[Noozhawk’s note: Third in a four-part series on Santa Barbara’s urbanism and architecture. Click here for the first article, and click here for the second.]
The 1920s ushered in a new architectural age for Santa Barbara. Until then, Santa Barbara resembled a standard, Victorian-era, turn-of-the-century community, with the occasional old Spanish adobe self-consciously hiding in the background.
The change, however, did not happen easily or unintentionally. Rather, it was a concerted, hard-pressed effort, accelerated by the the 1925 earthquake, to make a dramatic effect on the city.
The transformation began after the 1916 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego showcased Spanish Colonial Revival architecture on a world stage. As a result, a wave of Spanish Colonial Revival enthusiasm surged across California, especially in Santa Barbara.
Movers, Shakers and Designers
Led by Bernhard Hoffmann, Pearl Chase and including architects such as George Washington Smith, Reginald Johnson, Lutah Maria Riggs, Mary and James Craig, Windsor Soule, Edwards & Plunkett and others, the Spanish Colonial Revival movement created a vivid change to Santa Barbara.
But it wasn’t simply red clay roof tiles and a few plaster corbels that gave Santa Barbara its character. Instead, the urban DNA itself shifted.
The starting point was Casa de la Guerra. Hoffmann saw how the structure embodied the old Spanish days and added authenticity and inspiration to the new Spanish style. Symbolically, the location was ideal to transform the cityscape, since it was in the heart of downtown at 5 E. De la Guerra St. and directly across from City Hall.
Developing Your Inner Spanish Self
The strategy was simple: Use the architectural language of Spanish Colonial Revival, but also transform the entire city block by facing buildings inward and making the interior of the city block an interesting and unique Spanish city-like experience. Paseos (or pathways) and fountain-adorned courtyards in the middle of standardized square city blocks created a romantic and powerful change to the once simple Victorian-era city grid.
These shifts in urbanism also included studies of how the outside edges of the blocks could be changed. Covered arcades were proposed to provide architecturally interesting shaded walkways. Building façades were designed with seemingly randomly stepped-back buildings that allowed for mini plazas along the street frontage.
In all, a plan based on a new Spain was proposed in the early 1920s and partially realized after the 1925 earthquake.
Santa Barbara vs. Paris
If we compare the city development of Santa Barbara with Paris, we find an interesting relationship. In 1850s Paris, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann and Napoleon III cut unrelenting, rational boulevards through the old, disorganized and haphazard medieval city of Paris.
Like the perfectly regular spokes from the center of a wheel, the boulevards established central nodes offering long boulevard vistas and a Neo-Classical order through geometric regularity.
In Santa Barbara, the reverse was true.
Beginning with the uniformity and order of the square Victorian grid, Santa Barbara’s strategy was to inject a strong dose of romance, irregularity and poetics within the regular, repeated city blocks. Angled paseos with unknown and hidden passageways suddenly opened into surprising and beautiful courtyards.
Seemingly haphazard, usually unsymmetrical, and always charming, the architecture of Santa Barbara in the 1920s succeeded in creating one of the most special cities in the country, and even the world.
Built into this 1920s vision of Santa Barbara was a deeper question very relevant to our time, which was implicitly answered by the great architects from a century ago:
“How big should we build?”
The answer: “It depends.”
It depends on where your building is located, and it depends on what your building is. Following traditional design principles, buildings at Santa Barbara’s core, which in the city’s case is State Street, should be the largest.
Furthermore, the buildings of the most significance — e.g., civic, religious, etc. — should have special placement, height and prominence within these important areas.
One reason this type of density organization worked was because mixed-use (all within the same building) was built into the City of Santa Barbara’s zoning. Residences, office buildings and commercial use, usually on the ground floor, were basic principles of vibrant, purposeful destinations within the district.
This is a drastically different approach than the modern city that separates uses for everything — “Office buildings go on that side of the city, factories go over there, shopping districts go way over there, and residences go here.” — so everyone has to rely on the car to get from point A to point B to point C.
While many talk of needing to look at drastic new ideas to help solve the State Street issues, it seems the best solutions are quite the opposite and built right into Santa Barbara’s DNA.
We have perfect models of impressive, very dense and tall historic blocks with amazing paseos and enviable quality of life. We have buildings that were designed and built as mixed-use. And we have one of the greatest cities in the United States, which has lasted the hardest test of all … the test of time.
Although our city’s current challenges are formidable, the answer is simple: Ask a 1920s architect. They would tell you the answer is “staring you in the façade …”
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are his own.