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Looking for some historical perspective behind one of Southern California’s most picturesque seaside cities? Assistant Editor Melanie Wynne takes you to Santa Barbara for a tour of the past and the present.
A graceful wave of palm-dotted hills sloping gently to the Pacific, the heartbreaking beauty of Santa Barbara, California inspires PhDs to take jobs as baristas just to live there. What this small coastal city may lack in career opportunities, though, it makes up for with a vivid 1920s history, kept alive in fabled hotels, elegant homes and cultural institutions built in the Spanish Colonial-Revival architectural style that’s come to define the look of Southern California. With breezy archways and lush tangles of bougainvillea, it’s an all-American version of the Spanish Riviera.
By 1925, Santa Barbara had already been a Mexican ranching pueblo, a Gold Rush boom town, a turn-of-the-century beach resort and the original center of America’s silent film industry, and was home to a rising class of oil and manufacturing barons. Its architectural aesthetic, though, was a jumbled mess of its history: fading Western storefronts, squat adobe houses, and Victorian hotels with splintering shingles and peeling paint. When a 6.8 earthquake destroyed Santa Barbara’s downtown in June of that year, efforts had already been underway to re-create the city in the image of the San Diego-Panama Exposition of 1915 (now the site of San Diego’s Balboa Park), as well as Santa Barbara’s own iconic 18th-century Mission, which is still standing today on residential Laguna Street. By the fall of 1925, rebuilding of Santa Barbara in the Spanish Colonial-Revival style had begun in earnest.
Almost 90 years later, this 1920s revamp can still be seen – and enjoyed – all over town. While modern-day Santa Barbara is best known as a university town and popular weekend escape from Los Angeles, its wide streets, hand-painted tiles, carved-plaster details, shaded archways and trickling fountains can make the city feel more like a movie-set version of a Mediterranean village.
Scoop Up Some Glad Rags
When fashionable folks in the 1920s suited up in their “glad rags,” it meant they were dressed to the nines and dripping with jewels. Along State Street, Santa Barbara’s main downtown drag, you’ll find plenty of glad rags at national chain stores, but you’ll also discover some finery in the independent boutiques and shops at two popular 1920s Spanish Colonial-Revival shopping arcades.
Built in 1926, La Arcada (which runs along the 1100 block of State Street) is a charming collection of local businesses strung around a peaceful courtyard; even a cheesy reproduction of a chiming clock and some life-size bronze figures dressed in modern clothing can’t fully break the arcade’s sweet period mood. Claim the cast-off couture of well-heeled society mavens at Renaissance, and be sure to check out works by the city’s best craft artists at Santa Barbara Arts. When you need a shopping break, sample a flight at the downtown tasting room for Sanford, a winery from the nearby Santa Ynez Valley.
Originally dating to 1922 (destroyed by the earthquake, it was rebuilt in 1928), the vine-draped El Paseo was California’s first shopping center, and holds a secure spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The arching main entrance can be found at 812 State Street, and you stroll right into a porticoed series of independent boutiques, galleries and eateries built around the slate-tiled plaza of an early 19th-century adobe museum named Casa de la Guerra. Delight in the bling at 33 Jewels and Bryant & Sons, then relax in the plaza around a graceful fountain surrounded by olive trees.
Polish Your Savvy
Just a few blocks from El Paseo (at 1100 Anacapa Street), one of California’s best examples of Spanish Colonial-Revival is the fabulously Moorish Santa Barbara Courthouse, which does triple duty as a historical monument, art museum and romantic spot to smooch with your sweetie. Begun in 1926 and dedicated in 1929, a wander through this warren of lavishly-tiled stairways, mural-paneled rooms with soaring ceilings, and secluded nooks lit only by stained glass windows may make you temporarily forget where (and when) you are. Be sure to take the elevator up the 85-foot “El Mirador” clock tower for sigh-worthy views of the city, ocean and surrounding Santa Ynez Mountains. To learn more about the courthouse and Santa Barbara’s history, join a free docent tour, offered every day at 2 p.m. or at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
About two miles northeast of State Street, the sprawling Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, opened in 1923, offers an opportunity to simultaneously travel back in time and around the world. Tucked into a sleepy residential neighborhood (which means that a trip here allows you to ogle local houses), the whitewashed and terra-cotta paved museum is home to the marine biology-themed Sea Center, the Gladwin Planetarium, and the John and Peggy Maximum Gallery, which features 17th- to 19th-century prints of flora and fauna from across the globe. Outside the museum, don’t miss the skeleton of a Blue Whale, a species which migrates through Santa Barbara’s waters from May to November.
Go On With the Show
Two Santa Barbara theaters from the 1920s are still kicking, and provide an excellent excuse to soak up a little culture (pop or otherwise) while you’re in town. The original version of the Lobero Theater dated to 1873, but its present-day rendition was rebuilt in 1924 by a famed local proponent of Spanish Colonial-Revival, architect George Washington Smith. Beneath its ornately carved and painted ceiling, you can catch musical acts that range from classical to country, as well as comedy festivals.
Rising eight stories above State Street, the salmon-pink Granada Theater was originally opened as a movie theater in 1924, was only partially damaged by the quake, and is still the tallest building in the city. These days, its spectacular gilded stage is home to Santa Barbara’s symphony, opera and ballet, as well as regular seasons of Broadway performances and the occasional comedy show…or bodybuilding contest.
Discover a Nest Full of Eggs
In the 1920s, a person who lived a wealthy, lavish lifestyle was called an “egg” – and Santa Barbara was (and continues to be) home to a whole nest full of them. Several of the area’s finest 1920s estates are still standing, and one in particular has a promising future as an art museum, while the other can be toured inside and out.
Just outside of downtown Santa Barbara sprawls one of America’s most enormous homes, the 21,666-square-foot, 23-room, 23-acre French/Italianate Bellosguardo, which wasn’t visited by its owner for over 50 years – and bears a mysterious story. Found at 1407 E. Cabrillo Blvd. on a cliff overlooking East Beach, Bellosguardo was built in the early 1920s for William Clark, a copper tycoon and former senator. His daughter, Huguette (subject of the book Empty Mansions), eventually inherited the estate, but despite the fact that she inexplicably didn’t step foot in it after the early 1950s, she always kept a full staff employed to maintain it in her absence, to the tune of $40,000 a month in today’s money; a skeleton staff still remains.
Meanwhile, the reclusive Clark spent most of her time in Manhattan, but after a small medical procedure at Beth Israel Medical Center in 1991, she elected to stay (as a perfectly healthy person) in the hospital for the next 22 years, until her death in 2011 at the age of 104. It was her wish that Bellosguardo, which is full of priceless works by the likes of Cezanne, Renoir and Van Gogh, be turned into an art museum, and following an auction of several of Clark’s treasures, plans are now firmly underway to form and fund a foundation to run it. The house’s exterior can be seen from the neighborhood or East Beach, but it may well be open to the public by late 2015 or early 2016.
In neighboring Montecito, George Washington Smith designed the fanciful Casa del Herrero for his friend, George Fox Steedman, and with an advance appointment you can tour the whole 1925 shebang. Steedman made his fortune as a machine manufacturer, but his passion was the art of metalworking, and Smith helped him realize his dream of living in a home that showcased his creations. Tours of the “House of the Blacksmith” and its Moorish/Italianate gardens include a few exquisitely tile-paved courtyards, Steedman’s personal workshop, and his hand-crafted ironwork in almost every corner of the home. Before or after your tour, take a spin around the Montecito hills, which are home to dozens of Smith’s finest 1920s Spanish Colonial-Revival estates.
Delight in the Darb
In 1920s parlance, darb meant “splendor,” and at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, the shoe/garden clog certainly fits. Founded in 1926 by a local landscaper devoted to California’s native plants, the garden meanders across 78 acres of Santa Barbara’s Mission Canyon, starting about a mile north of the Mission itself.
A wander through this peaceful park feels as though you’ve somehow strolled into a Maxfield Parrish print, with a gentle breeze through the manzanita, hummingbirds buzzing around the blossoms, and makeshift waterfalls trickling into reed-rimmed ponds. Detailed markers help you identify natives like bee’s blissage and dune tansy, and an enormous sandstone boulder from the surrounding Santa Ynez range bears a lovely 1926 memorial placard honoring the garden founder’s beloved father.
Put on the Ritz
Down beside the sea in Montecito, you’ll find the area’s first resort hotel to be built in the wake of the ’25 earthquake, the stunning Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara. Opened in 1927, the hand-painted tiles in this Spanish Colonial-Revival masterpiece rival those at the Courthouse, although the latter doesn’t have garden-view suites or a heated pool. A stay here averages a whopping $1,200 a night, but you could choose to simply book a spa appointment, splurge on lunch or brunch on the glamorous ocean-view patio, or even just perch on a leather sofa in the lobby for a while, watching the Biltmore’s elegant guests come and go.
Just up the hill from the Mission, El Encanto is a locally beloved 1920 hotel that re-opened in 2013 after a painstaking seven-year restoration. Like a set from a fairytale, the hotel’s guest rooms are a collection of individual bungalows or suites outfitted with 1920s Arts & Crafts details (e.g., stained glass windows, curved fireplaces, iron fittings, etc.), and often featuring their own porch, patio or garden. Room rates average $700 a night, but you could opt instead to visit the airy spa, or book a romantic meal far above the city and the sea, either on the sprawling deck or beside the cascading teardrop chandelier in the hotel’s formal dining room.
Ride the Rails or Take Wing
To arrive in Santa Barbara having experienced some of the 1920s’ love affair with train travel, hop on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner in either San Diego or Los Angeles, or take the Coast Starlight from Seattle, Portland, Sacramento or San Francisco; either route travels largely along the coast and will bring you to Santa Barbara’s train station at 209 State Street – which looks like Spanish Colonial-Revival from the 1920s, but was actually built in 1902.
Santa Barbara’s small airport (SBA) serves direct flights to/from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Denver, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon on United, US Airways, Frontier and Alaska Airlines. Most visitors to Santa Barbara choose to drive, however, as routes from either the south (towards L.A. and San Diego) or the north (towards the Central Coast towns of San Luis Obispo or Paso Robles, as well as Big Sur, Monterey and San Francisco), offer gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean, and most parking in Santa Barbara is free of charge.
Hang Your Hat
Santa Barbara isn’t known for inexpensive lodgings, but several of the hotels along Bath Street – including The Franciscan Inn and The Eagle Inn – offer a 1920s Spanish Colonial-Revival feel and/or history combined with a (more often than not) reasonable nightly fee. On relatively nearby Garden Street, check out the rooms looking over the lush ’20s-style courtyard at the Spanish Garden Inn.
For points-earning/redeeming stays, check out Hotel Indigo Santa Barbara, the Holiday Inn Express Santa Barbara (originally the 1917 Hotel Virginia), and the Hyatt Santa Barbara (built in 1931, but in the Spanish Colonial-Revival style.)
Tuck Into Some Grub and Giggle Water
Giggle water, you ask? Well, that’s how 1920s drinkers referred to booze – and there’s plenty to be found in Santa Barbara, albeit in elegant settings. Tucked inside the El Paseo shopping arcade, the Wine Cask is a local landmark restaurant with one of Santa Barbara’s prettiest patios; inside its dim, cozy dining room you can see part of a gold-painted wood ceiling that somehow survived the 1924 earthquake. The seasonal menus offer the pick of local produce, and the wine list is stocked with vintages from Santa Barbara County appellations.
Also near the El Paseo arcade, the 1922 El Paseo Mexican restaurant pre-dates the shops and offers one of the city’s best margaritas. The wide, terra-cotta-tiled courtyard is one of the most romantic in town, the spicy chorizo is house-made, and the fajitas are more than enough for two.
Have you been to Santa Barbara? Please share your favorite attractions, hotels and eateries with us in the comments below!