Understanding Santa Barbara Architecture

by Anthony Grumbine
Harrison Design Associates, Architects [ www.harrisondesignassociates.com ]

"I never believed the city of Santa Barbara was to be a commercial center, nor do I wish to see it become a manufacturing place. It is too beautiful to be marred by the busy hum of either. It seems well to leave here and there an oasis of beauty, where man can flee from the rattle of the dollar, where his better nature can assert itself, where his eyes can hold the beauty of earth, air, and sea, and where shop, factory and 'change' will be lacking."
Frank Sands, 1895

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Historic adobe at 924 Garden J St.

The above statement is just as true of Santa Barbara today as it was in the 1800s. In fact, most would agree that Santa Barbara is more beautiful now than it was in 1895, for it still has the serene natural beauty of the 1800s the backdrop of the mountains, the ocean, and an idyllic climate - and has added to this natural beauty with architecture that suits the lovely region and relaxed lifestyle.

With inspiration from Spain, the Mediterranean, and a variety of other regions, architects of Santa Barbara's past and present have helped to bring about one of the most enjoyable places to live in the country, if not the world.

Santa Barbara's Got Style
Although the predominant styles are Mediterranean in character, Santa Barbara has a rich and varied pallet of architecture that ranges from the intricate, lacey trim of the Victorian, to stripped-down clean planes of Contemporary architecture. However, to fully understand Santa Barbara's charming character, you must first understand its origins.

Victorian Gothic in Montecito
Design for addition by Harrison Design Associates to a Victorian Gothic in Montecito

In the Beginning... Santa Barbara's Spanish Mission Foundation
The first Spanish buildings of Santa Barbara were built in the 1780s with adobe walls and reddish-brown roof tile, and included the Presidio (a Spanish Fort), the Santa Barbara Mission (an earlier, much simpler version of what exists today), as well as small adobe houses. These early roots helped to lay the groundwork for much of Santa Barbara's architectural language. The effects of this period can be seen in later examples, such as the historic adobe on Garden Street, where the long wooden roof overhangs with adobe walls define and celebrate the paved courtyard.

From Spain to England - Santa Barbara Goes Victorian
In the 1800s Victorian architecture swept England and the United States, and was brought to Santa Barbara in the latter half of the 19th century at a time when Santa Barbara was in the midst of great expansion. The Victorian craze began. With a wide range of extravagant details, Victorian houses developed Italianate, Gothic, and French Second Empire flavors. As a result, there are many well-done examples of Victorian architecture, such as the Victorian Gothic house shown in the watercolor.

rocker Row #1- Corner of Garden and Mission Street
Crocker Row #1- Corner of Garden and Mission Street
Crocker Row #5 - Restoration perspective by Harrison Design Associates
Crocker Row #5 - Restoration perspective by Harrison Design Associates

Looking to California's Past - Mission Revival
Inspired by their Mission heritage, Californians in the late 1800s began to design in what became known as Mission Revival style. Recognizable with mission gables, bell towers, and strong plaster walls, Mission Revival was extremely popular on the west coast through the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. A wonderful series of Mission Revival houses in Santa Barbara is the famous Crocker Row on Garden Street, designed by renowned architect Arthur Page Brown. Through the efforts of their owners, these houses have been preserved or restored to their original beauty and character.

Built-Green Craftsman on the Riviera by Harrison Design Associates
Built-Green Craftsman on the Riviera by Harrison Design Associates

Artfully Made - The Craftsman
In reaction to the uniformity of machine made objects, the Arts & Crafts movement celebrated hand-made artistry. As part of this movement, the California Craftsman flourished in Santa Barbara. Many Craftsman characteristics were integrated into styles of its contemporaries. These included the connection of interior and exterior, the hearth as the center of the home, and thoughtful, built-in furniture. As a recent Santa Barbara "Built-Green" example shows, the Craftsman language works perfectly with our modern concerns for sustainability and eco-friendly living.

The Romance of España - Spanish Colonial in Santa Barbara
The most influential style in Santa Barbara is, without a doubt, the Spanish Colonial. And Spanish Colonial architecture is enchanting. Starting in 1916 (with the San Diego Expo), Spanish Colonial took California, and especially Santa Barbara, by storm. Rather than look to California's historical missions, architects looked to Spanish and Mediterranean roots for inspiration. In the hands of architects such as Winsor Soule, Edward Plunkett, and Reginald Johnson, Spanish Colonial architecture transports the visitor to another world.

Spanish Colonial House on La Vereda Lane by Winsor Soule
Spanish Colonial House on La Vereda Lane by Winsor Soule
CSpanish Colonial House on Mesa Road by G.W. Smith
Spanish Colonial House on Mesa Road by G.W. Smith

By the end of the 1920s, and thanks in great part to the 1925 earthquake and strong leadership from civic and social mover Pearl Chase, Santa Barbara was rebuilt and redesigned as a Spanish Colonial town. Former Chair of Santa Barbara's Historic Landmarks Commission and Principal at Harrison Design Associates, Tony Spann comments on the impact of Ms. Chase: "The downtown core of the city, known as El Pueblo Viejo, is a purposefully formed environment. One with strict rules, regulations and city charter controlled ordinances. Its success is a direct result of Ms. Chase's vision and commitment to our community."

Spanish Colonial architecture in general and Santa Barbara's expression of it in particular, can not be mentioned without emphasizing the importance of the great architect George Washington Smith. It is Smith's relaxed Andalusian expression of Spanish Colonial architecture that exemplifies the character of Santa Barbara. As shown in his design for the residence on Mesa Road, Smith's exterior and interior massing, detailing, and connections to the garden perfectly capture the enjoyable and refined lifestyle of Santa Barbara.

Watercolor perspective for an Italian Mediterranean house by Harrison Design Associates
Watercolor perspective for an Italian Mediterranean house by Harrison Design Associates

Bella Italia - Santa Barbara and the Italian Mediterranean
In addition to Santa Barbara's fascination with its Spanish-European roots, Santa Barbara also looked to Italy for inspiration. Although often similar to Spanish Colonial in materials and classical detailing, the Italian side of Mediterranean architecture has subtle differences such as hipped roofs, symmetrical entrances, and Roman pan-and-barrel roof tiles, which distinguish it from its Spanish Colonial counterpart. Good architects know the principles and rules for each style, and can use them in a creative manner.

1920's & 1930's Period Buildings
One characteristic of the roaring 20's, was the enjoyment of a wide variety of Period Buildings, from French Normandy, to English Country, to Medieval. With examples such as Edward Plunkett's relaxed and refined residence on Santa Barbara Street, we see patrons of fine architecture looking to a range of tastes to satisfy their residential needs.

Plunkett's English Country house on Santa Barbara Street
Plunkett's English Country house on Santa Barbara Street

Less is More - Santa Barbara's Modern/Contemporary
Clean, simple planes of wall and glass help blur the line between indoor and outdoor areas in Santa Barbara's Contemporary architecture. The garden and landscape are fully revealed and brought into the living space, allowing for easy enjoyment of the cultivated and natural beauty of the region.

The architecture of Santa Barbara, though it varies greatly in style and expression, is tied together by two key elements. The first is a Mediterranean sensibility for beauty, no matter the style of house. The second is the connection to the "Garden Room" which, as residents of Santa Barbara know so well, can be enjoyed the year round. For these reasons, Santa Barbara has been, and will continue to be, one of the most desirable places to live in the world.