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Santa Barbara's Masterpiece Courthouse


The grandest building in Santa Barbara, easily, is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a building that owes its existence to a natural disaster rather than to any plan for its construction.


Its architect, Charles Willard Moore, who was clearly not a modest man, called it the "grandest Spanish Colonial Revival structure ever built." With a possible quibble over his ignoring some Moorish influence as well, it's hard to argue with his assessment. At least in my perhaps more humble opinion.

P1120896P1120897No ordinary cornerstone for this building!

Moore got the courthouse job on a rush commission in late 1925, after an earthquake in June destroyed the previous, much smaller courthouse, as well as many others in downtown Santa Barbara.

The round tower is part of the former jail wing.

The new courthouse played a key role in rebuilding the rest of the area: city officials decided that all the new construction should be in the same style, with red roof tiles and a white-washed adobe look. Santa Barbara's famed 'colonial' downtown is not a survival of centuries, but a recent choice that has worked well for its tourism industry!

P1120920P1120917Santa Barbara and Moore were lucky in the timing of the earthquake: It was a prosperous moment, the city was growing and civic pride was swelling. If the earthquake had waited a few years longer, the Depression would have halted or prevented the construction, but the new building, really a four-building complex, opened months before the crash.

The clock tower has an elevator allowing visitors an elevated view of the city

I met and fell in love with the courthouse last spring while on a two-week road trip from north of Sacramento down to San Diego. I got to Santa Barbara mid-afternoon on an unusually warm day, collected a city sights map from the visitor center, and headed to it. My first discovery was the pleasant sunken garden with lawns and palms that occupies the footprint of the old courthouse. A great place for a snack, a break and ready to explore.


One of the things I found most attractive about Moore's complex is his rejection of symmetry in most elements. Left and right are not the same, as these pictures show, but are always in balance. Each side has similar forms and different decorative elements.


And speaking of decorative elements, the budget must have been generous, judging by the profusion of castings and carvings!


Similar attention to other decorative elements as well, including these lanterns and the lovely lettering of the signs, which reflect colonial styles seen elsewhere. The courthouse complex has had a lot of renovation over the pasit decade, which has left it looking sharp and fresh, signs included.


Sadly, when I was there in March, the interior areas were closed to the public because of Covid, but a sympathetic security officer allowed me this little taste of a lobby area; I definitely want to go back for more!


The inscription in English on the arch below is matched in Spanish on the main arch, and is from Latin: "God gave us the country; the skill of man hath built the town." Taken in the context of colonialism and later issues, it is, at the very least, a sentiment that calls for some thinking.


The walking tour maps of Santa Barbara (available online and at the Visitor Center near Stearns Wharf) start or end, your choice, at the Courthouse and include the historic center of the city including the Presidio. There is so much to see around the Courthouse and nearby library that I'd suggest taking your time one day, especially when the interior is open, and leaving the rest for another.


Here's more on the downtown History Walk in a previous TravelGumbo blog.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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