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Anthony Grumbine: Why Is Santa Barbara So Beautiful?

From the Presidio Era to the Craftsman, Santa Barbara is all about style. First in a series

Much of Santa Barbara’s architectural roots can be traced to the Presidio Era, exemplified by El Presidio de Santa Barbara, 123 E. Canon Perdido.

Much of Santa Barbara’s architectural roots can be traced to the Presidio Era, exemplified by El Presidio de Santa Barbara, 123 E. Canon Perdido.  (Marc Compton photo / Harrison Design Associates)

By Anthony Grumbine, Harrison Design Associates |

[Noozhawk’s note: First in an occasional series exploring Santa Barbara’s distinct architectural styles.]

Beautiful cities don’t just happen. Like a fine wine, a good city starts with careful planning, grows and matures with thoughtful and knowledgeable care, and with time, eventually shows its full depth to those lucky enough to live its experience. Such is the case with Santa Barbara.

Founded on principles that date back to ancient Rome, blessed with a beautiful and tranquil climate by nature, and developed by patrons and architects with distinguished taste, Santa Barbara’s charm is anything but accidental. To understand the Santa Barbara we see today, it helps to “look at the big picture” to understand how the city came to be.

The Spaniards Arrive

The Spaniards first established the Presidio (much of which is being reconstructed on Canon Perdido today) in the 1780s amid a thriving Chumash settlement, explained Kathryn Masson, author of Santa Barbara Style. They used Spain’s Laws of the Indies, which contained many town-planning principles from the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, to establish the framework for the political, social and economic laws of the town.

A short visit to the current Presidio will make obvious the Spanish architecture roots of these first buildings. Plaster walls, red-tile roofs and heavy timbers are clearly Spanish in origin, but their strong and abstract forms reveal the simple building methods and skill level of the builders. This rugged charm of the Presidio Era plays a major role in the romantic roots of Santa Barbara’s architecture.

This 1890 Victorian at 36 W. Valerio St. is now the Cheshire Cat bed-and-breakfast.
This 1890 Victorian at 36 W. Valerio St. is now the Cheshire Cat bed-and-breakfast. (Marc Compton photo / Harrison Design Associates)

Victory of the Victorian

The next change in Santa Barbara’s architecture came in the 1850s. California, by then a state, became a major destination for Anglo settlers who brought their culture and architecture west. Santa Barbara was “Victorianized.” Intricate and eclectic Italianate, Gothic and Queen-Anne style Victorian houses sprang up around the ever-expanding city. By the late 1800s, the town had become an ever-expanding sea of delicate wood structures, with very little left of its Spanish adobe architecture. Click here to view an 1898 map of Santa Barbara.

Architect Arthur Page Brown's Crocker Row House No. 1, at 2010 Garden St., is emblematic of the Mission Revival period in 1894.
Architect Arthur Page Brown’s Crocker Row House No. 1, at 2010 Garden St., is emblematic of the Mission Revival period in 1894. (Marc Compton photo / Harrison Design Associates)

Reviving the Missions

By the end of the 1800s, most of the missions across the West were in disrepair. In Santa Barbara Architecture, authors Herb Andree and Noel Young relate how California was swept by a movement to embrace its past and rebuild and repair the missions. With this renewed interest came a new style, Mission Revival. Harkening to the missions with plaster walls, tile roofs and, of course, prominent mission gables, this style took a decisive stance as it honored California’s past. A wonderful series of Mission Revival houses in Santa Barbara — and one of the earliest examples of this style — is the famous Crocker Row on Garden Street, designed by renowned architect Arthur Page Brown.

The 1911 Bentz House, at 1741 Prospect Ave., was designed by Greene & Greene in classic Craftsman style.
The 1911 Bentz House, at 1741 Prospect Ave., was designed by Greene & Greene in classic Craftsman style. (Marc Compton photo / Harrison Design Associates)

The Craft of Building

In reaction to the Industrial Revolution (think Charles Dickens), the Arts and Crafts Movement celebrated hand-made artistry.

As authors Virginia and Lee McAlester explain in A Field Guide to American Houses, when the Arts and Crafts Movement came to California, it became the Craftsman style.

Many characteristics of Craftsman architecture and furniture then influenced the styles of its contemporaries. These included the connection of interior and exterior, the hearth as the center of the home, and thoughtful, built-in furniture. Although the Craftsman period was not as prolific in Santa Barbara as the Victorian, it has, however, made a decided presence in the city.

These periods of architectural development tell the first half the story of how Santa Barbara became such a beautiful city. The next part of this series will be an overview of the Spanish Colonial Revival period, through to the present day.

— 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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