[Noozhawk’s note: One in a series. Click here for previous columns.]
El Presidio de Santa Bárbara has weathered many storms since its founding on April 21, 1782, and the 21st century brought plenty more with it, with the dot.com meltdown, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Great Recession and, now, the COVID-19 crisis.
In spite of the daunting early challenges, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation was positioned better than a lot of nonprofit organizations by having its assets split between the stock market and earned income from property rentals.
Thus, SBTHP was able to continue to the next phase of presidio reconstruction known as the Northwest Corner Project. But the economy eventually would catch up to SBTHP with this project.
For me, the highlight of the outset of the 21st century at SBTHP was this rebuilding of the northwest corner in the 100 block of East Canon Perdido at Santa Barbara Street.
This area of the presidio had four rooms with low backyard garden walls and a 10-foot defense wall about 165 feet in length. This extensive section of the wall represented about a tenth of the actual defense wall the Spanish originally built.
I repeat what I said in an earlier column that our taking on the task of rebuilding the presidio with modern machinery (mixers, tractors, trucks) was hard enough in itself, because one still had to bend over and knead the mud in the adobe forms and then lift each dried 55-pound brick in place by hand up on the wall. This project required more than 20,000 adobe blocks, a monumental feat.
Tim Aguilar was still making the bricks, and archaeology was required to clear accreted soil. Not nearly as many intact foundations were found, as much of them had been scraped away for a parking lot by a previous owner.
Therefore, we depended on a 1788 ground plan prepared by Capt. Felipe Antonio de Goicoechea, the presidio’s second comandante, to help define the original rooms.
In addition, we located foundations of a room not on the plan that had been built sometime after 1790, we assumed. We did not include a corner bastion, because archaeologists did not find one, and some documentary evidence indicated it may have been removed in the 1790s, when the defense wall was moved to accommodate the lengthening of the Presidio Chapel.
By 2005, the plans had been drawn and Channel Coast Corp. was on board again as the contractor, using some of the workers of former construction supervisor Kenny Ruiz for the project.
Then came the question of how to fund it. I suggested we apply for an Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act federal highway grant from the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. I based the suggestion on a historical preservation section in the original law that authorized funding for projects with freeway signage directing visitors to a site, as ours did.
How the Santa Barbara Presidio got that sign in the first place is an interesting story, but suffice it to say it took two years of lobbying Caltrans to make it happen. The bottom line: We were eligible for a grant, and then-SBTHP board president Richard Oglesby and I were able to successfully make our case.
That grant funded the first two rooms of the Northwest Corner Project, along with a new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant entranceway. The Channel Coast Corp. crew did its typical first-rate work.
We then turned to private sources and were able to arrange a lunch meeting with Jon and Lillian Lovelace. At lunch, seated at the next table by chance, was then-county Supervisor Susan Rose, who had worked closely with Lillian Lovelace at the Santa Barbara Arts Council (whose office had been located in El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park). I had served as Rose’s representative on the county’s Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission.
The stars were aligning, and the next day the Lovelaces had their foundation send us a grant that funded the next two rooms.
After that, the Hind Foundation of San Luis Obispo funded the installation of the foundations and concrete pylons that were needed to protect the defense wall seismically.
Then, you might say we hit a severe (adobe brick) wall: the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and fundraising lagged. Finally, a Development Committee member forcefully and successfully argued at a board meeting that SBTHP draw from its cash reserves to finish the wall.
That draw would help us finish the project in time for the upcoming 50th anniversary of SBTHP in 2013 and, as it turned out, for the second visit of Spain’s Prince Felipe, now King Felipe VI, in November of that year. The wall was finished, and we even started to plan for the next phase of presidio reconstruction in 2014.
In these Noozhawk columns, I have not covered the many fine exhibitions undertaken at the presidio and Casa de la Guerra. I couldn’t cover those in several columns, but I will at least mention one that was the first show we did in first two rooms of the presidio’s rebuilt northwest corner.
The main subject of this exhibition was something called “Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis,” or INAA How could something so scientifically obscure end up a semi-permanent exhibition at the presidio?
The title of this exhibition was “Ceramics Rediscovered: Science Reshapes Understanding of Hispanic Life in Early California.” We did not say at the outset how long we would keep it but, fortunately, it stayed up for five years from 2009 to 2014.
INAA is a scientific method of measuring and determining chemical make-up, and it was applied to trying to better understand the history of ceramics in Spanish California. No need to explain here the actual scientific process, but it could and did provide accurate chemical make-up of all the ceramics from 18th-century Spanish California that the principals of this project could get their hands on.
There were a lot others involved, but this exhibition was the brainchild primarily of five people: Anthropologist Russell K. Skoronik; Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Ronald Bishop and research chemist M. James Blackman; then-SBTHP archaeologist Mike Imwalle, who is now associate executive director of cultural resources; and master potter Ruben Reyes.
Their primary goal was to identify the sources and types of Spanish California ceramics. Before they ever got to this exhibition, they spent years researching and publishing on the subject.
Perhaps the Smithsonian’s involvement and support help raise this interpretive event to the level of world class. Maybe it was the variety and the talent of people leading it. Or maybe it was the excitement of our first show in our newly reconstructed adobe rooms.
The bilingual exhibition included panels with text, photos, and museum cases with artifacts and replica pieces. Part of the exhibition featured Reyes and Imwalle building a replica kiln outdoors. Over the course of several years, schoolchildren learned how ceramics were molded and fired, and learned about glazing, with lead and tin.
One of the great outcomes was that many of the replica pieces fired in the kiln ended up as part of the permanent display in the comandancia and in the store at Casa de la Guerra.
Basically, one of the fundamental points made was that pottery manufacturing was widespread throughout Spanish California. Glazed and unglazed ceramics were made at almost every mission and presidio. While majolica pottery, or tin-glazed ceramics, came from Mexico by trade, most of the earthenware was made by local Spanish craftsmen and Indians.
In one of the publications on the exhibition, the authors mention that the fabrication of replicas provided researchers and the general public a clearer picture of the sophistication of California’s colonial potters.
In fact, that statement is a microcosm of the whole idea of the presidio reconstruction — i.e., providing the pubic with a physical representation of a Spanish fort on the 18th-century California frontier. It’s the only one being rebuilt and its importance grows with each new section that is reconstructed.
Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis opened doors to the past, and the “Ceramics Rediscovered” exhibition ended up one of the finest displays at the presidio during my time at SBTHP. It was definitely world-class.
— Jarrell Jackman is the former executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. After receiving his Ph.D. in history from UC Santa Barbara, he taught for six years in Europe and Washington, D.C. In 2015, he was honored as a knight of the Royal Order of Isabel la Católica by Spain’s King Felipe VI and was named an honorary state park ranger by the California State Park Rangers Association in 2016. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.