Ninety minutes and a world away from Los Angeles, the unincorporated town of Montecito, California—spanning the verdant hills and picturesque beaches just east of Santa Barbara—has lured the world’s most discerning real-estate hunters since long before Harry and Meghan cemented it on the pop-cultural map. The enclave’s relative seclusion, salubrious microclimate, and dramatic scenery first drew colonial settlers from Spain, to which the area’s landscape has often been likened. Later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, East Coast industry barons hired well known architects like George Washington Smith and Stanford White to build their grand winter homes there, followed by old-Hollywood pioneers like Charlie Chaplin, who helped found the Montecito Inn in 1928. More recently, its small-town charm has lured stars seeking respite from the paparazzi, at least on the weekends, like Gwyneth Paltrow and, of course, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, who have both famously bought and sold numerous properties there.

Some of the area’s most spectacular homes—from classic Mediterranean-influenced estates by the architect who perfected the California style, Wallace Neff, to a 1970s Brutalist concrete mansion—are collected in Montecito Style: Paradise on California’s Gold Coast (Monacelli Press), the recent book by the photographer Firooz Zahedi, who renovated a 1964 house there with his wife, the art patron Beth Rudin DeWoody (who herself has links to the area, having briefly attended UC Santa Barbara). The Iranian-born, British-raised Zahedi first fell for Montecito in the early ’80s while visiting his old friend Diandra Douglas—the Majorca-raised filmmaker and former wife of Michael Douglas—who spent time in Montecito as a child, raised her oldest son Cameron there, and moved back from New York during the pandemic. The old friends recently got together chez Zahedi to talk about the unique history, culture, and architecture of their adopted hometown. To kick off their conversation, PALMER asked how the two first met.

 

MONTECITO HERITAGE—This house, built from local stone with a massive wood-beam ceiling, is a solid and serious piece of architecture dating back to the late 19th century, when it was built for a wealthy man from the Midwest. In fact, it’s not even the main house; it’s what used to be a carriage house/stable that is thought to have been part of the Waterman Estate. The main house is on an adjacent property and is three times the size of this one. It later became the dormitory for a boys' boarding school.
MONTECITO HERITAGE—This house, built from local stone with a massive wood-beam ceiling, is a solid and serious piece of architecture dating back to the late 19th century, when it was built for a wealthy man from the Midwest. In fact, it’s not even the main house; it’s what used to be a carriage house/stable that is thought to have been part of the Waterman Estate. The main house is on an adjacent property and is three times the size of this one. It later became the dormitory for a boys' boarding school.

 

Firooz Zahedi: Back in Washington, D.C., that’s how we connected, at Georgetown. I think we were introduced at an embassy party. Although we were at the same university, both in the School of Foreign Service, Diandra was just starting. She married Michael and moved back to LA. Diandra was very sweet, invited us to various dinners and parties, then they moved up to Montecito.

Diandra Douglas: I grew up here in the summers. I was a White House intern while I was at Georgetown and I met Michael at a state dinner. Four weeks later Michael asked me to marry him, and we were married three months later. For almost 20 years. For Hollywood that’s a long stretch. So, I actually was living in LA, god help me, and was not fond of it because it was in the middle of the whole Hollywood craziness. We had a son and I wanted to raise him outside of LA and that whole scene.

FZ: They invited us up here to their magnificent home, and that’s the moment I fell in love with Montecito.

DD: It was much smaller. There was a big polo scene in those days. There were still the remnants of the larger East Coast families who had moved here for the winters. It was a small but sort of civilized community, and then there was, of course, Mountain Drive, a road that was well known for the writers and painters and a sort of hippie scene. They were what I call well-to-do hippies. But you know, there was a lot of art and music. Writers, painters, the music academy here, and of course there are two universities. It was an interesting period.

 

ROMANTIC HIDEAWAY—With a gnarled tree growing in the entry, rooms of wonderful French antiques, and rosy silk damask valances, this 1911 house looks to be out of a fairy tale, but in a shabby-chic way. It was originally built as a stable for a large former estate.
ROMANTIC HIDEAWAY—With a gnarled tree growing in the entry, rooms of wonderful French antiques, and rosy silk damask valances, this 1911 house looks to be out of a fairy tale, but in a shabby-chic way. It was originally built as a stable for a large former estate.

 

FZ: Montecito has a great history.

DD: What many people don’t realize about Santa Barbara and Montecito is that it began with Spanish land grants in the 1700s, and then there were large ranches. And then it began because [missionary] Junipero Serra was a Majorquin nobleman from Spain. The first houses in Santa Barbara and Montecito were in fact adobe. In the early 1800s, all of Montecito and most of Santa Barbara were open fields. It was very wild, actually. And the last of the Chumash people had collected around the mission. Serra stopped in Santa Barbara because it was one of the only places that had a microclimate, and the mountains came down to the ocean and it had a valley with fertile soil. He thought it looked just like Majorca and I did too, and so did my mother, hence why I came here as a child. And if you go to the cemetery of the mission and you look at all the old gravestones, they’re all Majorquin names.

Then, in the 1800s, because there was a lot of fertile farmland, the government, such as it was, decided they would sell land at some ridiculous price, so a lot of farmers came from the East Coast and settled in this sort of valley here. They built Victorian houses. And it was not until 1918 to 1920 when all of a sudden it became in vogue for a lot of the big estates to build with Spanish architecture, or as I call it, Spanish Italianate or Spanish with a twist.

FZ: That’s when architects like George Washington Smith started building amazing homes. The person who worked for him, Lutah Maria Riggs, was the first [licensed] female architect [in Santa Barbara] at that point. Her own house on Middle Road is amazing. But at that point nobody had faith in a woman architect.

 

HISTORICAL CLASSIC—This 1926 house by Lutah Maria Riggs is special because Riggs was the first major female architect to gain a foothold in this part of California. It has great lines and nooks and crannies. The then 30-year-old designed this Andalusian-inspired residence for herself, installing thick white walls, paneled Dutch doors, wood-beam ceilings, and geometric floors. It’s been lovingly restored by its current owner, the interior designer Richard Hallberg.
HISTORICAL CLASSIC—This 1926 house by Lutah Maria Riggs is special because Riggs was the first major female architect to gain a foothold in this part of California. It has great lines and nooks and crannies. The then 30-year-old designed this Andalusian-inspired residence for herself, installing thick white walls, paneled Dutch doors, wood-beam ceilings, and geometric floors. It’s been lovingly restored by its current owner, the interior designer Richard Hallberg.
HISTORICAL CLASSIC—This 1926 house by Lutah Maria Riggs is special because Riggs was the first major female architect to gain a foothold in this part of California. It has great lines and nooks and crannies. The then 30-year-old designed this Andalusian-inspired residence for herself, installing thick white walls, paneled Dutch doors, wood-beam ceilings, and geometric floors. It’s been lovingly restored by its current owner, the interior designer Richard Hallberg.

 

DD: And then there were all the contemporaries of Smith and Stanford White—all these East Coast architects who had done public buildings were brought out to this area by the 20 sort of top families that had come out in the early times to build their winter palaces, as they were called. Many of them came on trains and had their own train cars. What happened—like most things in most beautiful places—is that then their friends came, and it sort of mushroomed.

FZ: I think in the ’20s and ’30s, the entertainment crowd started coming up for weekends. Charlie Chaplin built the Montecito Inn.

DD: The Kennedys came for their honeymoon to San Ysidro Ranch.

FZ: Robert Mitchum was here.

DD: He was very nice. And he hardly ever socialized.

FZ: Jane Russell was here…a lot of people, the kids today wouldn’t know who they were. When I had lunch the other day, we went to the beach club and there was Adam Levine with his bleach-blond buzz and tattoos everywhere. He bought Rob Lowe’s house. All these young musicians or tech guys, it’s the new trophy thing.

DD: In the last few months, Tom Cruise moved here, and Oprah sold Jennifer Aniston her ranch house.

 

HUNTING LODGE—This house by architect George Washington Smith was part of a complex of homes owned on the street by one family. It was later purchased by the actor Tab Hunter and is presently occupied by his husband Allan Glaser, a film producer. Hunter, an avid equestrian and antiques collector, turned the home into a cozy hunting lodge packed with treasures from his massive collection.
HUNTING LODGE—This house by architect George Washington Smith was part of a complex of homes owned on the street by one family. It was later purchased by the actor Tab Hunter and is presently occupied by his husband Allan Glaser, a film producer. Hunter, an avid equestrian and antiques collector, turned the home into a cozy hunting lodge packed with treasures from his massive collection.
HUNTING LODGE—This house by architect George Washington Smith was part of a complex of homes owned on the street by one family. It was later purchased by the actor Tab Hunter and is presently occupied by his husband Allan Glaser, a film producer. Hunter, an avid equestrian and antiques collector, turned the home into a cozy hunting lodge packed with treasures from his massive collection.

 

FZ: Who bought your old house?

DD: Oprah…my new house was built in 1910 by George Owen Knapp, who started this huge industrial company, Union Carbide. And he actually moved to Santa Barbara because he was ill and they would say that the climate in Montecito was wonderful for people who weren’t well. He came up with his wife and they purchased 450 acres. He built Cottage Hospital and gave the land for the Montecito Club. He had campers made in 1915 and nobody had them, right? He would have these Bentleys pulling these trailers and he would go up to the mountains to camp in the middle of nowhere. He was a great adventurer.

FZ: Around where I live, Ellen DeGeneres keeps buying and flipping houses. You have the celebrity flippers like Oprah and Ellen, but some people who have been here for a while, Kevin Costner, Jeff Bridges, live quietly and don’t try to get attention. But I know that Natalie Portman has bought up here, Cameron Diaz has bought up here.

 

TWENTIES COTTAGE—Nancy Read’s home was built in 1925 by the architect Pierpont Davis, who was also an Olympic gold medal winner. This cozy cottage features a circular tower, dormer windows, and slate roof. Inspired by 16th-century Norman architecture, it is a shining example of the “period” style that flourished in Montecito in the '20s.
TWENTIES COTTAGE—Nancy Read’s home was built in 1925 by the architect Pierpont Davis, who was also an Olympic gold medal winner. This cozy cottage features a circular tower, dormer windows, and slate roof. Inspired by 16th-century Norman architecture, it is a shining example of the “period” style that flourished in Montecito in the '20s.
TWENTIES COTTAGE—Nancy Read’s home was built in 1925 by the architect Pierpont Davis, who was also an Olympic gold medal winner. This cozy cottage features a circular tower, dormer windows, and slate roof. Inspired by 16th-century Norman architecture, it is a shining example of the “period” style that flourished in Montecito in the '20s.

 

DD: There’s always been sort of an unspoken agreement that people’s privacy was first and foremost. We purchased La Quinta, it was called, in the very late ‘70s or early ‘80s. We had a house in Beverly Hills as well. We were both working, I was making documentary films and Michael was doing all the things he was doing. I would go down to LA, and then I would say to myself, ‘Well, I could stay in LA, or I could go back to Santa Barbara and wake up in paradise.’

I feel that living here is the closest you can come to living in Europe in the U.S. because of the microclimate, and the ocean that comes up to the beautiful mountains. It’s very green, all the beautiful gardens and oaks; it has a very Spanish, Italian feel to it.

FZ: There’s respect for privacy, which you have in Europe. You don’t really get that in the States.

 

CONCRETE BRUTALIST—Designed by Roland Coates Jr., the namesake son of the 1920s architect who helped define California residential style, this early '70s gem is tucked into a canyon hillside. When the original owners asked Coates to build a home unlike anything in the area, he devised a seven-thousand-square-foot structure that is barely visible from the driveway. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted with a circular watchtower, three chimneys, and sweeping views of the coast. The house, with a walled courtyard, sits below. Its clean lines and high ceilings are the ideal complement to the current owner’s extensive art collection.
CONCRETE BRUTALIST—Designed by Roland Coates Jr., the namesake son of the 1920s architect who helped define California residential style, this early '70s gem is tucked into a canyon hillside. When the original owners asked Coates to build a home unlike anything in the area, he devised a seven-thousand-square-foot structure that is barely visible from the driveway. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted with a circular watchtower, three chimneys, and sweeping views of the coast. The house, with a walled courtyard, sits below. Its clean lines and high ceilings are the ideal complement to the current owner’s extensive art collection.
CONCRETE BRUTALIST—Designed by Roland Coates Jr., the namesake son of the 1920s architect who helped define California residential style, this early '70s gem is tucked into a canyon hillside. When the original owners asked Coates to build a home unlike anything in the area, he devised a seven-thousand-square-foot structure that is barely visible from the driveway. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted with a circular watchtower, three chimneys, and sweeping views of the coast. The house, with a walled courtyard, sits below. Its clean lines and high ceilings are the ideal complement to the current owner’s extensive art collection.

 

DD: Montecito Pharmacy is the same as it was when I was a child. The pharmacist, she knows everything about everybody. It’s still the same, the building is the same, it has a little breakfast place. One of the pharmacists worked there until he was in his nineties. It makes me feel really happy to see that some things don’t change. Because there’s so much change in the world today. It’s anxiety-provoking. And just to see a pharmacy there from childhood with the same people working there is amazing.

FZ: The Lower Village has become super-busy now, with a ton more restaurants and shops and galleries and urgent care. You do get a lot of day trippers. But the Upper Village hasn’t been invaded yet. There’s a firehouse there that’s so beautiful. Unfortunately, it’s now a Restoration Hardware. Most of the shops up there have old lady clothes, which is great. There’s no Prada, no Gucci, no Dolce & Gabbana…

FZ: My wife and I bought a 1200-square-foot duplex in 2015. The other part was being lived in by an elderly woman and she was running the two as a condominium. So, we had to pay her every month for the maintenance. We had a weekend place, at least. And then we had fires and floods here in 2017 and 2018, people were freaking out and leaving, and the older lady didn’t want to live there anymore. So, we bought her space too and started renovating it.

Then there was this house we have now; it was like finding heaven. It was at the end of a cul de sac; it was a gem that needed someone’s love and attention. It was a 1964 mid-century verging on Hollywood Regency elements. The shape was brilliant, it was U-shaped around the swimming pool. It was poorly landscaped and overgrown. We got it for a decent price and then Covid hit and we spent over a year making it the house we wanted.

 

HOLLYWOOD REGENCY—Owners Zahedi and DeWoody fell in love with this single-story, mid-century home designed by architect Jack Warner. Built in 1964, its U-shape is centered on a rectangular swimming pool and the mountains in the distance. The couple wanted to pay tribute to the Hollywood Regency style, made popular by the likes of John Elgin Woolf and Billy Haines, with its double-height ceiling in the living room and contrasting molding trims.
HOLLYWOOD REGENCY—Owners Zahedi and DeWoody fell in love with this single-story, mid-century home designed by architect Jack Warner. Built in 1964, its U-shape is centered on a rectangular swimming pool and the mountains in the distance. The couple wanted to pay tribute to the Hollywood Regency style, made popular by the likes of John Elgin Woolf and Billy Haines, with its double-height ceiling in the living room and contrasting molding trims.
HOLLYWOOD REGENCY—Owners Zahedi and DeWoody fell in love with this single-story, mid-century home designed by architect Jack Warner. Built in 1964, its U-shape is centered on a rectangular swimming pool and the mountains in the distance. The couple wanted to pay tribute to the Hollywood Regency style, made popular by the likes of John Elgin Woolf and Billy Haines, with its double-height ceiling in the living room and contrasting molding trims.
HOLLYWOOD REGENCY—Owners Zahedi and DeWoody fell in love with this single-story, mid-century home designed by architect Jack Warner. Built in 1964, its U-shape is centered on a rectangular swimming pool and the mountains in the distance. The couple wanted to pay tribute to the Hollywood Regency style, made popular by the likes of John Elgin Woolf and Billy Haines, with its double-height ceiling in the living room and contrasting molding trims.
HOLLYWOOD REGENCY—Owners Zahedi and DeWoody fell in love with this single-story, mid-century home designed by architect Jack Warner. Built in 1964, its U-shape is centered on a rectangular swimming pool and the mountains in the distance. The couple wanted to pay tribute to the Hollywood Regency style, made popular by the likes of John Elgin Woolf and Billy Haines, with its double-height ceiling in the living room and contrasting molding trims.

 

DD: It takes two years to get a permit here. That’s a long time. It’s very inconvenient but it keeps the area with its integrity in place.

FZ: There’s also a very well known retirement community here that Julia Child moved to, Casa Dorinda. It’s back in these huge grounds, with bungalows and cottages. They have two or three restaurants and a gym and a party room. It’s tough to get in. If I buy now, if I live long enough I might get a two-bedroom. [Laughs.] They’re all booked out.

DD: I tend to think any university town is a much more interesting town. I would say compared to most American towns there’s a lot of culture here. It was one of the first wellness capitals. Everyone was hiking and eating organic healthy food. During Covid I found it very stressful to be in New York. New York has changed a lot, and I hate to say it but not for the better. Maybe the younger we get, one reaches a certain point in life where you’ve led a busy or demanding life, and you are looking for different things. To keep doing the same thing over and over again gets so old.

 

SCALED MID-CENTURY—This 1958 house is small in size, but is a perfect example of a mid-century house designed on a modest budget with great taste by owner and interior designer Daniel Cuevas. The post-and-beam structure, with glass walls and doors, embraces the beauty of the magnificent nature surrounding it, which includes more than 50 coast live oaks. The exterior was painted a gray-green tone to blend in with the trees.
SCALED MID-CENTURY—This 1958 house is small in size, but is a perfect example of a mid-century house designed on a modest budget with great taste by owner and interior designer Daniel Cuevas. The post-and-beam structure, with glass walls and doors, embraces the beauty of the magnificent nature surrounding it, which includes more than 50 coast live oaks. The exterior was painted a gray-green tone to blend in with the trees.

 

FZ: I feel lucky I got you out here today to do this.

DD: Well, I’d do anything for you. Though as I was trying to get ready to come over here, all of a sudden I hear ‘quack, quack, quack, quack.’ I walk out of the room, and there’s a mallard. Somehow the front door was open and he had walked up the steps and walked inside, across the drawing room, and down the hall. My housekeeper and I were running around trying to catch him, and I was thinking, ‘Oh I can’t be late because it’s like, the dog ate my homework.’ I was trying to get this wild duck out of my house. How many places does that really happen? And it happened on the way here.

FZ: That’s as exciting as our lives get here.

 

This story and more appears in PALMER On the Road, available now.