Prior to the 1925 earthquake, height and density were steadily increasing in Santa Barbara’s downtown core. (Santa Barbara Historical Museum photo)
  • Prior to the 1925 earthquake, height and density were steadily increasing in Santa Barbara’s downtown core.
  • Taller, Victorian-era buildgings were common sights along State Street before the 1925 earthquake.
  • Damage from the 1925 earthquake caused many building owners to lower their heights.
  • The top floor of a State Street building is demolished after the 1925 earthquake.
  • A trolley provided transportation during Santa Barbara’s Victorian era.
  • After the 1925 earthquake, many downtown buildings were transformed into shorter, Spanish Colonial Revival style structures.

[Noozhawk’s note: Second in a four-part series on Santa Barbara’s urbanism and architecture. Click here for the first article.]

The tragic Thomas Fire and Montecito flash floods poignantly highlight a fact that is often overlooked: Change is a reality.

This has always been the case for Santa Barbara, as for so many other cities. Sometimes, it is caused by a political change — like when California became a state in 1850 — or by an economic boom or bust, or by natural disasters.

Up until January, the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake was the major natural disaster of the Central Coast’s modern history. The dramatic pictures of toppled State Street façades are certainly striking. The recent fire and catastrophic debris flow, however, make the photos from the ’25 earthquake seem almost minor in their devastation.

Yet in both cases, there is a movement to build back. And it is not simply about rebuilding. It is about rebuilding something even better than before. The Santa Barbara community did it a century ago and is on its way to doing it again.

“After the earthquake, leaders had the vision to make a tragic natural disaster into a rebirth of the community,” Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Das Williams said.

“If we want a safer, more beautiful and less congested future, it is imperative that we demonstrate that kind of vision.”

We need this type of sensitivity and vision to address every hurdle, whether it is recovering from the tragedies in Montecito or the revitalization of State Street.

Furthermore, in all cases the appreciation of the historic architecture and cultural landscape that have been handed down to us by previous generations is a fundamental part of planning and developing a better future.

Santa Barbara and the Anglo-Grid

The second major phase affecting Santa Barbara came with California’s transition to becoming the 31st state In 1850. It came in the form of a grid.

There is nothing like a simple square grid for efficiency and clarity. In 1851, Salisbury Haley surveyed Santa Barbara and laid out a grid. Originally, the grid stayed outside Santa Barbara’s already developed Presidio and Casa De la Guerra core.

Eventually, the grid would cut through and subdivide the Spanish heart of Santa Barbara, conforming it to the regularity of a typical American 1800s town.

Interestingly, as the City of Santa Barbara considered areas to add housing to fulfill its state requirements, the gridded areas of the city were identified as the best — and most efficient — parts. Whether horse and cart, bicycle, automobile or tram, the grid allows for efficient circulation.

The Roaring ’70s

The 1870s saw a boom and proliferation of a typical mid-1800s western town. One- and two-story buildings formed a continuous line along the newly established street grid, creating a regularized public frontage.

This was especially the case on State Street and the nearby streets, where most of the density was occurring. Wooden boardwalks were constructed in front of the buildings and storefronts were covered with classical elements, often of the Italianate variety. Stearns Wharf was built, and State Street was established as the dominant artery through the city.

Increased Density and Height

By the end of the 1800s, Santa Barbara had filled in most of its main streets with dense, Victorian-era buildings, served by a trolley on State Street. Commonly more than three stories in height and 40 feet tall, these later buildings commanded a strong street-frontage presence.

This trend continued into the 1900s, with buildings such as the Mission Revival-style Arlington Hotel (on the site of the current Arlington Theatre) rising high above the early Victorian-era buildings.

After the 1925 earthquake, many of these buildings — especially the tall ones — were heavily damaged, and some were completely destroyed. Others, such as the Californian Hotel (recently beautifully restored), the San Marcos Building and the Fithian Building, would have their upper floors destroyed, leaving a shorter surviving structure that was then refaced in the new Spanish Colonial Revival style.

The result dramatically changed the scale of State Street as the salvaged remodels were substantially shorter than the original buildings.

5 Takeaways from the Victorian Era

» Victorian Santa Barbara was really a thing. 1850-1900 shaped the city’s architecture and urbanism dramatically.

» Grid = Efficiency. Love it or hate it, the grid works and should be respected.

» Victorian Santa Barbara is really a thing. Whether as exquisite examples of Queen Anne Revival houses, or simply large State Street structures whose facades fell off in the earthquake, Victorian-era buildings are part of the city’s current urban fabric.

» They built State Street bigger. Buildings leading up to the 1920s were getting taller and denser, especially on State Street.

» Earthquake = shorter Santa Barbara. When the quake happened, many buildings had their damaged tops and whole floors removed and were simply redressed in Spanish Colonial Revival architectural garb.

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.