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Ablitt House Stands Tall As a Towering Work of Art

The uniquely designed home in Santa Barbara has won over even those who once opposed the project.

Owner Neil Ablitt is offering free tours of his unusual abode, the Abblitt House. At 53 feet high, the home is among the tallest structures in Santa Barbara. (Lou Fontana / Noozhawk photo)

Deep down, we all want to be able to tell the naysayers, “I told you so.”

In rare instances, the words don’t even need to be uttered for the general sentiment to hang in the air.

Such is the case with the Ablitt House, by many accounts the most fantastical home in Santa Barbara. With its 20-foot-by-20-foot footprint, four single-room floors, infinitely detailed interior design and 360-degree rooftop view of the city, mountains and ocean, the house is considered a bona fide work of art by even the most vocal of former naysayers.

The Ablitt House has four single-room floors. The contractors incorporated Neil and Sue Ablitt’s love of ‘books, tile and wine’ into the design. (Lou Fontana / Noozhawk photo)

The proud owner of this narrow tower of a home at 13 W. Haley St. is native Santa Barbaran Neil Ablitt, the retired founder of Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners & Launderers a few paces away. His daughter now manages the operation.

At 53 feet high, the not-so-humble downtown abode is among the tallest structures in town, yet is oddly difficult to spot by passers-by on State Street. The skinny house is tucked into an alley behind State Street’s Velvet Jones nightclub, with only its bell-towered top peaking above the buildings on the main drag. Now, even the hotel manager who once opposed the project and the planning commissioners who denied it admit the house is a gem.

For Ablitt, it has been a long journey.

Things started OK in 2002, with the Historic Landmarks Commission, but hit a snag in early 2004. Facing opposition from the Holiday Inn Express, the Ablitt House was narrowly rejected by the Planning Commission. Ablitt appealed to the City Council, which was charmed by the design and unanimously overturned the commission’s decision. In December 2004, architect Trevor Martinson made an 11th-hour attempt to derail the project. It failed. 

In November 2005, construction crews broke ground. On Dec. 17, 2006, Ablitt and his wife, Sue, moved out of the boat they had been living in for 14 years and into the house. However, they had to sleep on floor mattresses for five months while their bed was custom-designed to fit in their bedroom.

Since its completion, the house already has won at least one national design award for the tile work.

To thank the community, Ablitt has been giving free tours of the structure, which, for earthquake safety, digs into the ground nearly as deep as it is high. In the 14 months since the house became inhabitable, about 1,500 visitors have toured the home, ascending the home’s 72 tile-decorated stairs in wide-eyed wonder.

“Around every corner, there’s a little adventure,” marveled Eva Kirkpatrick, who was taking a tour with a handful of others.

“It’s the most creative, most original house in Santa Barbara,” visitor Susan Billig said. 

In the past few months, Ablitt has channeled his inner tour guide, peppering his spiel with good-natured barbs about the naysayers and revealing his own free-spirited temperament. “The only thing we told the contractor is that we like books, tile and wine,” he likes to say. 

On the tour, Ablitt takes a modest tack, deferring all credit to architect Jeff Shelton and the handful of artists who worked on the home. “My only job has been to keep my mouth shut, sweep the alley and stay out of the way,” he says. “These guys are geniuses.”

Contractor Dan Upton said the job led to many sleepless nights, but he wouldn’t have wanted any other contractor to claim the burden. “My job is to give the house a soul,” he said. “This was an easy one, in a way, because so many good people worked on it.”

Of course, genius design and a soulful construction don’t come cheap. Initially, Ablitt estimated he could build the house for about $480,000. The actual bill was triple that amount, and it’s still climbing.

But to Ablitt, it has been worth every penny. “It’s a work of art, and a work of love,” he said.

From the beginning, the house has been a media darling. In addition to the play-by-play write-ups in local publications during the city hearings, the story caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times, which in 2004 ran a front-page story on the house. It was picked up by The Associated Press and ran in about 60 newspapers across the country. Shortly after, Ablitt got a call from the TV show Good Morning America, which wanted exclusive footage of the interior. The interior didn’t exist at the time, so the deal fell through.

Soon, the Ablitt House will be the focus of a half-hour production on HGTV (Home & Garden). Ablitt doesn’t own a television, “and I never will,” he says.

Ablitt purchased the small lot in 1984 for $6,400 – quite a deal in Santa Barbara, where land is so valuable that a small bungalow home can sell for upward of $1 million.

At the time, the lot seemed useless. For starters, it was too small. The city’s commercial-district zoning laws required that residential buildings in the downtown area be set back 10 feet from all neighboring property lines. Given that the size of Ablitt’s lot is 20 feet by 20 feet, that gave him zero room. “Technically, I couldn’t even put up a flagpole,” he says.

Plus, a severe drought had caused the city to issue a moratorium on new water connections. Without a water connection, a landowner could not obtain a building permit. But in 1987, the city held a lottery for water connections. Out of hundreds who applied, Ablitt was among about a dozen winners.

The Ablitt House is adorned with tile throughout, including 72 tile-decorated stairs. (Lou Fontana / Noozhawk photo)

A decade passed and nothing was done. In the mid-1990s, Ablitt and his wife set sail for Mexico and didn’t return for seven years. When they came back in 2001, Ablitt went to his dry-cleaning business and was bedazzled by a new development next door. It was called the Zannon Building.

Ablitt walked around the premises and happened across two strangers: Shelton and Upton. He struck up a conversation with them, complimenting the building. He told them about his tiny lot. Shelton’s first response was terse: “I’m not taking any more work.”

But when Ablitt walked the men to the site, Shelton grew animated. A wave of inspiration had come over him. The next day, he approached Ablitt with a rough sketch design.

To get around the mandatory 10-foot setbacks, Shelton made a coy move. He stuck an office in the house, thus qualifying it for “mixed use” status, meaning it was no longer strictly residential. (The city later dropped the requirement for them.)

Shelton said he was expecting city staff members to disapprove. “To my surprise, they were not only not against it, they were sort of delighted,” he said.

Still, the architect knew the staff members weren’t the deciders. It would be up to the commission and the council. Before meetings, Shelton said, “I just kept telling Neil, ‘Don’t worry about it, just keep smiling and don’t complain.’ “

As it turned out, the Planning Commission was less amused by the design. Commissioner John Jostes said Ablitt was asking for too many special favors, which in the planning world are known as “modifications.” For instance, residential homes need a yard, but this home certainly wouldn’t have one.

Then-Commissioner Bill Mahan found it unfair that Ablitt intended to build his home right on the property lines of his commercial neighbors, none of whom had expanded their structures to the edge – yet. 

Commissioner Harwood “Bendy” White thought the land could have been put to better use, maybe to build more high-density homes downtown, he said.

Now, all three say they love the finished product.

“It is extremely playful and interesting and unique,” Jostes said. “And being in the middle of the block, it’s not nearly as visible as I thought it would be.”

Mahan said it’s only a matter of time before the house becomes a local landmark. “There’s no question the architecture is a delightful thing,” he said.

Mahan, who earlier this year launched a ballot initiative to lower building-height limits to 40 feet in downtown Santa Barbara, also said he has no qualms with this particular 53-foot structure. “It’s really more like a tower – towers don’t bother me at all,” he said. “I think they bring a nice variance to the skyline.”

White echoed the praise. “It’s a remarkable piece of craftsmanship,” he said.

However, asked if he would vote for the project now, knowing what he knows, White and Jostes declined to speculate.

White added that Ablitt one day could face the bleak prospect of watching tall walls being built mere inches away from his windows. “If I were Neil, I would probably not be happy if people came in and built to the property line all around me. I would feel hemmed in,” he said. “So we’ll see how those things unfold over time. Maybe it will never happen.”

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» on 05.27.08 @ 07:01 AM

I think Noozhawk did a fabulous job on this piece.  I took a tour several years ago and this tour is almost as satisfying. After living on a boat this must seem huge. The space is well thought out.
Neil is one of the nicest people I know and I am very happy he got his dream house after all.

» on 05.27.08 @ 07:41 AM

How do you go on those tours? When are they? I’d love to see the inside of the house.

» on 05.27.08 @ 08:20 AM

I remember the flap about this place while it was being planned, but what a treasure it has become.  I’m still amazed that it was approved, but look forward to touring it myself.  One question ...

Are you sure the word you want here is “INhabitable?”

“In the 14 months since the house became inhabitable, about 1,500 visitors have toured the home…”

The rest of the article defines it as the Ablitt’s home, which certainly makes it quite “habitable!”

Great story - and thanks to the Ablitts for sharing!  cot

» on 05.27.08 @ 10:24 AM

Jeff Shelton is a genius. Not bad at ultimate Frisbee either.

Dan Upton is a magician. Not bad at working with geniuses either.

Neil Ablitt is an inspiration. He had the faith and held on to the faith and now is reaping all the benefits.

What a beautiful building. Congratulations.—Steven Crandell

» on 05.27.08 @ 10:36 AM

This house one featured on AOL today (Tuesday) as one of about 20 houses that will make you lose weight.  Once again, Noozhawk gets the scoop on the competition.

» on 05.27.08 @ 11:37 AM

Sure, this is a nice and special fake-mixed use house now, but how can the City deny the same favors and Modifications to other applicants later?

Ablitt would have to buy an easement from his surrounding property owners.

» on 05.27.08 @ 11:20 PM

Hi Neil; I’m Don’s brother. You and Sue have every right to be very proud of this home. Since I’m 82, I would have asked for some type of easement allowing an elevator snuggling along the outside. But you probably got away with much more than any other applicant in Santa Barbara history. So hat’s off to you….Earl

» on 05.29.08 @ 12:01 PM

What a great house! One of the things that make Santa Barbara great is the rich diversity of its buildings, and its people.

Commissioners Jostes, Mahan and White should apologize publicly, and loudly. When reviewing a house that challenged their imagination, they proved unable to overcome their suburban biases. Are they wiser now?

This is one of my favorite buildings and I cannot avoid thinking that, if Santa Barbara were to lower existing height limits for new buildings, something like this would not exist. A real shame…

» on 06.03.08 @ 05:29 PM

Call me if you ever need help going down those stairs! haha. Your house looks wonderful and can’t wait to see it in person!

» on 06.30.08 @ 06:49 AM

The Christmas card came true! Chet & I are so happy for you & Sue. The house reminds us of treasures we’ve seen in Barcelona. Columbia , SC could certainly use a house like yours. I bet your granddaughter loves it. Chet says now that he’s on Medicare, he feels free to visit and POSSIBLY have a FEW drinks! Best to you both, Andre & Chet

» on 07.14.08 @ 08:35 AM

Do you know when Home and Garden TV is going to feature Ablitt house on their show?

[Editor’s note: According to, the next air times are 9:30 p.m. Aug. 28 and 1:30 a.m. Aug. 29.]

» on 08.11.08 @ 01:20 PM

I was fortunate to be staying at the Holiday Inn next door last week, and couldn’t keep my eyes off the Ablitt House. I kept asking what is that? and the doorman at the hotel didn’t seem to know. I went back and met the owner and had a brief discussion.  The craftmanship and uniqueness, and great use of space! was beautiful to see. Thanks Sue and Neil for your vision.

» on 08.20.08 @ 09:34 PM

I think the house is delightful (I saw the HGTV airing of their home)!  The Ablitts are an adventurous couple and I applaud their creative nature.  My husband and I met the Ablitts in the 90’s when they were part of a local boating group, and thoroughly enjoyed their narratives about the years they spent in Mexico, and their sailing years.  It will be interesting if we can tour their home someday.  I look forward to it.

» on 08.24.08 @ 01:45 PM

We’ve known Neil for years and he is truly a unique individual driven by a burning desire to succeed and an enduring faith in himself. He is quite innovative and very tenatious and it is no surprise to us that he accomplished the impossible, eventually secured all the necessary approvals and overcame all the obstacles, to finally get the Ablitt House built.

Well done Neil and Sue. (There’s a special woman behind every successful man).

» on 12.18.08 @ 02:04 PM

Can you tell me if tours are still possible?  I love this little folly.  Thank you. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

[Editor’s note: It probably would be easiest to call Ablitt’s Cleaners directly at 805.963.6677.]

» on 04.05.09 @ 09:12 PM

I have toured Santa Barbara as well as traveling the from Vancouver Canada to San Diego and back.  I have always enjoyed Santa Barbara, as we had relatives there, it is a beautiful city and your home just adds that much more beauty and ingenuity to an already fabulous area. Congratulations on a wonderful piece of art.

Thank you

» on 05.16.09 @ 05:45 PM

I did all of the Stain, Clears, and Paint work on this home… What a master piece built by the great artists Jeff Shelton and Dan Upton.
I have had the pleasure of working with these people whom are among the greatest I have ever worked for in my 31 years in the coating industry.
Neil Ablitt is a real person whom also is a great man.
I will again be in this house. It is like no other.
God Bless

» on 07.28.09 @ 03:54 AM

This home is delightful; its story, a testament to the human spirit; the home’s existence, an example of intelligent urban life.

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