Cristal's Blog


November 2, 2023

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John Kelsey's legacy lives on through his work and his unique approach to design. He left an indelible mark on our fine city, with his innovative and boundary-pushing creations that continue to inspire architects and artists today. From his early days as a native Angeleno to his impressive architectural career marked by iconic projects, Kelsey’s is a fascinating story. Let’s take a look at his remarkable talent, legacy, and a Kelsey-designed Montecito home for sale.

A black and white photo of architects John Kelsey and Thornton Ladd looking at a document
John Kelsey and Thornton Ladd. Photo by Larry Frost courtesy of Occidental College.

Celebrated Architect John Kelsey

John Kelsey's love for architecture and the fine arts became evident during his teenage years. This early interest in form, volume, and light would remain a guiding force throughout his life, influencing his work in architecture, abstract sculpture, and painting.

Kelsey attended the University of Southern California, earning his Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1954. During his time at USC, he forged a friendship with fellow student Thornton Ladd. Their shared passion for integrated design led to their collaboration in the field of comprehensive environmental design. Together, they formed Ladd & Kelsey Architects and went on to make a lasting impact on the architecture of Southern California.

Working primarily in a modernist style, Ladd & Kelsey aspired to create a harmonious fusion of architecture, landscape, and interior. They honed their skills by tackling the unique challenges posed by private homes characterized by modest dimensions, specific locations, and constrained budgets, ultimately garnering favorable critical acclaim. Their complete mastery of design is evident in the remarkably cohesive body of their work, distinguished by a unified vision, style, and profound significance.

After Ladd & Kelsey's practice was closed, Kelsey relocated to Santa Barbara. Here, he focused on designing private homes across the Western United States. His commitment to form and aesthetics extended beyond architecture, making him a multi-faceted artist. In his later years, while living in our little slice of heaven, he pursued his interests in sculpture and painting.

Serene pond in front of the Norton Simon Museum.
Image by mark6mauno, Creative Commons

Superb Milestones

One of his most notable projects was the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, originally known as the Pasadena Art Museum. This museum, designed in the late 1960s, features a striking curvilinear exterior with mottled tiles that change color with the sun, while its curved interior walls are designed to showcase modern art. The museum's design was, and still is celebrated for its eye-catching and classic qualities, making it stand out in the Los Angeles art scene.

Another iconic project John Kelsey and Thornton Ladd created was the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts): a "mega-building" housing eight theaters, galleries, and other technical facilities. Their innovative design, allowing for flexibility in classroom configurations, was virtually unprecedented at the time. The architects’ inspiration for CalArts drew from ancient Athens, Rome, and Renaissance Europe, and this project exemplified their commitment to pushing design boundaries.

Ladd & Kelsey also lent their design expertise to a variety of other projects, including the theme park Busch Gardens in Van Nuys, First Methodist Church in La Verne (featured in "The Graduate"), Occidental College's Herrick Memorial Chapel, USC's Student Activities Complex, and Claremont McKenna College's residence towers. Their influence extended to May Co. department stores as well.

Residential Masterworks

As far as residential projects, The Kelsey House, designated a Pasadena Historic Landmark in 2005, is a masterpiece that marries classical architecture with modern interpretation. The Italian villa, originally designed to accommodate Kelsey's family of five and house their emerging art collection, exudes timeless elegance and innovation.

The Lillian B. Ladd House, a project commissioned by Thornton Ladd's mother, with a substantial budget, is the pinnacle of complexity in Ladd & Kelsey's early residential portfolio. Dubbed a "Modern Acropolis" by House & Garden, the Ladd House featured a unique blend of classical and modern design elements, with a site plan that ingeniously emerged from the site's initial limitation – a barren hilltop plateau – transforming it into the plan's driving inspiration.

Front stairs and facade of a Montecito Contemporary home at sunset.

Timeless Contemporary Montecito Estate by John Kelsey

My new listing here in Montecito is a remarkable Kelsey-designed contemporary home echoing a modern touch while reimagining the traditional contemporary style, and exemplifying enduring elegance and sophistication. The residence, situated on approximately .81 acres, features three bedrooms and three bathrooms, offering panoramic views of the majestic mountains through its expansive windows and glass doors. The house boasts a stunning living room with travertine flooring and a beautiful fireplace, and the formal dining room seamlessly flows into a gourmet kitchen equipped with custom cabinetry and top-of-the-line appliances. The primary suite is a luxurious haven, complete with a walk-in closet and an en-suite bath featuring a soaking tub and dual vanity.

Back patio of a Contemporary home frame by majestic mountains.

Glass doors lead to a private patio, providing a serene escape. The enchanting backyard has an outdoor fireplace, multiple sitting areas, and a bocce ball court. An expansive patio is perfect for al fresco dining while enjoying breathtaking mountain vistas.

As you can see, John Kelsey left an indelible mark on the Southern California architectural landscape. His journey from a native Angeleno with a passion for form and aesthetics to an accomplished architect, painter, and sculptor is an important facet of his enduring legacy. As a Montecito realtor, I am honored to showcase his work.

If you’re considering moving to Montecito or within any of our upscale communities, please contact me at (805) 886-9378 or at I invite qualified buyers to arrange a private tour of my Timeless Contemporary Montecito Estate by John Kelsey, or any of the listings on my comprehensive website.

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“It was an emotional experience selling our mother’s home in Montecito that we all loved so much but Cristal made the process easier on our whole family by guiding us through the transaction every step of the way. She knows the market so well and everything she recommended was on point including the asking price, painting, and staging the home, which looked beautiful and helped the buyer envision her new home. We sold it the first day it hit the market with an offer above asking! Cristal did an incredible job communicating with us and the buyer to ensure that the transaction would run smoothly. We highly recommend using Cristal, she was a pleasure to work with! ”

- J & A

“Cristal is a pleasure to work with! Her knowledge of the local real estate market coupled with her amazing listening skills resulted in her showing us an array of homes that were all excellent choices. Her low-pressure patient attitude made us feel extremely comfortable with the whole process. I cannot recommend her highly enough.”

- M.F.

“Cristal Clarke is #1 in her field - and you don't become #1 by luck. Cristal works harder, and longer, and with more charm and patience than any real estate agent I have ever worked with in the past; her calendar has no weekend, her days have no clocks, her only concern is selling your property as soon as possible and for the best price on the market. Am I a fan? You bet!”

- P.B.

“We have used Cristal now several times and cannot express how grateful we are for her expertise, dedication, and unwavering support throughout the entire home-buying process. Cristal is knowledgeable, patient and attentive. Her attention to detail is remarkable, and she consistently went above and beyond to provide us with all the information and resources we needed to make informed decisions. Cristal is a skillful negotiator and advocate. She can navigate complex negotiations with professionalism and grace and felt like a true partner to us in the home-buying process. Cristal has a genuine passion for real estate and a deep commitment to her clients' satisfaction. I cannot speak highly enough of Cristal and her exceptional service. She is a true expert in her field and her dedication to excellence, combined with unwavering support is the reason we choose to work with her for all our real estate buying needs.”

- T.C.

“Cristal is a top-notch realtor who sold my home before it ever went on the market. I had two competing offers that enabled me to get top dollar for my home. Not only is Cristal superb but her team is extraordinary. I cannot say enough about Cristal and her team. They are simply phenomenal, the consummate professionals, who took care of every possible detail, making the sale and transition period, smooth from our end. They are also lovely, caring people, who knew all the right professionals, to get the job done. Thank you, everyone!”

- D.R.

“I could list lots of cool adjectives to describe Cristal. All good by the way. But, that is not why I or anyone should hire Cristal. My reason for hiring her, which proved to be correct, is very simple. She got the job done. And, she does it time and time again and with zero issues. And, that is why she is one of the top agents in the country. End of subject. ”

- M.A.

“Working with Cristal was a complete pleasure. Cristal was extremely patient with us as we evaluated nearly 2 dozen homes over a span of 2 years. Her knowledge of the market is unmatched. Cristal provided us with exceptional counsel as we evaluated opportunities and negotiated pricing. The closing process was handled thoroughly and efficiently. We could not be happier with our purchase and even more happy to now call Cristal our friend.”

- D.K.

“Cristal Clarke has conducted numerous real estate transactions for me beginning 13 years ago with the purchase of a Lemon Ranch. She has handled both large and small purchases and sales with equal dedication. As a negotiator, you can’t find anyone better. Her transactions are always conducted in the most appropriate and professional manner. Cristal has considerable knowledge of the Santa Barbara market.”

- S.N. Decker Ph.D.

“Living in Europe, we were to say the least, unaccustomed to the nuances of Real Estate acquisition in California and Cristal steered us through the process with absolute professionalism and personal attention to detail at every turn. Her in-depth knowledge of the market place combined with enthusiasm and drive was the only reason we secured the property of our dreams and will be forever grateful. If you are looking for personal discrete and private representation of the highest quality we suggest you look no further than Cristal Clarke.”

- Johan and Paula van den Berg

“Cristal is very straightforward, cheerful, helpful, professional and trustworthy….we felt very lucky to work with her.”

- John and Lacey Williams

“After considering our many choices, we are grateful it was Cristal Clarke of Sotheby’s International who represented the sale of our Montecito cottage. We are familiar with Cristal’s reputation of hard work and dedication to clients, but it was her attention to detail that made our experience so positive. She offered suggestions for staging the property, worked in harmony with potential buyers and was even able to secure back up offers. The sale of our cottage was completed much sooner than we expected, due in great part to Cristal’s professional skills and support. We highly recommend Cristal as a first choice for anyone needing representation with real estate.”

- Michael & Nancy Lee

“Our experience in working with Cristal Clarke resulted in the successful and discrete acquisition of a property which was not yet on the open market. Her knowledge of the Montecito/Santa Barbara area and vast expertise blended with her passion for real estate and architecture, provided us with the very highest level of professionalism and personalized services. Cristal exhibited a rare combination of excellent communications, attention to detail, creativity and patience.”

- Richard and Catherine Frinier

“Cristal really breaks the mold. She knows every nook and cranny of this real estate market, understands value, and follows up on everything, all the time. She was incredibly patient with our two year quest to find the perfect house. Every house hunting trip from across the country was well planned, and our time was never wasted. On top of her professionalism and expertise, she is delightful to spend time with. We are thrilled with the home we purchased, and grateful to Cristal for so wisely advising us through this process, right through to the close and beyond.”

- Laurie Siegel

“We met Cristal first in the course of renting a winter home (for three years), then buying a house using her as our agent. She was amazingly good at listening to our wants and showing us homes that fit our needs. Her mastery of the paperwork was perfect. Most importantly, there was never a situation where we doubted her straightforwardness or integrity. If we do another real estate transaction in Montecito (which I doubt, we’re happy with what we purchased), without question we’d use Cristal again.”

- Ken Saffir

“Susan and I just want to thank you for your efforts in the sale of our home. You are really quite amazing. Your competence, persistence, optimism and humor made the entire process effortless. Every problem that arose, you somehow fixed; any obstacle, you overcame. We have bought and sold many homes. It has never been such a painless and enjoyable process!”

- Michael & Susan Marquart

“A little something about “our” realtor, Cristal Clarke. My wife and I came to Santa Barbara about fifteen years ago looking for a seasonal home from which to enjoy the weather and amenities of the central coast. Being in the real estate business myself I was familiar with agents and brokers so entered the market with open eyes. We “flipped” a few houses in the early years, dealing with various agents and finally ended up in Montecito. That’s when good fortune put us together with Cristal. To say we were impressed is to put it mildly. Cristal really knows the market. She is familiar with the area, its history and trends. When we have questions about a particular property she either has the answers immediately or gets back to us by phone or email. There is no waiting or wondering with Cristal. She is an agent who is “on top of it.” Her recommendations as to price points, contractors, inspectors and title agents have proven to be exceptional, showing great insight and the highest professional standards. We consider ourselves exceedingly fortunate to say that Cristal Clarke is our realtor and would recommend her services to any serious buyer or seller.”

- Rob & Judi Kelch