The town can be disorienting. Most places on California’s coast face west to the ocean; Santa Barbara’s broad, white beach and ocean view is south—the sun seems to set in the wrong place. Similarly, there’s an air of unreality in the remarkably coherent look—storybook Spanish California—to much of downtown, where red tile roofs top white adobe-style buildings, where Macy’s would be a castle in Seville, the parking garage a bullring, and the courthouse a palace, as though Ferdinand and Isabella ruled Santa Barbara County.
The harmony and quality of architecture, the reverence for the past (if not always for real history, at least for the past as it ought to have been), the upscale quaintness, didn’t just evolve. They exist through the grace of organization, strict control, and an act of God.
Eighty years ago, Santa Barbara was a resort town. Close enough, but not too close, to Los Angeles, it possessed a beautiful natural setting by the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific and a well-nigh ideal climate. The community was a perfect place for nice hotels and gracious homes built by the tasteful rich. And organized Santa Barbarans meant to keep it that way.
Architecturally, the town was a decent-looking, if relatively undistinguished "anywhere U.S.A." small city of the period. But it did have a particularly handsome mission and several uncommonly well-preserved adobes. The town elite, evidently a large and reasonably focused part of the population, came to see the possibility of creating a bit of Old California as it should have been: picturesque, genteel, human-scaled—a red-tile, white-adobe, flower-decked evocation of romanticized Spanish California
By June 1925, Santa Barbara had the inclination and money to re-create itself. It also had a Board of Architectural Review and other organizations eager to impose their vision. And, at the end of June, big opportunity arrived in the form of an earthquake that destroyed much of the downtown. The city instituted what a 1930 booster publication called "a comprehensive scheme for architectural harmony and beauty in the new city."
For an overview of the result, climb to the viewing area on the courthouse clock tower’s fourth floor. The tower crowns the single finest creation in the rebuilding of Santa Barbara, the county courthouse. By common local consent, it’s "the most beautiful municipal building in the U.S.," although we also heard "in the world." In any case, there is general agreement that it includes "the most beautiful jail in America."
The courthouse blends a baker’s dozen architectural styles to create a setting both palace-like and theatrical. If the idealized version of Spanish California were summed up in a single work, this would be it. Guided tours begin daily in the Board of Supervisors Assembly Room, where high walls are covered with scenes from local history, freely interpreted by painter Dan Groesbeck in the classic book illustration style of N.C. Wyeth.
The courthouse is on Anacapa Street, a block off the city’s main drag, State Street. State divides Santa Barbara into east and west; many of the city’s attractions sit conveniently along or near the street’s tiled and leafy sidewalks, where tasteful, even artistic, commercialism is the rule.
For some, State’s main attractions are shopping and its generous share of the town’s approximately 350 restaurants. From Gutierrez Street onward for a dozen blocks or so, State is lined with upscale shops and many good and informal restaurants and eateries. Art institutions, theaters, and historic buildings are thick in the mix, too.
State actually is bigger than it first appears due to its several arcades. El Paseo, which claims the title of The West’s Oldest Shopping Arcade, was built in the 1920s around Casa de la Guerra (an adobe that figures in Two Years Before the Mast). It’s a warren of shops and restaurants that winds by, through, and around quaint architecture, as full of color and bustle as the idealized "street in old Spain" that inspired it. Paseo Nuevo, a bigger, somewhat glitzier 1990s variation on the theme, offers dozens of chain and local emporia. At the top of its Moorish tile stairway you’ll find the Contemporary Arts Forum gallery (changing exhibits of what’s-happening-now art) and the Center Stage Theater. La Arcada and Victoria courts also present extended browsing opportunities just off State.
Everything’s so neatly integrated that the untrained eye can’t always tell original buildings from the relatively new. Casa de la Guerra and Presidio State Historic Park are among the real—and genuinely historic—examples that stand just off State. Both restored adobes house museums. Casa de la Guerra, returned to the mid-19th-century form of its heyday, has special interest because it is such a good example of the genre, and because it was the site of the three-day wedding party Two Years Before the Mast author Richard Henry Dana attended during his 1836 visit.
Nearby, the chapel is the most prominent part of what remains of the once extensive Presidio. Another surviving building, El Cuartel, was a family residence, and a strikingly ascetic one. Archaeologists are still at work by the chapel, unearthing foundations of the town’s earliest buildings.
Adobes, such as Casa de la Guerra, were one inspiration for the 1920s recasting of Santa Barbara. Another was its particularly handsome mission. This stone, Roman-inspired complex became the center of life for the Chumash Indians. It still has a commanding presence; crowning a rise before a large lawn with rose gardens, the mission practically demands to be photographed.
Roses that flower at a time of year when deep freeze is the rule in most of the country are evidence that nearly every kind of plant can be persuaded to grow in Santa Barbara. Such encouraging conditions inspired immigrant botanist Francesco Franceschi to create the lush park that bears his name. They also make Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens possible, and go a long way toward explaining how so many private yards maintain their sometimes eccentric array of vegetation.
Perhaps the Botanic Garden, near the mission, is the city’s best example of celebrating diversity, botanically speaking. Its 65 acres include more than a thousand species of native plants. Five and a half miles of pathways take you through the varied landscapes—meadow, desert, arroyo—and by a dam the padres built on Mission Creek in 1807. Docent tours begin daily at 2, or you can take the guide map and show yourself around.
Also near the mission: the Museum of Natural History. The building itself is something of an exhibit—a low, rambling, Spanish creation seemingly built for scenic value rather than efficiency. It’s a potentially confusing complex of galleries; be sure to pick up the map. There are rooms of art, extensive exhibits on Chumash Indians, and galleries devoted to plants, insects, birds, marine life, geology, and fossils. Paths with bird-watching stations wind through the woods and along a brook, which burbles through the grounds. It’s a place to wander and explore rather than to conquer through orderly approach. A 72-foot blue whale skeleton tells you you’ve arrived.
Santa Barbara’s relatively small population (90,000) supports an inordinately large number of high-quality arts institutions. The Lobero Theater near the Presidio is a small (680 seats), intimate house, perfect for performances by the SB Chamber Orchestra, the Music Academy of the West, and the SB Grand Opera Association.
On State, the Granada Theater is home to the Civic Light Opera. And not far up State Street, the Arlington, one of those grand old movie palaces, has a big screen at one end of an auditorium designed to replicate a Spanish plaza, including starry sky. Before the movie begins you may get a recital on the restored Robert Morton organ, which sinks beneath the stage just before opening credits roll. The Arlington also is home to the SB Symphony Orchestra.
Several noteworthy museums add to this neighborhood. Housed in one of those deceptive adobes that look ancient but aren’t, the SB Historical Museum is full of 19th-century artifacts. It may seem to reverse proper order, but you’ll probably enjoy the museum more once you’ve toured the town—you’ll have the background to recognize many of the names and references in the exhibits.
There’s a gem just off State, almost hidden away at 21 West Anapamu Street: the Karpeles Manuscript Library. Its austere, white interior is full of frames and glass cases interspersed with statuary. Exhibits, all original articles, change periodically. We saw a page from Longfellow’s diary, a letter (in English) from Tolstoy expressing a belief in nonviolence, a sermon in the microscopic hand of Cotton Mather.
State Street ducks under the freeway just before reaching the beach and Stearns Wharf, the foot of which is marked by the Dolphin Fountain. A fire recently incinerated a couple of restaurants at its far end, but that hasn’t created a restaurant shortage on the wharf. Reconstruction proceeds on the 19th-century pier, where you can enjoy a stroll, watch the pelicans, and visit the Sea Center. The center is a cooperative effort of the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary and the SB Museum of Natural History, and has displays on area marine life and environment.
A few blocks west of Stearns Wharf, a large collection of boats marks Santa Barbara Harbor. The name refers to the breakwater and boat basin rather than to the whole waterfront. The harbor, which dates from 1924, was built because yeast magnate Max Fleischmann wanted a parking place for his yacht.
Today, scores of pleasure boats and fishing boats make the facility a good place for visitors to get out on the water. You can rent kayaks, sportfishing boats, body boards, water skis, and surfboards (although the beach’s southern exposure makes for tame surfing), or take a boat to the Channel Islands. Or buy a yacht—no need to ask the price, as they’re posted. At least walk out on the long, curved breakwater for the view.
Down the beach to the east, the posh enclave of Montecito offers some of the area’s most luxurious accommodations, such as the 1927 Biltmore Hotel, by Butterfly Beach. If you can’t stay there, at least walk through it and try breakfast or lunch at The Patio.
Visit Casa del Herrero for an intimate look at Santa Barbara/Montecito domestic life at its most impressive. The home was built in the ’20s by industrialist George Fox Steedman, who commissioned a grand interpretation of an Andalusian farmhouse and surrounded it with 11 acres of gardens. He then toured Europe with art experts, buying 15th- through 17th-century French and Spanish works to furnish his new home. It’s all there, just as Steedman lived in it during the 1930s. Tours ($10) are by appointment: (805) 565-5653.
Santa Maria Valley
Touring with Your Taste Buds
About an hour north of Santa Barbara, the rolling hills of the Santa Maria Valley meld with the dunes of the coast to create a landscape that could easily be the backdrop for Zorro’s escapades. And if the swashbuckler had an epicurean streak, he’d be thankful for the east–west alignment of the San Rafael and Santa Ynez mountains that allows coastal breezes to slide in and play across this fertile land. The result: a mild climate and a bounty of edible delights.
Head in almost any direction from the town of Santa Maria and you’ll pass fields brimming with fruits and vegetables and roadside stands offering up the harvest. As one of the state’s premier strawberry-growing regions, the valley bursts with these sweet, juicy fruits each spring. If you care to indulge in shortcake and parfaits, check out the annual Strawberry Festival, April 23-25, which celebrates the berry in county fair style.
Something to Wine About
The region’s microclimates have long made the valley ideal for producing wine as well. While chardonnay is high on the local production list, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and others put in appearances. Let them whet your palate during the annual Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Festival, April 17-18, near Los Olivos.
Or strike out on your own down Foxen Canyon Road as it winds past the vineyards. You might even spot a few familiar names: Besides gracing radial tires, the Firestone name appears on a wine label and, more recently, a handcrafted beer. Fifties TV icon Fess Parker (a.k.a. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone) has traded in his coonskin cap for his eponymous winery. A lack of natural caves didn’t stop Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard—they dug their own and now age their wine in them. Sample syrah at Zaca Mesa Winery or play around on their 10-foot-by-10-foot chessboard.
Where’s the Beef?
Things get really serious when you start talking barbecue. After all, how many towns boast a Barbecue Hall of Fame where names such as Tubby Ontiveros and Big Boy Holman hang proudly? The Santa Maria barbecue style was born back in the days of the valley’s big ranchos and has matured into a regional cuisine that includes tri-tip and top sirloin, pinquito beans grown exclusively in the valley, salsa, and toasted, sweet French bread.
Barbecue is a staple at many local restaurants, like the popular Far Western Tavern in the tiny town of Guadalupe, but it literally lines the street nearly every weekend. Cruise along Broadway in Santa Maria and wafts of smoke will guide you to parking lot grills set up by fund-raising civic groups.
Once your stomach is full, consider feasting with your eyes in Lompoc. Santa Maria’s nearby neighbor to the south radiates with color, thanks to acres and acres of commercially raised marigolds, petunias, and other flowers. To help navigate the rainbow, the chamber of commerce offers a driving tour brochure. Or pick up a fresh bouquet at this year’s annual Flower Festival, June 23-27.
Santa Maria is roughly five hours south of San Francisco. Find your way with AAA’s Coast and Valleymap. For more information, contact the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce Visitor & Convention Bureau at (800) 331-3779). For information on Lompoc, phone (800) 240-0999 or visit www.cityoflompoc.com. —Ron Evans
This article was first published in March 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Santa Barbara has a wide range of lodgings, from affordable to stratospheric. We stayed at the excellent AAA three-diamond Franciscan Inn, 109 Bath Street, (805) 963-8845.
The SB Conference and Visitors Bureau offers a good, free booklet with maps of walking and driving tours. For a tour tailored to your particular interests, or just for an extremely thorough look at Santa Barbara and its past, try historian David Echols’s Personal Tours Ltd., (805) 685-0552. Echols, a personable and enthusiastic font of local lore, leaves no stone unturned.
Use your AAA California/Nevada TourBookand contact the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau (800) 676-1266).