Monday, March 26, 2012

Perched, preserved, purchased

A mountaintop near Santa Barbara, California, boasts views reminiscent of Roman ruins, but this is no mere folly.*

In 1916, Union Carbide founder George Owen Knapp (1855-1945) purchased a 160-acre tract of land overlooking Lake Cachuma and the Santa Ynez valley. With the intention of creating a mountain getaway to compliment his 100-acre estate in Montecito, he spent 4 years building a home with foundations, walls, and fireplaces of native sandstone. The main house had 5 bedrooms, a large hallway, a dining room, an observatory, and a room especially designed for Knapp's pride and joy - a pipe organ. The lodge "served as a popular retreat for Knapp’s guests who were treated to after dinner entertainment courtesy of resident pipe organist Dion Kennedy." Other buildings included a studio, a cottage, a dormitory which housed 6 servants, and a superintendent's house. In 1940, American psychology professor Frances Holden bought the property and allowed her good friend (German opera singer Lotte Lehmann) to live there, but only 5 weeks after moving in, the lodge and all the outbuildings were destroyed in a forest fire. The blaze left it "a scattering of stone archways, solitary chimneys and other stonework that has become known since as Knapp’s Castle."

Unbeknownst to many, the Knapp property was purchased by a Colorado holding company in 2004 and a 31.3% interest sold to a California client in 2010. It was soon after this that modifications to the site began, using native stone, and presumably will continue after the proper permits are obtained. So far, the improvements include building a series of bench-like steps facing the lower arches that appear to be the start of an outdoor amphitheater, and adding reinforcement to existing walls, chimneys, and walkways. While not disclosing who they are working for, builder Hemp Technologies (co-owned by Greg Flavall and David Madera) revealed the plan to construct a 500 sq. ft. structure using Hempcrete, made of the woody internal stem of the Cannabis sativa plant. The material is processed into chips and mixed with a lime-based binder that can be poured into slabs or formed into blocks like concrete. to create the shell of a building. Hemp, grown with little water and few pesticides, is a good insulator, is not subject to termite damage, and is fire resistant.

In the interim between destruction and construction, the site - situated within Los Padres National Forest (map here, zoom out) - has been a magnet for hikers and photographers. Graham Gilmore, one of the latter, already regrets the lack of access: "The shoot would have been better if it wasn’t for the owners who have now decided to move back onto the land and begin construction this very month, so these are the best shots I could get without revealing a motor home sitting right in the middle of the plot." The hikers are a bit more charitable, but still wary, "To the ruins and back is a 0.8-mile round trip hike with 50 feet of elevation change. The majestic views from this unique spot far exceed the effort....Look northwest through a trio of stone arches toward Lake Cachuma, a reservoir that did not exist when Knapp’s Castle was built or burned. While the view has certainly changed, this is still a breathtaking place to build a home or take a hike....Based on the newly posted notice, it seems that changes to the ruins may be coming. Take a hike to Knapp’s Castle before that happens."

*See also I found a folly! and Topiary elephants.

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