[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]
Thousands of Santa Barbara County residents commute past it daily, and it’s one of the nation’s top tourist attractions.
It’s the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and even after one visits multiple times, “there’s always something new to see,” said Loretta Redd, a member of the 10-year-old Courthouse Legacy Foundation, which is devoted to the preservation and restoration of the courthouse.
It’s the contrasting elements that make the courthouse such a testimony of architectural detail.
Patricia Gebhard and Kathryn Masson, the authors of the 2001 book, The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, call the historical structure a “complex arrangement of white walls, widely varying windows, loggias, galleries and ornamental and architectural details.”
The courthouse comprises four buildings that total 150,000 square feet, and the five-acre grounds cover an entire city block bordered by Anacapa, Figueroa, Santa Barbara and Anapamu streets.
Santa Barbara County handles maintenance of the grounds at the courthouse, but it has neither the funds nor artistic resources to restore the structure, said Bill Mahan, president of the board of trustees of the CLF.
Designed by architect William Mooser III beginning in 1926, the courthouse was dedicated in August 1929, replacing the smaller, Greek Revival courthouse that was damaged beyond repair in Santa Barbara’s June 25, 1925, earthquake.
The popular Sunken Garden occupies the site of the original courthouse, Mahan said.
He recalled how the influential 20th century architect Charles W. Moore, who died in 1993, called the courthouse “the grandest Spanish Colonial Revival structure ever built.”
Mahan, a retired architect, recently led a visitor on a clockwise tour of the outside of the courthouse, starting on the Anacapa Street entrance outside the main archway.
He pointed out designs atop the assorted iron light fixtures — a dragon outside the main Anacapa Street entry to the courthouse, a snake outside the Hall of Records on Anapamu Street, and, adjacent to the rear of the main arch, a crown.
At first glance, the various archways may appear similar — but nothing could be further from the truth. Take the arch above the “wedding door” at the rear of the building closest to Anapamu Street: “It gets wider as it goes up,” Mahan said.
“Their (the architects) intention was to make everything different and beautiful, and they executed this plan very well,” he said.
The wider arched doorway facing north to a tiled patio above the Sunken Garden is a popular site for weddings.
Connecting two sets of buildings are two bridges — one between the old jail and the building along Figueroa Street, and the other nearly hidden between the Hall of Records and the structure containing the main archway.
The former bridge, connecting the jail, is referred to as “the bridge of sighs,” both Redd and Mahan said.
It takes its name from a bridge in Venice, Italy, that offered prisoners there the last view of beautiful Venice before they were led back to their cells.
Santa Barbara courthouse jail inmates apparently uttered similar sighs while traversing the bridge on their way back to the jail, where many spent time in isolation in an 8-by-8-by-8-foot solid steel cell on the uppermost floor, Mahan said.
The former jail sports both a turret and tower.
Take a walk around the perimeter of the courthouse, and study all the windows. One would be hard pressed to find two that are alike, as there’s very little symmetry, Redd noted.
Perhaps less obvious is the use of tiles throughout the courthouse. From floors to the underside of beams, to window seats and benches, are pattern upon pattern of Saltillo and Tunisian tiles, seeming never to repeat from room to room, hallway to hallway.
Outside the courthouse entrance from Figueroa (the lawyers’ arched entry), the Saltillo tiles used are large, small and large again, gradually repeating along the outside wall.
“Somebody really cared” about the detail given to the tile placement, the soft-spoken Mahan said.
The Tunisian tiles used in wainscoting contain three small indentations (clay dabs) from braces used when stacked in kilns, allowing more to be fired at one time, Redd explained.
Moors would tile wall surfaces in corridors, adding a burst of color to dark interiors.
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The Santa Barbara Courthouse Legacy Foundation was founded in 2004 to fund the conservation, preservation and restoration of projects for the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Although the courthouse is a county building, the county only serves to maintain the courthouse. It does not have the necessary funds or resources to complete historic preservation or artistic conservation. SBCLF ensures all conservation, restoration and restoration projects meet federally mandated standards as a National Historic Landmark.
The foundation is embarking on a $700,000 capital fundraising campaign for the restoration of the Mural Room. The room’s 83-year-old historic paintings (a mural timeline of Santa Barbara), ornate ceilings, furniture, ironwork, lighting and draperies will be restored as part of this campaign. To date, more than half of the money has been raised, including a recent gift of $10,000 from the City of Santa Barbara. Work on the Mural Room is to begin in January 2015.
» Click here to make an online donation to the Santa Barbara Courthouse Legacy Foundation.
» Click here for more information about SBCLF.
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