The Santa Barbara Courthouse | Reviving Southern Spain in the center of town
We stood in the dusty courtyard of Santa Barbara’s Casa de la Guerra, newly engaged. I looked across the street at the gorgeous white building, constructed in the famous style of white adobe with Mediterranean red roof tiles featured on most every building in downtown Santa Barbara.
“Look, that’s the courthouse,” I said in a moment of bliss. It it fact was not the iconic Santa Barbara Courthouse but rather the home of the local newspaper, the Santa Barbara News-Press.
One would think that I easily remembered what the Courthouse looked like. After all, I had been there before.
At the nervous age of 22, I sat in court and listened to the judge review the charges. I had just graduated college and was days away from traveling to Europe to hang out at my sister’s Madrid apartment during the last few months of her study abroad program.
My sweaty palms betrayed my worry that I wasn’t going to Europe anytime soon. A week earlier, the police shut down a party at our apartment. While our college pad was never a major party destination, this one had filled with three dozen European and Asian students I knew from my job at the university’s English language program. The music was loud, people were laughing, and the party was bouncing.
Forty minutes later ten grim police officers cleared out the place and hauled me down to the street where I faced an annoyed sergeant. I ended the night with a ticket and a court date set after my flight out of town.
“Dude we are there for you,” my roomies promised. “If there’s a fine or anything then we’ll totally help you pay it.”
Not bad for a Monday night.
After somehow getting my court date moved up, I faced the judge who delivered my fate: $90 fine. Forty-eight hours later, after browbeating my roommates for their share of the fine, I was on a plane to Europe.
My first official experience at the Santa Barbara Courthouse was happily overshadowed by our more recent experience. Charla and I were married in the Courthouse’s exquisite gardens that featured a wide lawn, rough stone steps, dozens of plants, palm trees, and the white stucco courthouse built in a style reminiscent to Southern Spain.
The Santa Barbara Courthouse is a working court and it hears cases every day. It also does a brisk business in events and weddings. Both the interior and exterior offer space for parties from two to several hundred guests. It is so well designed that many events could happen at the same time. Intimate weddings with a justice of the peace and two witnesses may take place in a small alcove or a leafy courtyard, while large splashy events happen on the one of several large lawns.
More than events and court cases, the Courthouse is an iconic fixture in Santa Barbara that anchors the Spanish-style downtown as both a tourist draw and a destination for locals. To make its success happen, it only took some visionary minds, an earthquake, and quite a bit of nostalgia.
The County leaders in the early 1900s held a design competition for a new courthouse. They wanted a style they called Spanish Andalusian but were unsatisfied with the winning architect’s designs which may not have been Spanish Andalusian enough.
In 1925, the same year that a devastating earthquake flattened the original courthouse along with most of Santa Barbara, the architect J. Wilmer Hershey was brought in to create a design closer to what the County leaders wanted.
“Spanish Andalusian” is really Spanish Colonial Revival, one of the various Revival movements sweeping the U.S. in the early twentieth century. The Courthouse today is an architect’s playground of Spanish Colonial Revival features: white stucco walls, terracotta tiled roofs, wrought-iron staircase rails, painted tiles in the floors, steps and walls.
Inside, random little alcoves and built-in seats are sprinkled about while courtyards and balconies decorate outside. And the lamps! If there is any one thing that brings me back to Southern Europe again and again, it is the street lamps: wrought iron, fixed to white stucco building walls, filling streets and alleys in a warm light, creating the “outdoor living room” feeling that the American suburbs forgot about, or rather outlawed, decades ago.
Hershey signed on with an influential body known ponderously as the Community Drafting Room of the Architectural Advisory Committee of Santa Barbara. Some local experts believe that this made all the difference.
There’s a reason why Santa Barbara doesn’t resemble other coastal California towns including nearby Ventura or San Luis Obispo.
“Santa Barbara was one of the first communities to have architectural boards,” said Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Presentation Curator Rose Thomas. “Before the earthquake, we looked like any American town. Afterwards, there were books that promoted what we had done.”
The Santa Barbara Independent
Hershey drew a series of sketches and renderings for the new Santa Barbara Courthouse. Described as romantic and whimsical, his drawings were finished in a single night, according to a biographer. Later, he went on to design Spanish Colonial Revival houses and public buildings all over Southern California.
“He was in love with the romantic notions of the European villages,” Hershey’s granddaughter told the Los Angeles Times in 2006.
Perhaps J. Wilmer Hershey knew in 1925 what we are still figuring out today: Buildings and public spaces are aspirational. We are drawn to places that visually promise the life we want to live. Coastal cities up and down California aspire for the Mediterranean, walkable, Southern Spain cityscapes that Hershey and his contemporaries dreamed up almost 100 years ago.
Hershey died in 1926 at the age of 32, barely a year after his courthouse drawings, and so he never lived to see the Santa Barbara Courthouse finished.
A few minutes before our wedding ceremony in 2017, dark clouds from an unusual week-long storm threatened and people remarked on the occasional raindrop. The event was to be outside on the lawn with 60 guests seated in wooden chairs.
I asked the guitarist if we was concerned about his wood guitar getting wet. Perhaps we should relocate him under a tree.
“No, don’t worry about me,” he said with a smile and kept on playing.
Charla and I went inside. The plan was that I would wait with my best man and the pastor outside by the grand staircase that arched up to a heavy wooden door studded with large wrought-iron nails. Charla would walk out of the courthouse and through a large ornate archway, down a different, and equally grand, staircase, and across the lawn with her procession: her daughter, my daughter, and her niece as the flower girl.
Inside the courthouse, in the dark passageway, her breathing quickened and she fidgeted. “I can’t stand still,” she said. “I’m so nervous!” She paced back and forth.
During the ceremony, the pastor mentioned during his comments that Charla had to ask me out twice before we officially started dating. “Nevertheless,” he said, “she persisted.”
Then: “You may now kiss the bride.” At that precise instant, the clouds parted and disappeared entirely. Sixty voices gasped. I breathed a sigh of relief and laughed along with Charla and all our guests.
There is no way to offer a complete list of great places to eat in Santa Barbara. Rather, check out these places that are a few minutes’ walk away from the Santa Barbara Courthouse. While you’re at it you’ll discover many more, which is the whole point.
Smithy Kitchen + Bar
7 E. Anapamu St.
The smart, stylish and modern interiors, the outdoor dining space with large farm tables under old olive trees and the outstanding food are reason enough.
7 W. Haley St.
An intimate and inviting restaurant run by a stylish couple: he is from Italy; she is from Puerto Rico. If you’re lucky you’ll find yourself chatting them up late at night when you don’t want to go home even though, just an example, you’re tired from running a half marathon that same morning but still want to eat and dance.
The Wine Cask
813 Anacapa St.
For that moment when you want to splurge, when your parents are in town, or when you’re hosting a wedding reception. Great service and knowledgeable staff on local wines.
15 E. Anapamu St.
Before grabbing a meal or drinks at Smithy Kitchen + Bar next door, wander through the stacks of at the Book Den, if only because the remaining independent bookstores in the world are worth holding onto.
Casa de la Guerra
15 E. De La Guerra St.
The dusty courtyard is a great place for events, in fact is one of many we considered for our wedding. The building is originally an adobe residence for a Mexican military leader in the 1800s and is now a museum and community center.
Alameda Park and Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens
1400 Santa Barbara St.
The park is two square blocks with the garden on another whole square block surrounded by elegant yet understated and traditional Santa Barbara houses. It is a relaxing and quiet space, unless you go during some street fair like the Summer Solstice Festival, which is booming with food, vendors, people in wacky costumes and bands.