Saturday, November 28 , 2015, 2:18 pm | Mostly Cloudy 63º

Courthouse Mural Room Makes Santa Barbara County’s History a Work of Art

Walls paint a vivid — if not always accurate — picture of how we got here, and Courthouse Legacy Foundation aims to preserve them for generations to come

Loretta Redd, a board member of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Legacy Foundation, never tires of talking about the Mural Room, which is a popular place for tourists and locals alike. Click to view larger
Loretta Redd, a board member of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Legacy Foundation, never tires of talking about the Mural Room, which is a popular place for tourists and locals alike. (Mike Eliason / Noozhawk photo)

By Laurie Jervis, Noozhawk Contributing Writer | @NoozhawkNews |

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]

[Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.]

Inside the Mural Room of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a handful of tourists stood around eavesdropping on Loretta Redd.

Had Redd noticed, she likely would have been more than happy to include the visitors in her discussion of the murals adorning all four walls of the iconic room.

But Redd, a member of the Courthouse Legacy Foundation, was giving a solo female guest a private tour, and both women were staring intently at the ceiling, admiring the artistry of John B. Smeraldi.

Smeraldi, born Giovanni Battista Smeraldi in Palermo, Italy, made ceilings the focus of his painting in the United States. Using the “Mudejar” style, a mixture of Spanish and Moorish, Smeraldi’s Mural Room work utilizes shiny gilt that reflects light into the darkest corners, according to The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a book authored by Patricia Gebhard and Kathryn Masson and published in 2001.

He also painted the ceilings in the Blue Room of the White House and that of Grand Central Station in New York City, Redd noted.

Members of the 10-year-old Courthouse Legacy Foundation are closing in on their capital campaign goal of $700,000, the figure needed to restore the Mural Room.

The room’s 83-year-old historic paintings depict a mural timeline of Santa Barbara’s history. The room’s ornate ceilings, furniture, ironwork, lighting and draperies will be restored as part of this campaign. Work on the Mural Room is to begin in January, and will require closing the room for four months to accommodate workers using scaffolding, Redd said.

In 2010, smoke from an electrical fire damaged the murals, which together weigh more than 1,000 pounds, Redd said. During the subsequent cleaning, docents and courthouse staff were dismayed to discover how the murals had not stood the test of time — the canvas itself, the paint and the plaster all needed repair.

The capital campaign kicked off in May 3 with an elegant dinner in the Mural Room, and the CLF raised gifts and pledges of nearly $265,000. 

The Mural Room was designed for the 1929 county Board of Supervisors as its assembly room, and supervisors used it for more than 30 years, Redd explained.

While Smeraldi did the ceiling, a fellow named Dan Sayre Groesbeck is the muralist we have to thank for the detail and whimsy he put into the murals that adorn all four walls of the Mural Room.

Groesbeck’s fanciful depictions of the human spirit reflect his spirit of adventure, which grew out of his experiences as a veteran of five wars and as a set designer for Hollywood’s early films, most notably for those by Cecil B. De Mille, Redd explained.

Redd described Groesbeck’s art as whimsical but not entirely accurate — for example, the ships are depicted in “full sail, with no anchor,” she said.

“The murals are representative (of the period) and historical, but with tremendous artistic license,” she added.

Groesbeck included Peter Pan, Robin Hood and Errol Flynn in various murals, as well as the California flag — except the grizzly bear sports a white face, as Redd pointed out, something it never has since.

De Mille brought Groesbeck to Hollywood to do “advance visualizations” for his film The Volga Boatman, wrote the authors of The Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

The artist also worked on De Mille’s The King of Kings, North West Mounted Police, Samson and Delilah and Reap the Wild Wind, as well as films for other directors.

Groesbeck’s fee for painting the was $1,000 plus living expenses, which equaled $800 in groceries, Redd said.

The Murals

In order, clockwise from rear wall (containing the entry doors), the murals are “1786 Fr. Presidente Fermin de Lasuen builds the Xth Mission at Santa Barbara after the death of Fr. Junipero Serra at Carmel.”

Depicted is the construction of the mission with scaffolding against an imposing mission tower with Native Americans toiling under the supervision of Father Lausen, the book notes.

It is on this mural that Groesbeck’s forged signature can be found – forged because he set sail for England immediately after finishing the paintings and declined to return to sign his work, Redd said.

The second wall, clockwise from the rear wall, contains the largest of the room’s murals and contains three inscriptions: “The Canolino Tribe bordering the Santa Barbara Channel were the most enlightened of the California Indians;” “Fifty years after Columbus, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo lands at Las Canoas with the Flag of Spain;” and “1602 Vth Count of Monterey sent Viscaino North, who named the Channel at Santa Barbara.”

This mural displays members of the Chumash tribe witnessing the landing of Cabrillo. Again, Groesbeck took artistic license, this time with the Spanish costumes (incorrect for the time period) and Cabrillo’s sailing vessel (not a galleon), Redd explained.

The third wall, at the front of the room, includes two inscriptions: “1822 California under Mexico visualizes another change in Sovereignty” and “1846 Fremont descends Santa Marcos Pass into the Valley of Santa Barbara.”

The book calls the murals on the fourth wall, which contains the windows, representative of the industries that boosted the California and Santa Barbara economies.

The first, “Minerals,” depicts “forty-niners” searching for gold; next is “Stock,” of the valley’s horse and cattle ranches; and the third is “Agriculture,” showing laborers harvesting a crop.

“Livestock, minerals and agriculture were early California’s way of doing business,” Redd said.

Groesbeck was not without a sense of humor: Near the northwest corner is a banner with the salutation “Salud y Pesetas” (Health and Money), and over the small door (leading to the balcony) the artist inscribed “Gracias a Dios!” (Thanks to God!), expressing thanks that he’d reached the end.

Click here for more information about the murals.

                                                                          •        •

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.

» Connect with the Santa Barbara Courthouse Legacy Foundation on Facebook.

Noozhawk contributing writer Laurie Jervis can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read her blog, Central Coast Wine Press.

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