[Noozhawk’s note: Second in a series called Reimagine: Santa Barbara, a Noozhawk special report produced in partnership with Shared Mission Santa Barbara and KEYT News. Over the next several weeks, the series will trace the founding and evolution of downtown Santa Barbara, dive into the challenges we’re confronting today, explore the exciting opportunities in front of us, and take a look at what’s happening with downtowns in other communities. Throughout the series, we’ll be asking you to help us identify priorities and form a vision for State Street’s future.]
Santa Barbara’s downtown looked like a lot of other downtowns in the early 20th century, but everything changed after the 1925 earthquake that devastated the community.
Civic leader Pearl Chase and the Plans and Planting Committee of the Community Arts Association had advocated Spanish-style architecture for years.
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When the quake laid waste to hundreds of brick and wood buildings on State Street that fateful June morning, the group got its chance to guide the rebuilding of the city with a more uniform architectural approach.
The group’s objectives had been boosted when Santa Barbara created a Planning Commission in 1923 and an Architectural Board of Review in 1925, before the earthquake struck.
Confronted with a massive rebuilding effort, city leaders embraced the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style and hired architects to draw up designs, said Dave Davis, the city’s retired Community Development Department director.
The city created El Pueblo Viejo historic district guidelines in 1960 to solidify the use of Spanish Colonial Revival and early California architectural styles, and formed the Advisory Landmarks Committee to protect landmark-status buildings.
In the 1960s, the Architectural Review Board and Landmarks Committee were “getting into tiffs of the appropriate degree of Spanish Colonial style that had to be forced upon downtown,” Davis noted.
“When I first got here in the late ’70s, a property downtown had to go before the ABR and also through the ordinance at the Landmarks Committee,” he explained. “One would say, ‘Hey, that looks good,’ and the other says, ‘No, it doesn’t.’”
People frequently appealed projects to the City Council, so the city put the Historic Landmarks Commission in the city charter and voters later gave it design review authority within landmark districts, including El Pueblo Viejo and landmarks themselves, Davis said.
Santa Barbara’s El Pueblo Viejo ordinance governs architectural style within the district. Its boundaries include the “historic core” of the city, downtown and, after a 1993 expansion, the Santa Barbara Mission neighborhood and both sides of Cabrillo Boulevard on the waterfront.
Within the district, any alterations “shall be compatible with the Hispanic tradition as it has developed in the city from the later 18th century, with emphasis on the early 19th century ‘California Adobe’ and ‘Monterey Revival’ styles, and the ‘Spanish Colonial Revival’ style of the period from 1915 to 1930,” according to the design guidelines.
Because of the inclusion of coastal areas, several recent projects outside the downtown core had to conform to the Spanish style and undergo Historic Landmarks Commission review, including the Santa Barbara Inn renovation on East Cabrillo Boulevard at Milpas Street and the Hotel Californian construction on Lower State Street, Davis said.
Pearl Chase’s Lasting Vision
Chase was born in Boston in 1888 and moved to Santa Barbara as a child. She graduated from Santa Barbara High School and UC Berkeley, and then earned a certificate from Santa Barbara Normal School, the forerunner of UC Santa Barbara, so she could teach secondary school.
A passionate advocate for many causes, Chase is best known for championing the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style that became widespread after the 1925 earthquake, and spearheading the preservation and reconstruction of the Santa Barbara Presidio.
She was also involved in founding the local chapter of the American Red Cross, the Santa Barbara Council of Christmas Cheer — which later became Unity Shoppe — and the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, among other organizations.
Chase was an ardent advocate for historical preservation, parks and public health. She never ran for public office, but did serve on the city’s Advisory Landmarks Commission.
She died in 1979 at age 90, and is buried in the Santa Barbara Cemetery.
Residents still invoke her name when opposing a new project or promoting restoration.
Chase Palm Park, which stretches along both sides of East Cabrillo Boulevard on the waterfront, has a plaque depicting Chase and her brother, Harold Chase, “Honoring a sister and brother whose many contributions to Santa Barbara’s beauty and welfare included establishing this park.”
The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation was founded by community members in 1963, and Chase bequeathed her estate to it upon her death, said Jerry Jackman, the Trust’s retired director.
The organization’s mission is to preserve and reconstruct the Presidio and other historic sites.
Rebuilding is a long process, with archaeological and historical research, architectural design, and then getting approval from California State Parks and the city, Jackman said.
And then there’s the fundraising, he added.
Since Jackman arrived in the 1980s, the Trust has rebuilt about a third of the Presidio at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park and restored Casa de la Guerra.
Another of Chase’s passion projects was preventing apartments being built in what is now Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, at 1500 Santa Barbara Street, said architect Steve Dowty, board president of the nonprofit Pearl Chase Society.
Chase also fought to restore Franceschi House, which has fallen into disrepair after it was donated to the city in the 1930s. The Pearl Chase Society, created in the 1990s, is still working to preserve the house, Dowty said.
“I think we may be able to save it in some way,” he said.
Founding society member Kellam de Forest leads the preservationist committee and watches design review agendas for anything that would have an impact on historical and landmark buildings, Dowty added.
The struggle of balancing new development with historic preservation and neighborhood compatibility is frequently on display in Santa Barbara. One recent example is an apartment project at 800 Santa Barbara St. — across the intersection from the Santa Barbara Historical Museum — that has drawn the ire of several preservationist groups.
The Pearl Chase Society is one of the organizations that appealed the approval of the 23-unit project, which is being proposed under the city’s Average-Unit Density Incentive Program.
The Historic Landmarks Commission backed the project on a 4-3 vote in August.
The Pearl Chase Society usually focuses on donations to historical preservation projects, but this development caught its attention because of the sensitive neighborhood, Dowty said.
In addition to the proximity to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, the parcel is one block from El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park. It also is adjacent to Anacapa School, which has been a school site since 1893 and claims the origins of both UCSB and Santa Barbara City College.
Jackman called it a “terrible project” for its proximity to the Presidio.
“If you’re going to slap a big apartment building right in the most historic district of Santa Barbara, then nothing is holy,” he said.
About This Series
Noozhawk’s Reimagine: Santa Barbara project is exploring the challenges and opportunities in downtown today, and will be working with you, our readers, to identify priorities and form a vision for State Street’s future.
It’s not just about shopping or dining, but finding out what locals want for the next generation of State Street and the downtown experience.
Should the city incentivize more housing projects in the downtown core, or get into the development business itself? Should business organizations work with property owners to curate more locally owned stores?
How can stakeholders work together to come up with innovative solutions for large properties like Macy’s in Paseo Nuevo and Saks OFF 5TH, which is vacating its store on State and Carrillo streets when its lease is up in the spring?
Have an idea? Have questions? Join the conversation in our reader-engagement platform, Noozhawk Asks.
Next Up: What’s Going On Today?
— Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.