Celebrating Women's History: Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker
February 28, 2019
by Robyn Carmichael
This article originally appeared in the March edition of Seascape.
What’s in a name? Simply, the history of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Southern California. The life of Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker spanned the decades of the Californios and their vast land grants, the U.S.-Mexican War, the Gold Rush, Statehood, the early growth of Los Angeles and the formative years of Santa Monica and the Westside. Her generosity, vision and astute business sense helped shape Santa Monica and the surrounding area that we know today.
She was born in 1825 into the Bandini Family, one of the most prominent California families, whose vast ranchlands spread from San Diego through Riverside and San Bernardino. At age 14, Arcadia, with her significant dowry, entered into an arranged marriage with Abel Stearns, age 43, whose shipping and other commercial enterprises made him one of the wealthiest men in California. Stearns died in 1871, leaving his entire fortune of land and money to Arcadia, by then in her 40s.
In 1875, the same year that Santa Monica was first planned out, the widowed Arcadia married Colonel Robert S. Baker, business partner of Senator John P. Jones, the founder of Santa Monica. Arcadia and her husband divided their time between their Los Angeles residence in the ornate Baker Block and their home on Ocean Avenue, known as Ocean Cottage.
By 1879, Arcadia, wealthy in her own right, bought out her husband’s land and business holdings, and with Baker’s death in 1894, expanded her business partnership with Senator Jones to establish the Santa Monica Land and Water Company, which subdivided and developed 50,000 acres in West Los Angeles.
Arcadia also embarked on numerous projects of civic importance. In 1887, she and Jones donated six acres in Rustic Canyon for the nation’s first forestry experimental station, a project of Abbot Kinney. In 1888, she and Jones deeded extensive land in West Los Angeles to establish a National Home for Disabled Soldiers and Sailors, now known as the Veterans’ Administration.
In the 1890s, she and Senator Jones were responsible for the donation of the land we now enjoy as Palisades Park. She also donated land to local churches, parks, schools and clubs.
Throughout this time, she maintained her principal home on Ocean Avenue, where she conducted her business and social life, hosting frequent salons. She was reported to never have spoken English but conducted all conversations in her perfect Castilian Spanish, with an interpreter always present. Her neighbor and business partner Senator Jones, along with his wife Georgina (who was a great friend of Arcadia’s), lived just one block to the north at Miramar, the Jones’s estate.
Arcadia lived to the venerable age of 85, dying in 1912, the same year as Senator Jones. She left an estate valued between $8 million and $15 million, but no will and no children led to a famous court battle over her estate – the largest ever probated in California.
A big thanks to Margaret Bach and the Landmarks Commission for their time and effort to share this story with the community.