Set in a tiny enclave hidden in plain sight in the middle of downtown Santa Barbara, designer Madeline Stuart’s jewel box cottage is part of a group of seven historic houses built as artist studios in the 1930s. Today, the Los Angeles–based designer calls it her escape, her weekend sanctuary and the one place in the world where she feels most at peace.
I bought my house in 2014. Quickly. I got the listing on a Tuesday, drove up to see it on Wednesday and bought it on Thursday.
My husband, Steve, and I had been heading up to Santa Barbara long before we bought the house. We would go for long weekends and even for the day—we would walk the dogs on the beach, have lunch and return to LA. I had been desperate to find a place there because I work so hard during the week and needed a getaway.
When this house came on the market, I asked a friend of mine who grew up in Santa Barbara (his family was one of the original ranching families in the Santa Ynez Valley) if he would run by and take a look for me. Afterward, he called me and said, “You need to see this. It’s so rare and unique.”
Interestingly enough, right before I discovered my home, Casa Caserio, I had decided to suspend my search altogether. Steve had just gotten a fellowship at Harvard and was going to be away for six months—it seemed crazy to be house-hunting in his absence. There was an element of serendipity to the whole thing.
We’re situated on a private road within a little patch of cottages right downtown. Both the house and the garden were in dreadful condition at the outset. There were also major logistical issues with the way the rooms were laid out. Case in point, you had to walk through the bathroom to get to the bedroom, which was not an option for me. I’ve been married for thirty-four years but I am not walking through the bathroom when someone else is in there. Despite the myriad problems and general state of decrepitude, I had no doubts—I knew I could do something with it.
Steve, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure in the beginning. When he first saw the house, he was shocked. He thought I had lost my mind. “Madeline,” he said, “we live in Los Angeles, where we have a beautiful house in the hills. Why do we want another house that’s in the middle of a city, especially one that needs all this work?”
Now, of course, he bows to my wisdom because he loves this place so much and recognizes my genius.
The original architect was Joseph Plunkett, who is something of a legend in Santa Barbara, and this was the studio he built for himself. He designed some marvelous buildings here—the Arlington Theater, for one—so I knew I had to be sensitive to what he’d created. I wanted to respond to and respect the history of the house as well as what was around me, both with regard to Spanish Revival architecture—my great passion—and the landscape.
There are sight lines out from my windows that catch a side of the mountain or a tangle of incredible fuchsia bougainvillea or a palm or olive tree, so I wanted to keep both of the gardens here incredibly simple and quiet, yet also somewhat architectural.
The center section of the back garden has a semi-formal quality because it’s a parterre, divided into four quadrants. There are certain references to Italian landscaping and garden designs that I’ve seen in Spain. I set out to create zones for living and entertaining.
The fireplace is beyond the center garden, and my dining terrace anchors the other end of the garden. It’s all pretty miniscule, about the size of a bathmat really, so it’s amazing that this much can fit into such a small space, but it’s organized and simple and somehow it all works.
Other than my own house and neighborhood, I’m obsessed with the Santa Barbara Courthouse, which is the most exquisite example of Spanish-Colonial architecture. It has a remarkable mural room which is absolutely breathtaking. I visit it often to study the tile work, stencil designs and vintage light fixtures. I also spend a lot of time at the farmers’ market on Saturdays.
Our road in the neighborhood, El Caserio, is private. I recently convinced all my neighbors to get rid of their cars, and I closed down the road for a party. I hung strands of little white lights above one giant long table set for thirty-four in the middle of the street. You felt like you were in a little village in Spain or Italy—it was quite a magical evening.
Santa Barbara is set between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the ocean, and there’s something about the proximity to each that makes this place truly extraordinary and unique. Obviously there are other sites in the world where you have that kind of dichotomy, but there’s something about the light here that is so seductive and captivating for me. Being immersed in it gives me a sense of peace and calm—and quite frankly, I’m not a peaceful or a calm person. I’m like a Tasmanian devil, but when I reach the Santa Barbara county line, that frenetic energy just dissipates.
Before I had a place to escape to, I would find myself working virtually every Saturday. And if I wasn’t working, I was shopping. I think it cost me less to buy this house and restore and furnish it than it did for me to continue spending weekends in LA, where I would pop into Barneys or Neiman Marcus and buy another pair of black pants or black shoes that I probably didn’t need. In the end, it was my version of a cost-saving method. Hah!
Anyone who lives in Santa Barbara says, “We live in paradise,” and I find that saying to be quite apt. The beauty is uncompromising and truly awe-inspiring. The foliage. The colors. And the light! And of course you always feel the presence of the ocean, even if it’s not in view. I’m not a surfer or beach type in any way, shape or form, but I could never live too far from the water—I need to be able to sense the coastline. Even though I live in the middle of Los Angeles, way up in the Hollywood Hills, I know the Pacific is still within striking distance.
When I get to Santa Barbara, being able to have that closeness to nature and beauty is just vital. This is a very enchanted place. I love and treasure every single moment I get to spend here.