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Anthony Grumbine: Early Victorian Architecture in Santa Barbara

Not only did the Victorian era put in an appearance here, it's still much in evidence today

An Italianate house with large eave brackets and window surrounds is an easy one to recognize.

An Italianate house with large eave brackets and window surrounds is an easy one to recognize.  (Marc Compton photo / Harrison Design Associates)

By Anthony Grumbine, Harrison Design Associates |

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in an occasional series exploring Santa Barbara’s distinct architectural styles.]

Walking down State Street in 1890, you would have a hard time finding a single Spanish-style building. Everywhere you looked, painted wood siding and intricate moldings would catch your eye with fanciful wooden expressions of French, English and Italian architecture. As a map of early Santa Barbara shows, little, if any, trace of the previous Pueblo/Mission era could be found.

In fact, even important Spanish Colonial adobes, such as Casa De la Guerra, were hidden behind a layer of wood siding, pretending to be Victorian, and making them appear as awkward and out-of-place as a pit-bull in a calico dress. Santa Barbara’s Victorian era had arrived.

Fashion: A Friend

As architecture historian William Morgan explains, the Victorian era ran from Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837 to her death in 1901 and includes a host of highly detailed styles. In America, the Industrial Revolution with its mass-produced nails, scroll saws and railroads to transport materials, as well as the simple and affordable building method of stud balloon framing, allowed architecture fashion to enter the realm of the common man rather than just the wealthy. Styles soon proliferated.

Fashion is Danger

Since the buildings were basically wooden boxes, their ornamentation was, for the most part, interchangeable. Victorian era houses could then be “wrapped” in any fashionable style the builder chose. This approach of mixing-and-matching various details from any Victorian style became an easy target for the next generation of architecture critics.

When Romance was Hip

In the early and mid-1800s, Victorian architecture spread throughout America in the form of Italianate, Gothic Revival, Second Empire and Stick styles. These styles were tied to the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, which was a reaction to the more formal Neoclassicism. In the United States, thanks in part to landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing’s pattern books in which he published his friend Alexander Jackson Davis’ designs, picturesque style homes spread across the nation.

Santa Barbara, being on the West Coast, was 10 to 20 years slower in changing architecture styles. This, coupled with California’s recent entrance into the United States, meant that Victorian architecture in Santa Barbara was not in full force until the mid-1870s.

Dating a Victorian

Since it is never polite to ask a 120 year-old woman how old she is, there is a simpler way to find out the age of a Victorian. As Santa Barbara city historian Jake Jacobus suggests, “look to the siding.” If the boards are extra wide (six to eight inches in profile), there is a good chance that it was built before 1872, when Stearns Wharf was constructed. Prior to the wharf, ships could not dock to unload materials, and the siding was often milled in larger pieces so it could be floated ashore. Once the wharf was complete, Santa Barbara began to use the same size siding as the rest of the country, which was much more delicate and thin.

Going Italianate

Italianate in England meant looking to the Italian farmhouse and villa for inspiration rather than the more formal city palazzo. In America, however, Italianate was diverse in its references, accepting even the formal Italian examples.

Pure Italianate is easy to recognize. Its low sloped roof, extending eaves with strong (often paired) brackets, and decorative window surrounds make it a dead giveaway. As well, Italianate houses usually have a strong front porch (often with balcony above) with classical columns or ornamented square posts. Some also have towers — a feature picked up from the Italian villa — or large square cupolas atop their roofs.

Gothic? ... Not So Much

Although very popular and prolific around the country, Gothic Revival was not as strong in Santa Barbara. This was probably due to Gothic Revival’s waning popularity by the time Santa Barbara began its building boom in the late 1860s.

Gothic Revival can be distinguished by its steeply sloped gable roof, decorative gable trim (or vergeboards) and use of the pointed arch. Its intricate gable scrollwork helped this style to become known as “Carpenter Gothic.”

Other Fashions Pose a Threat

As Santa Barbara grew, other Victorian era styles entered the scene, leveraging for their time in the spotlight. The city grew, and the styles exploded. Santa Barbara was becoming a thriving Victorian era town, and gaining prominence as a desirable California coastal location.

— Anthony Grumbine is a project designer at Harrison Design Associates, an architecture firm in Santa Barbara (as well as Beverly Hills and Atlanta) specializing in high-quality architecture in a range of styles. Harrison Design Associates is dedicated to the improvement of the field of architecture through study, education and leadership. Anthony can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).




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