The location of the Santa Barbara Presidio and its configuration was governed, in part, based on the Laws of the Indies decreed in the mid-1500s by Spain’s King Philip II. (Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation photo)
  • The location of the Santa Barbara Presidio and its configuration was governed, in part, based on the Laws of the Indies decreed in the mid-1500s by Spain’s King Philip II.
  • The Presidio plaza’s grid actually was designed with local weather patterns — specifically prevailing winds — in mind.
  • The Presidio’s central open space/plaza created a defined public area for soldiers, residents and visitors.
  • The Presidio features covered porticos, allowing for a shaded outdoor space.

[Noozhawk’s note: First in a four-part series on Santa Barbara’s urbanism and architecture.]

State Street, we have a problem.

As many are aware, State Street has undergone a change over the last several years. Most are recognizing that something must be done if State Street is to survive, let alone thrive. As Kris Roth, a partner at Hayes Commercial Group, remarked:

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“Despite the challenges posed by online retail and the issues making the State Street corridor less appealing and less relevant to residents and visitors, it still has a lot going for it and great potential for renewal. Both government leadership and community buy-in are essential to overcome the challenges and get the downtown area back on track.”

Fortunately for us, Santa Barbara has been blessed with an especially good set of architecture and urbanism genes, principles that will allow for both short- and long-term success without reinventing the wheel. And, oddly enough, it is not simply the 1920s Spanish architecture that holds the answers.

Throwback to the 1500s

The reason Santa Barbara is located here, is because the Chumash Indians were here first. Why is this so? Because, in the 1780s when Santa Barbara’s Presidio was first established, the Spanish Crown was operating under the Laws of the Indies originally promulgated by Philip II in 1573. This gave specific instructions to settle near existing native populations without doing them harm, and for the main purpose of spreading the Catholic faith.

But the Crown was predominantly concerned with the rule of its kingdom, while the Church through the missions was concerned with bringing Christianity to the New World. Orderly empirical growth was the name-of-the-game.

The Laws of the Indies, however, laid out practical rules for town planning that were based on the Ancient Roman first century architect Vitruvius, as well as the Renaissance theoretician Leon Battista Alberti. Rules included locating a site that takes into account topography, weather conditions, farmable land and other such considerations.

As part of the original Roman Empire, much of Spain’s architectural heritage is grounded in its Roman roots, including planning on a grid. Interestingly, the efficiency of Santa Barbara’s downtown grid is one of the main reasons officials identified the older, downtown portion of the city for increased housing and density.

What’s So Great About the Presidio?

Although it was a Spanish fort, and not simply a Spanish settlement, the Presidio contained the blueprints of what was needed for a Spanish city. Square-shaped in plan, with central entrance gate and large central plaza, the Presidio emulated the town centers as described in the Laws of the Indies.

The central open space/plaza created a defined public area, surrounded by various residences, the chapel and storage rooms. While the Laws of the Indies prescribed porticos on the perimeter of the plaza and streets for merchants to have a shaded place of commerce, the Presidio had covered porticos, allowing for a shaded outdoor space for public interaction.

A little-known fact about the Santa Barbara Presidio, is that it was one of the first presidios to have individual gardens for the soldiers’ quarters. This combination of beautiful architecture and cultivated gardens has been an integral part of Santa Barbara’s urbanism since the 1780s!

Santa Barbara’s First Tourism Rating

Tourism ratings are important, as the Downtown Santa Barbara organization and others have pointed out. And Santa Barbara has, for the last 225 years or so, had very good ratings. Some readers might think that all this is just a modern day, rewriting of history for a self-aggrandizing view of Santa Barbara. Well, Capt. George Vancouver would beg to differ … that is, if he were still alive.

The first European non-Spanish visitor, Vancouver traveled to Santa Barbara in 1793. The British explorer was impressed by the Presidio and surrounding adobe houses, and said that Santa Barbara’s Presidio was far above all others in neatness and cleanliness. He was also impressed by the “picturesque effect” of the Presidio above a grove of trees, the buildings’ good quality of construction, and the neatness and cleanliness of the white walls and bright red roof tiles.

Green Architecture, 1700s Style

Sustainable architecture is nothing new. In fact, most architecture pre-World War II was pretty sustainable. In the “Old Days,” it was not easy to overpower nature with mechanical systems, so most buildings had to be designed with the local climate and local materials in mind.

This was the obvious starting point in our Presidio and Mission Era architecture. Thick adobe walls helped keep temperatures cool during hot days, and released heat at night.

In addition, building materials were predominantly locally produced, and construction methods tended to have a much longer lifespan, with a portion of the Presidio being the second oldest wall in all of California. As Mike Imwalle, archaeologist for the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation commented:

“Soil for the adobe bricks, stones for the foundations and clay for the roof tiles can all be procured from the foundations trenches. Arunda donax or Giant Cane can be harvested for sheathing from nearby Arroyo Burro Creek, and pine timbers were cut from the Santa Ynez Mountains to the north. Even the iron oxide stain used to treat exposed wood is derived from the soil on-site.”

In all, there is much to learn from Santa Barbara’s historic building methods and urban roots.

5 Takeaways from the Early Spanish Era

» Gardens matter. Be like the first inhabitants of the Presidio, say “yes” to organic urban gardens.

» Tourism matters. Be like the first inhabitants of the Presidio, take such great care of your city, that visitors write-home about your architecture’s cleanliness and beauty.

» Merchants matter. In our Mediterranean climate, shaded public porticos are great for public interaction, and for public market-like spaces.

» Traditional urbanism matters. Santa Barbara was built on great principles of urbanism, which should be respected and continued.

» Future generations matter. Build for the long term using materials and designs that will last, rather than simply the latest fad.

Anthony Grumbine is an architect and principal at Harrison Design, a Santa Barbara architecture firm with offices across the country specializing in high-quality architecture in a range of styles. He sits on Santa Barbara’s Historic Landmarks Commission and is active in a range of programs that promote the understanding and appreciation of architecture. Anthony can be reached at The opinions expressed are his own.