For the many people who walk through the doors at Hotel Santa Barbara it is clear that this boutique hotel is unique. The building’s rich history and timeless architecture are a start, but what many people don’t know is that Hotel Santa Barbara is an independent, family-owned business. Purchased by the Jacks family in 1975, the family has always endeavored to welcome guests with the pure spirit of hospitality. Today we sit down with Hotel Santa Barbara CFO and family operator, Tamara Jacks Erickson, to get a glimpse into the history of Hotel Santa Barbara.
The building was constructed in 1926, can you talk a little bit about the history of the property in the beginning?
As he explains it, the building’s namesake, Neil Callahan, bought the building in 1916. After the 1925 earthquake destroyed everything, Callahan rebuilt a grander four-story building in the Spanish colonial revival style with the help of architects Roland Sauter and E. Keith Lockard who also designed City Hall. He added a restaurant, newsstand and cigar stand and reopened The Barbara Hotel in 1926.
By a happy coincidence, the building’s history intersected with mine in 1985 on a first date with my husband. We passed the corner of State and Cota and he casually mentioned that his grandfather (William B. Erickson, Jones Construction) was the job superintendent for the contractor who built the building in 1925. My husband’s dad had told him stories of traveling by train as a child to visit the building when it was new, and eating pancakes in a restaurant on the corner (now Starbucks). Little did we know that the building my parents had by then owned for a decade would also become part of our lives in the years to come.
When did your family acquire the Hotel and what was it like in those early days?
The Barbara Hotel was a residential hotel in disrepair when my parents bought it in 1975. They had supplemented my dad’s college professor income over the years buying and selling rental property, and to them it was just a rather large apartment building. Growing up in Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara High School class of 1953) my mom remembered the area in a different light. They saw the potential, renamed it The Schooner Inn, and got to work. Eventually my dad left his job and he and my mom threw themselves full-time into renovating the old building and reviving the business.
When a fancy hotel down by the beach upgraded their furniture they bought the whole lot of old dressers and bedframes and lamps. Their cast offs were our newfound treasures, some barely squeezing through the narrow doorways, oversized and crowded in the small rooms. They found keys for doors that had been locked for years. In the grand, dark lobby big ceiling boards were pried loose revealing skylights which cast a surprising glow on everything. They operated The Schooner Inn as a residential hotel for the next twenty years serving Thanksgiving dinners in the lobby, providing work and community and friendship for many.
The property underwent a large renovation in the 1990’s to become what it is today. Can you tell us a little bit about what changes happened during that time and what the vision was for Hotel Santa Barbara?
As the property improved, the area around it began a revival too. In 1996 my younger brother, just a first grader when my parents bought the hotel, had the vision and energy to lead another more dramatic renovation. He oversaw the enormous project as three guestroom floors were completely gutted. Ninety-six small rooms, some with shared baths down the hall, were transformed into seventy-five beautiful guestrooms. Meeting rooms were added on the main floor, and a laundry facility in the basement. When the hotel opened again a year later everything was new including the name, Hotel Santa Barbara. Nothing remained of the old place except the incredible architecture — the skylights in the lobby, the arches, the corbels, the beautiful tile stairs — and the stories.
How have you been involved with the property over the years?
I began as a front desk clerk working the four-to-midnight shift at The Schooner Inn when I was a freshman in college. Only years later did it occur to me that at eighteen and five-foot-seven in clogs, rosy cheeks and a friendly smile might not have been the best qualifications for a night job alone in that part of town in those days. I learned a lot. Eventually I moved from the desk clerk job to manage another family business, Schooner Inn Donuts, which for many years occupied the space in our building where Gameseeker is now. I eventually left the hotel business for a publishing career and returned in 2001. For nearly a decade I was the Hotel’s GM and after a break moved to my current role as CFO. The hotel has been a family affair over the years. My other two siblings worked in different roles early on. Both of my children also worked here during college as a desk clerk and a valet, and my husband has collaborated and advised on construction and renovation projects through the years.
What is your favorite architectural feature of the hotel?
The stairway from the lobby to the Mezzanine is definitely my favorite architectural feature. Probably everyone’s. The steps themselves are terra cotta concrete worn lighter over the years by all the footsteps. Sometimes I look at the bull nose edge where ninety-five years ago concrete trowel lines were set deep and wonder if my husband’s grandfather watched that work being done. The face of each step, where the toes kick, is covered in shiny hand-painted tile in bright ascending rows. A design of cobalt and poppy flowers across fields of aqua marine and ochre create repeating random patterns.
I also love the curved wooden handrail on the first flight from the lobby to the mezzanine. The rail itself fits like a handshake. It’s dark and smooth, the size of my palm, and firmly fixed onto the concrete ledge that arches upward along the wall. It’s hard not to image all the different people who have traveled up and down those stairs.
Hotel Santa Barbara has a lot of dedicated repeat guests that come back year after year. What do you think makes Hotel Santa Barbara such a special place for people?
We love our guests, and I think people return because they are known. We remember them. And this can only happen because so many of our employees have been at Hotel Santa Barbara for so long. Our city is wonderful, the location is ideal, the rooms are beautiful, but it is our people that create the warm environment that keep guests coming back.
Our General Manager now for a decade began in the Schooner Inn days as a bookkeeper in 1982. She is the heartbeat of the hotel and knows the business from the bottom up, and her daughter works with her as well. From Housekeeping and Front Desk to Security, Facilities and Sales, we have history together. More than half of our staff have been here for more than a decade. Not only do we remember our guests, but our guests know us. They know that we care, and what makes us happiest is finding ways to make them feel welcome in their home away from home.
Hotel Santa Barbara’s rich history and unique family story are part of what makes this property so special. Interested in experiencing it yourself? Call a front desk agent directly for the best rates at 1 (800) 549-9869.