P.M. has a dining table with 14 chairs that her brother in Santa Barbara suggests is from a historic Montecito estate. The date under the chairs is "1930" along with a name, "J.W. Wyllie." The set is huge! Without the leaves, the table is 44 inches by 96 inches; the leaves are 44 inches by 24 inches. Fourteen chairs fit comfortably around the table. The top has a copper-colored mirror insert, banded in copper about 12 inches deep. P.M. paid a hefty amount for the set in 1993 and would like to sell it, but has little idea of its history.
I can tell P.M. a few salient details about the style and its family. The stretchers on the table base are carved cactus leaves, and the finials on the chairs are little cactus flowers. Cactus flowers accent the stretchers. The set has a slight "pickled" tone, distressed, made to look like it belongs in a rugged ranch.
In the 1930s, especially in places like Santa Barbara after the 1925 earthquake, Spanish Colonial reigned. The style was drawn, in large part, from Bertram Goodhue's architectural designs, widely published throughout California, for San Diego's Panama-California Exposition in 1915. This style actually had two waves: the first, based on archaic idioms, and the second, geometric idioms filtered through a Deco lens.
Santa Barbara has two relevant examples of the first wave: the 1906 J. Waldron Gillespie estate, El Fureidis, and 1915 Dater-Wright Luddington estate, Dias Felices-Val Verde. Then, throughout the later 1920s, Goodhue's Spanish Revival style was colored by his tour through Egypt, Persia and the Arabian Peninsula, leading to the exotic gardens at El Fureidis. Later, Goodhue's Mediterranean Revival and Egyptian Revival architecture was seen in the Los Angeles Public Library, completed after Goodhue's death in 1926. Goodhue was the bridge between the classical Spanish Colonial and the next wave, tinged by Deco.
In the 1930s, this style was a synthesis of a simple form (notice the geometric form of P.M.'s set) with regional themes (for example, the cactus). This more modern idiom, fanciful and anachronistic, was called "California Rancho," a subset of American Art Deco. The secret to understanding American Art Deco is its basis in a concept: a concept of what a Rancho would have been or a concept of a streamlined train. The "Rancho" hybrid was Santa Barbara's entry into modernism via the door of revivalism.
In the 1930s, California Rancho furniture began to popularize in the West. Furniture makers like Monterey Furniture mass-produced straight-lined forms in pickled woods with bands of painted Spanish flowers, bold turned legs, accented with themed (like horseshoe-shaped) hardware. Mason Manufacturing Co. of Monterey, Calif., created Rancho California furniture, handcrafted in straight lines with floral decoration, from the 1920s to 1940s. This style is hot on the market; a dresser can auction for more than $3,000. So a set so large, and so obviously made for a huge dining room, was always expensive, designed for fashionable 1930s high society in Santa Barbara.
And, yes, I did find out the set is a native.
How? By the name on the chairs: "J.W. Wyllie." John William Wyllie was born June 23, 1884, in Aberdeen, Scotland. He married Tamar Ellen White Wyllie in England in 1909. He was buried on March 31, 1950, at the Santa Barbara cemetery. His wife died in 1965 and is also buried at the local cemetery.
Now, to Hong Kong for help! A distant relative of Mr. Wyllie's, genealogist M. Cowan, who writes for WikiTree, did some research for me and discovered his ancestor lived in Hawley Heights (named after San Francisco capitalist Walter N. Hawley) in the 1920s; Hawley Heights was the original moniker for the Riviera. Looking deeper, Mr. Cowen said J.W. Wyllie appears in the 1930 U.S. Census as an upholsterer who owned a furniture business in Santa Barbara. Mr. Cowan was thrilled to find a relative in Santa Barbara who made this wonderful set, posting it to his Wyllie clansmen.
Looks like we found the Santa Barbara craftsman!
The value of the dining set, based on style alone, is more than $15,000, but its value based on it being created by a Santa Barbara artisan has yet to be determined. Made for a Goodhue mansion? Or a notable Santa Barbara family? That would greatly increase value. Pending local provenance, I await any information on its first home to determine value. Help!
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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