Imagining a new life for the Cota-Knox House

by Anne Petersen

In Spring of 2019 the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation contacted our friend Thomas Van Stein, a talented painter and member of the renowned Oak Group of Santa Barbara landscape artists, with a very special request.   We are wrapping up the planning phase for the restoration of the 1871 Cota-Knox House at 914 Anacapa Street, one of Santa Barbara’s earliest brick buildings.  As the work progressed, many of us commented that it would really help the community understand the impact of this project if we could show them what the restored building would look like.

Cota-Knox House today. Photo by Michael H. Imwalle.

Thanks to our generous partners at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum we have access to many wonderful historic images of the building.  Our restoration seeks to be accurate to these images, and evoke the original appearance of the building, yet historic photographs are often black and white, sometimes grainy, and convey a time long-lost to memory.

Cota-Knox House before 1896. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

At SBTHP we frequently discuss the idea that although we are champions of preservation, we don’t believe that the goal of our work is to retreat to the past. Rather, we are always thinking about the future, and believe that historic buildings contribute to the character of any thriving city.  We work to restore the unique vernacular buildings in the Presidio Neighborhood so we can return them to a useful productive life as community assets.  And that is hard to capture in an architectural plan or historic photograph. 

Thomas Van Stein with Anne Petersen at the Cota-Knox House. Photo by Michael H. Imwalle.

At an event in Fall 2018, Thomas approached me and offered to help the community imagine what this diminutive and dramatically altered building could offer Santa Barbara’s downtown through a painting that captured the restored building in its modern setting. In the Spring of 2019 we were thrilled to learn that we received the President’s Award from Colonial Dames of America, which provided the funding for the painting. We had also recently completed a level of planning that allowed us to provide detailed information to Thomas about the restoration. Thomas spent the next three months studying the plans and historic photographs. He presented a preliminary sketch in a meeting with Associate Executive Director Michael Imwalle and myself that knocked our socks off.  You can see the results of that careful study in the final painting.  He got the detail of the brick work on the façade, and the casement windows and shutters just right!  And, the building is full of color and life, with Dr. Knox’s 1890s unicycle replaced with a contemporary cyclist perusing the curbside interpretive sign. 

The restored Cota-Knox House, by Thomas Van Stein.

We know the restoration of the Cota-Knox House will have a transformative impact on this block of Anacapa Street.  This City Landmark shares the block with the beautiful Julia-Morgan designed Margaret Baylor Inn, and the Carrillo Recreation Center, both also City Landmarks.  It sits across Anacapa Street from the Lobero Theatre, and on the next block from the Reginald Johnson-designed U.S. Post Office, both on the National Register of Historic Places.   With the restoration complete, the Cota-Knox House will add the final piece to this historic streetscape, and because of Thomas’s amazing artistry, we can help the community imagine its impact. As Thomas said when we visited the site with the painting in hand, “This is project going to make a real difference in the neighborhood!”

This $1,300,000 project will take the help of a diverse range of friends and supporters.  Would you like to follow the restoration of the Cota-Knox House and support our efforts?  Visit our webpage about the project here.  We will keep this page updated as the project progresses.

Anne Petersen is the executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

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