Tea parties, skateboarders and wildfires: The story of Montecito’s Mar y Cel

Atop a hill in Montecito above East Mountain Drive stands a single stone wall with three archways.

It’s been there for over a century, and has weathered decadent parties, rebellious skaters, and destructive fires.

The arch is just one feature on a 350 acre-property known as the Tea Gardens and the Tea Bowls. Its real name is Mar y Cel, which translates to sea and sky, and it’s sprinkled with water tunnels, battered statues and large, empty reservoirs.

Although part of the land is publicly accessible through the West Fork of Cold Springs Trail, those who want to explore further must trespass through private property, and bypass locked gates and security cameras.

That intrigued KCRW listener and personal trainer John Stillwell, who asked Curious Coast this question:

“I’ve been riding my bike by there for the last 30 years, and I always look up and wonder: what is the history of the Tea Gardens in Montecito? Who built it, why, and what’s the future of it?”

After a quick call to local historian Hattie Beresford, a tour was arranged with the property’s current owners, Keith Schofield and Kay Robinson. Here’s what we learned.

KCRW listener and Curious Coast question-asker John Stillwell (right) tours the Mar y Cel property with its current owner, Keith Schofield. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Tea Parties at Mar y Cel

In 1916, a wealthy real estate owner in San Francisco named Henry Bothin bought the property with his second wife, Ellen Bothin. They lived directly below the hill in the Piranhurst Estate on Cold Springs Road, which still stands today.

Ellen Bothin was the daughter of Anthony Chabot, the owner of a privately held water company called East Bay System until 1875. Chabot was credited with bringing water to Oakland, and likely inspired the Bothins to turn Mar y Cel into the elaborate water garden it once was.

In its heyday, the grounds were adorned with water tunnels, reservoirs, aqueducts, and gravity-fed cascades filling and spilling over stone clamshells.

“They wanted to make this a playground, which they did,” said Schofield, who bought the property with his wife in 2000.

An amphitheater looked out on a stage, complete with Greek statues, and an epic view of the sun setting over the ocean.

The amphitheater in the 1900s. (Montecito Association History Committee)

“It must have been incredible to see a performance on this stage,” said Beresford, who writes a local history column for the Montecito Journal called “The Way It Was.” I bet the backdrop of the sunset was pretty amazing.”

The amphitheater still exists, but water no longer cascades down the sides and many of the statues have toppled over. Only their feet remain.

The remnants of the amphitheater today. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

At the top of the hill was a tea house where Ellen Bothin hosted luxurious, private tea parties.

“It was very high class,” said Schofield. “We’re talking about the class system of Montecito. She served a very elegant, several-course tea driven up by the butler, course by course.”

Mrs. Bothin outlived her husband by several years. According to Beresford, she would be driven up the hill almost every afternoon for tea, either by herself or with friends, from the time it was built in 1916 until she died in 1965.

The Mar y Cel tea garden in the 1900s. (Montecito Association History Committee)

Remnants of the Mar y Cel tea house. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

The skater days

Ellen Bothin had no kids, and after she died the property changed ownership several times.

No one ever lived on the land and, apart from the teahouse and a few gardening sheds, there have never been any structures. So, as the years went by and the reservoirs dried up, the empty concrete basins became prime territory for local skateboarders.

Edie Robertson dropping into the Tea Bowls in 1975. (Tom Sims)

“By the mid ‘70s, skateboarding luminaries and Mountain Drive residents like Tom Sims and Chucky Barfoot were stylishly carving the walls of the pools – bone dry thanks to drought and drainage – in a surfing-inspired approach, helping usher in a new era of skateboarding performance,” writes Ethan Stewart in the Santa Barbara Independent.

Edie Robertson was one of those skaters, who says she was the first female to drop into what was called the Tea Bowls back in 1975, when she was 13 years old.

“At first, I dropped in barefoot but making a kick turn on the other side didn’t feel so good, so for many of us, it was our first time putting on shoes to skateboard. After that first time, it was addictive.” She said she’d go almost every day.

But, in the early 1980s, a skateboarder broke a bone and sued the owners, and the City of Santa Barbara decided to dynamite the reservoir to deter trespassers. It didn’t keep everyone away, though. Hardcore skaters simply skirted the giant empty chunks. Skip to 2:30 into this video to see what the Tea Bowl looked like in 1990.

Now, the reservoir is filled in with dirt and dropping into the Tea Bowl is just a distant memory for many of Santa Barbara’s original skaters.

The largest reservoir on the property was popular among skateboarders in the 1970s and ’80s until the city dynamited the bottom to deter trespassers. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

The Tea Fire

Blowing up and filling in the Tea Bowl didn’t stop all the trespassers.

On November 13, 2008, a group of college-age men and women held a bonfire at the tea house. They told investigators they had put the fire out, but authorities believe heavy winds later that day reignited the flames and started the Tea Fire, which burned 1,940 acres and destroyed 210 homes in and around Cold Springs Canyon.

After that incident, the current owners installed security cameras and gates.

But some good came out of that fire. The property acted as a fuel break for the Jesusita Fire in 2009 and the Thomas Fire in 2016. 

“You know, you read in the bible the majesty of the mountains,” said Schofield. “That’s not an exaggeration. These mountains looked magnificent when they were stripped.”

The future of the empty hill

Schofield and Robinson wanted to restore the property to its original glory. They’ve discovered a water tunnel, exposed an old trail and repaired some of the crumbling stone walls. But now, they say, it’s time to pass the torch.

Property owners Kay Robinson (left) and Keith Schofield (right) give KCRW a tour of Mar y Cel with local historian Hattie Beresford (middle). (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

“After 18 years of hard labor, I think it’s time for somebody else to take over the management,” said Schofield. “It’s very rewarding to know you’ve done your bit up here, and we’ve improved the property somewhat, but it’s a lifetime’s job. You do your bit, and then you move on.”

That means the future of this property is unclear. 150 acres of the land is in a permanently protected land easement held by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, but the section of land with the tea house, amphitheater, reservoirs and water features is currently on the market for $53,700,000. Schofield and Robinson say they may subdivide it and sell it off as parcels.

“In an ideal world, I would have the money to take this on and continue your work,” Beresford said to Schofield and Robinson as they all looked out into the cloudy sky. “Otherwise, god knows what’s going to happen.”

What do you want to know more about your community? Ask your question here