Saturday, August 18 , 2018, 12:16 am | Fair 69º


Anthony Grumbine: Early Victorian Architecture in Santa Barbara

Not only did the Victorian era put in an appearance here, it's still much in evidence today

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in an occasional series exploring Santa Barbara’s distinct architectural styles.]

Walking down State Street in 1890, you would have a hard time finding a single Spanish-style building. Everywhere you looked, painted wood siding and intricate moldings would catch your eye with fanciful wooden expressions of French, English and Italian architecture. As a map of early Santa Barbara shows, little, if any, trace of the previous Pueblo/Mission era could be found.

In fact, even important Spanish Colonial adobes, such as Casa De la Guerra, were hidden behind a layer of wood siding, pretending to be Victorian, and making them appear as awkward and out-of-place as a pit-bull in a calico dress. Santa Barbara’s Victorian era had arrived.

Fashion: A Friend

As architecture historian William Morgan explains, the Victorian era ran from Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837 to her death in 1901 and includes a host of highly detailed styles. In America, the Industrial Revolution with its mass-produced nails, scroll saws and railroads to transport materials, as well as the simple and affordable building method of stud balloon framing, allowed architecture fashion to enter the realm of the common man rather than just the wealthy. Styles soon proliferated.

Fashion is Danger

Since the buildings were basically wooden boxes, their ornamentation was, for the most part, interchangeable. Victorian era houses could then be “wrapped” in any fashionable style the builder chose. This approach of mixing-and-matching various details from any Victorian style became an easy target for the next generation of architecture critics.

When Romance was Hip

In the early and mid-1800s, Victorian architecture spread throughout America in the form of Italianate, Gothic Revival, Second Empire and Stick styles. These styles were tied to the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, which was a reaction to the more formal Neoclassicism. In the United States, thanks in part to landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing’s pattern books in which he published his friend Alexander Jackson Davis’ designs, picturesque style homes spread across the nation.

Santa Barbara, being on the West Coast, was 10 to 20 years slower in changing architecture styles. This, coupled with California’s recent entrance into the United States, meant that Victorian architecture in Santa Barbara was not in full force until the mid-1870s.

Dating a Victorian

Since it is never polite to ask a 120 year-old woman how old she is, there is a simpler way to find out the age of a Victorian. As Santa Barbara city historian Jake Jacobus suggests, “look to the siding.” If the boards are extra wide (six to eight inches in profile), there is a good chance that it was built before 1872, when Stearns Wharf was constructed. Prior to the wharf, ships could not dock to unload materials, and the siding was often milled in larger pieces so it could be floated ashore. Once the wharf was complete, Santa Barbara began to use the same size siding as the rest of the country, which was much more delicate and thin.

Going Italianate

Italianate in England meant looking to the Italian farmhouse and villa for inspiration rather than the more formal city palazzo. In America, however, Italianate was diverse in its references, accepting even the formal Italian examples.

Pure Italianate is easy to recognize. Its low sloped roof, extending eaves with strong (often paired) brackets, and decorative window surrounds make it a dead giveaway. As well, Italianate houses usually have a strong front porch (often with balcony above) with classical columns or ornamented square posts. Some also have towers — a feature picked up from the Italian villa — or large square cupolas atop their roofs.

Gothic? ... Not So Much

Although very popular and prolific around the country, Gothic Revival was not as strong in Santa Barbara. This was probably due to Gothic Revival’s waning popularity by the time Santa Barbara began its building boom in the late 1860s.

Gothic Revival can be distinguished by its steeply sloped gable roof, decorative gable trim (or vergeboards) and use of the pointed arch. Its intricate gable scrollwork helped this style to become known as “Carpenter Gothic.”

Other Fashions Pose a Threat

As Santa Barbara grew, other Victorian era styles entered the scene, leveraging for their time in the spotlight. The city grew, and the styles exploded. Santa Barbara was becoming a thriving Victorian era town, and gaining prominence as a desirable California coastal location.

— Anthony Grumbine is a project designer at Harrison Design Associates, an architecture firm in Santa Barbara (as well as Beverly Hills and Atlanta) specializing in high-quality architecture in a range of styles. Harrison Design Associates is dedicated to the improvement of the field of architecture through study, education and leadership. Anthony can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >