, Dr F. Fifteen Year Experience in Southern California. The Pacific Garden. December 1908, 9-11 (continued in the January, February, and March 1909 issues)

———. Introductions from Australasia. The Pacific Garden. April 1909, 13

———. Our New Botanic Garden at Montarioso. An essay in the 1905 catalog of the Southern California Acclimatizing Association, Santa Barbara, California, USA, Established 1893.

———. The Santa Barbara Arboretum. A 1909 typewritten manuscript with an essay by Franceschi and notes by the civic committee that considered his arboretum proposal.

———. Santa Barbara Exotic Flora: A Handbook of Plants from Foreign Countries Grown in Santa Barbara, California… Santa Barbara, CA: PUBLISHER, 1895.

———. Santa Barbara Rich in Flora During Usually Dull November. An undated, ca. 1912, newspaper clipping.

Myrick, David F. Montecito and Santa Barbara, volume I. Pasadena, CA: PUBLISHER, 1987. Volume II. Glendale, CA: PUBLISHER, 1991.

Padilla, Victoria. Southern California Gardens: An Illustrated History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961.

Popenoe, Wilson. Dr. Fenzi’s Contributions to American Horticulture, the Work of a Pioneer Plantsman in California. Journal of Heredity 13:5 (May 1922), 18-27.

Streatfield, David C. California Gardens: Creating a New Eden. New York, London, and Paris: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Tucker, John M. Francesco Franceschi. Madroño 7 (January 1943), 18-27.

Wilson, Edith G. Dr. A. Boyd Doremus The Father of Santa Barbara’s Parks. Noticias 27:1 (Spring 1981), 1-16.

Wittausch, William Howard et al. Franceschi House Historic Structure Report. Santa Barbara, CA: PUBLISHER (OR AGENCY), 1986.

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City Engineer EB Brown’s 1932 topographic survey of Freeman Park is archived in the City of Santa Barbara Public Works Department. The Ralph Stevens plan and the WPA plan for Franceschi Park are archived in the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department. For information on the Montarioso Medallions and efforts to rehabilitate Franceschi House, see www.homepage.mac.com/pearlchase.