Frederick Forrest Peabody, the original owner of Solana, is one of great America’s great success stories. Born in 1859 in Northfield, Vermont, Peabody began his professional career in a teaching school before finally rising to chairman of Cluett, Peabody and Co, the manufacturer of the famed Arrow Shirt.
In 1906, within a week of first visiting and falling in love with Santa Barbara, Peabody, enamored with the enviable climate and breathtaking natural beauty, identified and purchased an unencumbered 40-acre knoll top. This site served as a blank canvas for his California abode and embodied Peabody’s vision of the California Dream.
Designed by architect and fellow bon vivant Francis Underhill, the Peabody residence would become a defining architectural achievement of the West Coast. In April of 1913, a building permit was issued for the construction of the $50,000 residence and the $3,000 garage; both precedent setting prices of the day.
As the estate neared completion, it became clear that the property needed a proper name. After much deliberation, Solana, a Spanish word meaning “sunny place,” emerged as the clear front-runner.
In 1920, Peabody married an English-born, Oxford-educated woman named Kathleen Burke. Burke, an honorary secretary of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and avid fund-raiser for the Red Cross, came to be known as the “Angel of France” for her political activism and charity during WWII. The couple’s long history of philanthropy and social activism foreshadowed Solana’s own illustrious chapter as part of the nation’s discourse on politics and social consciousness.
Peabody devoted a significant amount of his time and wealth to supporting Santa Barbara, his beloved hometown. From underwriting the athletic field at the high school, to funding programs at Cottage Hospital, supporting the public library and backing the Lobero Theater, Peabody’s legacy lives on through the many vital organizations he generously supported.
Frederick Peabody’s relationship with Santa Barbara was rich in admiration and devotion. As chairman of the local Board of Education, Peabody oversaw the construction of Santa Barbara High School, and as a philanthropist, he contributed generously to the rebuilding of the city after the 1925 earthquake.
In 1959, Solana ceased to exist as a residence and embarked on a bold new chapter as home to a leading American think tank: the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
The Center, led by Dr. Robert Hutchins, sought “to clarify the issues involved in maintaining a free and just society…and to advance the understanding of those issues by promoting discussion of them among the American people.”
The Center was based on the ideals of ancient Greek academies where problems could be resolved through dialogue, and spirited discourse was encouraged. For nearly two decades, world leaders, public officials, leading scientists and intellectuals, eminent journalists and Hollywood figures participated in events at the Center. During its tenure at Solana, the Center produced hundreds of reports and papers such as treatises on medical malpractice and illegal immigration.
Under the direction of Hutchins, Solana was temporarily called “El Parthenon,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to the marriage of Solana’s Greek and Spanish architecture. During the mid-1970s and under financial distress, the Center sold off parts of Solana’s vast grounds before ultimately moving its headquarters to the University of California Santa Barbara campus. For the next decade, the Center operated at UCSB before merging with the Los Angeles based Institute for National Strategy.
At the end of his 1981 book, Court of Reason, author Frank Kelly described Solana, her beauty, and her influence. “The Center had made its mark on me, as it had on hundreds of people who entered the sunlit conference rooms on Eucalyptus Hill to wrestle with the agonies of the world. The beauty of the place aroused guilt in some of the scholars who were there, and jealousy in some of the visitors who thought it had too much splendor. A visitor asked me once, ‘What did you ever do to deserve this?’ No answer seemed possible.”
After years of neglect and degradation, Solana approached the 21st century vulnerable and in chaos. What began as a grand estate, a study in elegance, was in an agonizing state of disrepair.
In desperate need of a benefactor, Solana’s fortunes turned, when in 1999 the knoll top estate was purchased by Bill and Sandi Nicholson. Under their stewardship, Solana embarked on an era of remarkable reformation. The Nicholson’s vision for Solana was brought to life by an exceptional alliance. Noted architect, Don Nulty, master builder, Rick Heimberg, and renowned designer, Joan Behnke worked faithfully for years on Solana’s meticulous revival.
Together, the Nicholsons, Nulty, Heimberg and Behnke created a composition that ushers the beauty of Underhill’s original design concept into the 21st century with modern technology and amenities. The result of this remarkable partnership not only resurrected a historic residence, but ultimately elevated Solana to one of the defining estates in the nation.
Solana’s materials and artwork are sourced from every continent; many of her detailed finishes were originally fabricated centuries ago. Both as a show-piece and showcase, Solana stands today as a true amalgamation and tribute to some of the finest artisans the world has known.