Santa Barbara Sunday: Franceschi Park

This is installment 2 of “Santa Barbara Sunday,” a special feature running for the next month or so, each installment focusing on a different notable destination in Santa Barbara.

When I was in Santa Barbara, one of my goals was to find a great spot with a view. Of course the higher you go, the better the view. The hills to the east of downtown have the perfect topography for that. They’re home to the Riviera neighborhood (see map below), arguably the most sought-after residential area in the city. Named after the European Riviera, it emulates the well-heeled sophistication of the Mediterranean coast of France and Italy. Sitting high above Santa Barbara, the Riviera is typically sunny when the lower-lying areas near the waterfront disappear under a thick blanket of fog. Most homes here are large and stately, built as early as the 1920s, and they rarely change hands. A quick Zillow search showed just two (!) houses for sale in the Riviera ($6.2 million and $15.8 million) and one 0.8 acre lot for a cool $3.2 million.

Much to my surprise, I discovered a public park smack in the middle of the Riviera neighborhood, Franceschi Park, located 800 ft. above sea level and offering sweeping views of downtown, the harbor, and the Pacific beyond. I’d never heard of it before, but a quick Google search revealed a fascinating history.

What is now Franceschi Park occupies 15 of the original 40 acres purchased in 1903 by Francesco Franceschi, an Italian horticulturist and botanist, and his wife. He started importing plants and trees from around the world, transforming what used to be “barren [land] bestrewn with sandstone boulders” [1] into an experimental garden and nursery. Franceschi was particularly interested in Mediterranean and subtropical plants that would thrive in Santa Barbara’s mild climate, and he ended up introducing hundreds of plants that transformed the horticultural landscape of southern California. Among his introductions are Acacia pravissima, baileyana and podalyriifolia, Aloe ciliaris, Asparagus sprengeri, Bauhinia tomentosa, many Clematis, Clivia miniata, Feijoa sellowiana, several Hedychium, Leucadendron argenteum, and, most significantly from my perspective, the foxtail agave (Agave attenuata), which is now a staple in Southern California gardens.

Agave attenuata in the Riviera neighborhood of Santa Barbara

In 1905, Franceschi built a Craftsman-style house that he named Montarioso (“airy mountain” in Italian). It was later enlarged and became the home of Franceschi’s son. In 1927, the house was sold to wealthy Standard Oil heir Alden Freeman who remodeled it from its original dark and woodsy Craftsman style to a light stuccoed Mediterranean style. The exterior walls were adorned with plaques and medallions commemorating Franceschi, historic events, and notable individuals. They can still be seen today.

In 1931, Freeman donated the property to the city of Santa Barbara, and it eventually became the public park it is today. The house served a variety of purposes, including headquarters of the California State Guard, but eventually fell into disrepair and was condemned in 1963. In spite of several attempts (and city approvals) to demolish the house, it remains standing, albeit in semi-dilapidated condition. [2]

As for Franceschi, he returned to Italy in 1913 and accepted a job with the Italian government to “introduce new plants of agricultural and ornamental value to Libya in North Africa,” [3] which at the time was an Italian colony. His legacy in Libya included the introduction of eucalyptus and avocado. Franceschi died in Libya in 1924 at the age of 81.

Franceschi’s contributions to California horticulture were so significant that Pacific Horticulture published a comprehensive two-part article about his life and work, “The Life of Dr Francesco Franceschi and his Park” (part 1 and part 2), written by Susan Chamberlin.

Today, the park still includes some of Franceschi’s original plants, although I couldn’t really be sure I found any of them because hardly anything is labeled. What I did find were amazing specimens of yucca and xanthorrhoea – and of course the mysterious semi-ruin of the house. Considering the priceless location and the enormous potential that comes with it, I can’t help but wonder why this property isn’t more developed. On the upside, the park was completely deserted when I visited and I was able to enjoy the views and the plants all by myself.

Not a great photo, but it gives you an idea of the amazing view

Some of the many eucalyptus

No plant labels so I don’t know what eucalyptus species these are

Opuntia sp.

Stately Yucca sp.

Yucca sp., Xanthorrhoea arborea (that one was labeled), and presumably Aloe ferox

Amazing specimen of Xanthorrhoea arborea

Australian grasstrees are veeeery slow and it’s rare to see specimens this size in California

Strangler fig of some sort

Xanthorrhoea arborea and partial view of the house

Simple but beautiful stonework

Spanish inscription in concrete (“The earthquake gave me these rocks, June 29, 1925”). The earthquake caused major damage in the city and to the north. The downtown was irreparably damaged, leading to large-scale reconstruction in the Spanish Colonial Revival style that is so typical of Santa Barbara today.

The plants were cool, but the biggest attraction for me was the house. In most of these photos you can see some of the commemorative plaques I mentioned earlier. The house is boarded up (clearly no tours) but you can walk around it freely.

The house didn’t give me creepy vibes, like some long-abandoned houses can. It simply looked forlorn and sad, like it deserved a better fate. The views from inside the house must be to die for, and yet nobody gets to enjoy them anymore. The house is just sitting there, waiting...for what?

Franceschi Park is at 1510 Franceschi Road. It’s open every day from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Check it out the next time you’re in Santa Barbara.

© Gerhard Bock, 2024. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Wow! I spent 4 years of my life in Santa Barbara and never heard of this park. It's definitely something I'll make it a point to see one day.

    1. Considering there was nobody else there when I visited, it doesn't seem very popular. In contrast, Alice Keck Park closer to downtown (post next Sunday) was full of people.

  2. I have to tell my sister about it. I wondered why it is left as it is. There is so much money in Santa Barbara, you'd think someone/some group would get on it!

    1. The drive to the park is spectacular. So many beautifully landscaped homes, and the views along the way!

  3. Glad Mr Freeman had the foresight to preserve Mr Franceschi's property especially since the land value in the area is so high. The Xanthorroea are pretty spectacular. Too bad the house has not been preserved better. Is it still part of the park?

    1. Yes, the house is still part of the park. I suppose it's too expensive to retrofit it to modern standards, otherwise the city of SB would have done it already...

  4. I'm so happy you found this park. I cannot believe someone hasn't jumped on this house, the view is just the tip of the top! The Xanthorroea is glorious.

  5. I must have driven very near this park last November, when I went from Lotusland to the SB Botanical Garden. I would have stopped had I known about it. How wonderful that it's preserved as an open space for the public. I saw so many interesting views (and plants, and houses) as I made that drive, but there was never an open spot to pull off and take in the view.

    1. I know!!!! So many wonderful things to photograph along the way and no pullouts. Someday I'm going to park the car when I find a spot and spend a few hours walking around the area...

  6. A nice find. Thanks for the history. We forget why things are the way they are in horticulture. I often find myself wondering why this plant and not another is popular, so it is great to read about Franseschi's contributions. I was just down in Temecula last week and was astonished at the Agave attenuata planted everywhere. Now I know why.

  7. I read about this park many years ago when I was planning a trip to SB-put it on my agenda but then was told that it was closed. I don't remember the reason exactly , but have a dim memory of maybe some safety concerns with the topography etc. In any case I ended up not going there and really forgot all about the place on subsequent trips . I'm so glad you went and resurrected the memory ! Back on the agenda it goes for my next trip.

  8. So that's who brought Agave attenuata to SoCal. 100 years later He might, or might not be surprised to see them all over. :) Wonderful informative post.


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