My mom and I have been in Santa Barbara on vacation for more than a week. It’s been lovely, but, all good things must come to an end. This past Sunday was supposed to be that end, according to our plan. I’d mentally prepared for Sunday to be the end, for Sunday to be spent in the car on the road back to the San Francisco Bay, and quite frankly, I was almost excited to get back to my daily routine. But the universe, it seems, had other plans—for me, for my mom, and even for my car.
My car was the first of us to fall victim to the universe’s tomfoolery. Early Sunday afternoon, about an hour before we were due to get on the road, my car wouldn’t start. The ignition barrel wouldn’t turn—it was as if a safety lock had somehow engaged; that is, a safety lock whose existence was exempt from the owner’s manual, and of which I had not previously been aware. I tried everything—jiggling the steering wheel, wiggling the gearshift around, pushing the clutch all the way down to the metal, holding the brake pedal—but nothing worked. The ignition barrel was simply stuck. The lights on the dash wouldn’t even come on.
I pulled out my AAA card, ready to call for help, but hesitated when I was struck by a flashback from that morning: my mother, asking to borrow my hotel room key and I, handing her the AAA card by mistake—I can’t help but wonder, did I inspire the universe’s latest stunt? Or was that a sign of what sort of goods the universe had in store for us? Did the universe want us to see this sign, or did it just slip out in all the excitement?
Whatever the case, my poor old truck, after enduring the humiliation of being towed, is at the shop, and my mother and I are at a hotel just down the street.
If it hadn’t been for my truck’s malfunctioning ignition barrel—or, if you will, the universe’s insatiable need to stir the pot—my mom and I wouldn’t have wound up at the Pacifica Suites in Goleta, California. If we hadn’t wound up here, and if my sister hadn’t dropped us off right where she did, we wouldn’t have seen, or even heard of, the Joseph Sexton House.
Fringed with roses and exotic plants, the Sexton House sits staunchly beside the hotel lobby, peering austerely at hotel guests as they pass by. It held my gaze as my sister drove us around it to get to our hotel room. It’s strikingly beautiful—a remarkable specimen of Victorian-era architecture—but it holds an air of secrecy.
The conglomerate of trees—the Sexton Grove, as it’s called—that sets the house and adjacent hotel buildings back from Hollister Avenue only serves to intensify the mysterious atmosphere, so that you are no longer sure whether you’re in Santa Barbara or in some timeless, nonlocal space, like one of Walt Disney’s magic jungles.
Some of the mystery surrounding the structure has since cleared up for me, however. Being stuck here in the room with no car and nothing to do, I dug right into the history of this property.
The Sexton Family
The Sexton house was, of course, at one point inhabited by the Sexton family; namely, Joseph Sexton and his wife, Lucy Foster Sexton, and their twelve children. Joseph Sexton commissioned its construction in 1880, in response to his ever-growing family. The designer he hired was none other than Peter J. Barber: the first licensed and most-famous architect in the Santa Barbara region.
From what little information I could find on Peter Barber, it seems that he primarily designed public buildings, most famously the Arlington Hotel (1874) in downtown Santa Barbara. He got his start as a cabinet maker and carpenter in his birth state of Ohio, until, like many pioneer-era Americans, his career was interrupted by the lure of the California Gold Rush. In 1852, he temporarily ditched Ohio and his designer dream to search for California gold, but he picked it right back up in San Francisco in 1855, where he secured a job as a draftsman. He moved down to Santa Barbara in 1869, where he became an architect and quickly developed a reputation for Italianate-style designs. His fondness for Italianate architecture speaks of his early life in Ohio, where he undoubtedly saw many an Italianate structure, and where he watched that style grow, bloom, wither, and fade. His reliance on Italianate character assisted the genre’s perpetuation in the West; that is, he helped to extend America’s Picturesque movement a decade or so beyond its heydays in the Midwest and Eastern United States.
Joseph Sexton moved from Ione, California to Santa Barbara when he was twenty-five years old, late in the year 1867. He stayed with his parents for a bit, who had moved there earlier in the year in hopes of starting up a nursery business in the wake of their failed nursery business back in Ione. Joseph helped his parents build their nursery, near where Castillo Street and Montecito Street intersect today, and in May of 1868, Joseph purchased some land of his own. He bought two parcels that May—one nineteen acres, the other twelve acres—and a third parcel in June—the largest, at 98.28 acres. All three parcels were located on Hollister Avenue, and were previously a part of La Goleta Rancho, which was the region we know as Goleta Valley today.
In 1869, Joseph Sexton started his own nursery, known creatively as the Sexton Nursery. That same year, he sold four acres of his wonderfully fertile land to the Fosters, Isaac G. and Roxanna. Oddly enough, the section of land sold to the Fosters was right about where my truck is being serviced right now, near the intersection of Patterson and Hollister. Shortly after the Fosters made this purchase, Joseph Sexton took the hand of their daughter, Lucy Ann Foster, in marriage. They got married on November 18th on the Foster property.
The Sexton House
Lucy and Joseph had eight children between 1871 and 1879, and by December of the latter year, they were convinced it was time to build a bigger house. Enter architect Peter Barber. In terms of his Italianate tendencies, Barber did not disappoint: in 1880, the Sexton house was complete; irregular floorplan, belvedere, asymmetry and all. The house sits two stories high and has a wood frame. Its foundation was originally composed of brick, although that may have been altered during earthquakes and renovations. I read much more about the house, but since I didn’t get to visually verify the descriptions myself (the house is closed to tourists because of COVID-19), I’m not comfortable reporting them. If you’d like, you can read them yourself right here.
For comparison, below are some photos of the exterior of the house from my own camera.
Joseph Sexton's Horticultural Interests
Earlier, I alluded to the fact that Joseph Sexton was a horticulturist. Thus, it should come as no surprise that by 1883, the new Sexton house was surrounded by a number of greenhouses in which the family bred plants for their nursery.
Joseph had an interest in experimental agriculture, especially when it involved exotic plants. Crossbreeding and planting nonindigenous seeds to determine whether such plants would thrive or perish in the Southern California climate turned out to be lucrative hobbies for Joseph. In 1867, he purchased a variety-sack of walnuts in San Francisco, from which he developed a walnut breed whose soft shell prevented loss of walnut meat to accidental breakage during the nutcracking process. This breed, known as the Santa Barbara soft shell walnut, was the most popular crop in Goleta Valley from around 1869 until roughly 1910.
The creation of the Sexton flame tree by crossbreeding an Australian flame tree with a Queensland bottle tree, the establishment of a flower shop at 708 State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, and the popularization of the cherimoya tree are among Joseph Sexton’s most noteworthy accomplishments, but by far the most historically significant was his introduction of the pampas grass to the State of California.
If you are familiar with the California coast at all—even if you’ve only been to one California beach—there’s a good chance you’ve seen some pampas grass. If you grew up in the Bay, well, I’d be shocked if you’ve never seen it. Having grown up in the Bay myself, I don’t think I’ll ever forget about pampas grass.
Look familiar? If you’ve never seen these horrendous plants, you certainly aren’t missing much. My little sister and I played with the plumes when we were kids, and that was fun, but the consequences outweigh the benefits: those long, thick blades are covered in microscopic barbs that have a real knack for snaring exposed skin, leaving a cut or a rash. The tips of the blades are sharp, too, and can slice you pretty good. And then there are the plumes themselves, which are fun, as I said, but can easily become a hellish mess: when they are separated from the plant, the plumes dry and die, and little fluffy puffs break off of the main poof and stick to things like clothing, carpets, upholstery, and the inside of your lungs. Long story short: they’re a real nuisance.
I smiled when I realized that Joseph Sexton is responsible for the torment I endured in my childhood at the hands of the pampas plant. I laughed out loud when I discovered that any trace of the cultivation of pampas plants at the Sexton property has been entirely removed; all I can think is that they got tired of cleaning up residual fuzz and bandaging up their scrapes and scratches.
Joseph Sexton introduced the pampas plant to California around 1873. He is credited with being the first person on the West Coast to grow the plant for commercial purposes—the plumes were used across North America and Europe for decoration on parade floats and at parties—and for developing (or at least perfecting) the method for properly drying the fluffy part so that it doesn’t shed tiny fibers everywhere. The production of pampas plumes peaked between 1890 and 1895 at the Sexton Nursery.
The Sexton Grove
Since the grounds of the Sexton Nursery were also the Sextons’ personal garden, Joseph and Lucy also carefully landscaped portions of the property with their favorite plants and trees. Some of the species said to have been planted there are as follows:
· Pink, red, and white roses
· Some 200 varieties of dianthus and carnations
· Cork oak from Portugal
· Bunya-bunya tree from Australia
· Sweetshade tree from Australia
· Guadalupe palm from Baja California
· Jacaranda tree from Brazil
· Australian flame tree
· Bottle tree
· Strelitzia (giant bird of paradise)
I can say firsthand that what’s left of Joseph’s tree collection is truly jaw-dropping. The trees reach so far into the sky above that you feel like a speck of dust in a thick carpet. The leaves blur together overhead, but every trunk is different, and the artificial forest’s high ceiling allows plenty of sunlight to stream through sideways in the afternoon, illuminating not only the textures of the varying barks but the intertwining foliage comprising the underbrush. Blooming creepers and shrubbery blanket the floor, pressing tight to some tree bases and giving others a wide berth.
I was able to find at least some of the species on the list above in the Sexton Grove. Pink, red, and white roses are by far the most prevalent. The giant bird of paradise was also abundant.
I also saw some species in the Grove that were not listed. I am not a horticulturist by any stretch of the imagination, but after looking through tons of photos and characteristics for each species, I was able to identify, to the best of my knowledge, a few of them. They are as follows:
See for yourself in the photos below.
By far the most magnificent of all, however, are the supposedly original nursery specimens. These are trees that were planted by Lucy and Joseph back in the early days of the Sexton Nursery, carefully tended in their infancy and adolescence, and then left to their own devices when the Sexton family sold the house in 1954. They are the oldest trees of their kinds in the state of California. The most notable originals are the Norfolk pine, the cork oak, and the bunya-bunya. Words cannot describe the immensity of these trees; below are some photos that I took, but still, nothing can do them justice apart from physically seeing them in person.
The End of a Agricultural Legacy
Joseph Sexton’s death on August 17, 1917 marked the end of the Sexton nursery business. Family tensions arose, Lucy moved out of the house and back onto her parents’ old property, some of the children took off, and many of the buildings were altered, removed, or replaced. Mariette, Lucy and Joseph’s granddaughter, inherited the Sexton house in 1927, when Lucy died. She lived there until her own death in 1951, and the remaining family tried unsuccessfully to sell the property to Santa Barbara County.
Instead of being celebrated for its history in the Sexton family, the house saw a number of different uses after Mariette passed away. In 1954, the property was sold to Robert H. and Margaret Seaton, who moved into a small house on the property and rented out the Sexton house to numerous tenants over the years. In 1977, the property fell into the hands of Johnson and Juliette Eymann, who converted the onsite barn into a chapel for their religious group, the Jubilee Christian Church, which they’d established in 1974. The house itself was used as a sort of communal housing space for congregation members. The Eymanns sold the property to Invest West Financial Corporation in 1984. Allegedly, the house was in a sorry state at that point: the Eymanns had altered the structural integrity to the point that it was, in essence, no longer the same house. Invest West bought the property with the intention of bringing it back to its original grandeur, while also establishing a hotel—then called Quality Suites Hotel—on the property.
Because of the short notice and difficulty in finding information about the Sexton house, I am not entirely sure how Pacifica Suites came to be at this location. I am sure, however, that it had something to do with Invest West, since Invest West now owns the Pacifica Hotel Company.
Ideally, by the time you’re reading these words, I’ll be well on my way home to the Bay. Regardless, I’m grateful to have gotten the chance to see and learn about the Sexton House, in spite of all the shenanigans that put me in this position. If you’re ever stuck in Goleta, make sure you stay at Pacifica Suites on Hollister Avenue.
Notes, Sources, & Acknowledgements
Santa Barbara County lists the Sexton House as a historic landmark. The property is also on the National Register for Historic Places, listed in the National Register Information System (NRIS) as 91002033.
Pretty much everything I've learned about the Sexton House comes from the following two sources, as well as in-person conversations with staff and personal experiences on the property:
Conard, Rebecca. "Encore for the Sexton House." Goleta Historical Notes, vol. 5, no. 1. Goleta Valley Historical Society, Fall 1990, Goleta, CA.
United States Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. NPS Form 10-900 & NPS Form 10-900-a: National Register of Historic Places Registration & Continuation Sheets. Sept 1991.
Throughout my research, and during my many walks through the Sexton Grove, I found Cal Poly SLO's SelecTree: A Tree Selection Guide tool incredibly useful. I highly recommend it to others in the business of trying to identify trees and plants in California.