A Sneak Peak inside the 1871 Cota-Knox House at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park

by Anne Petersen
The Cota-Knox House, present day. Photo by Tim Aceves.

In November 2019, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP) invited friends and partners for an insider tour of the 1871 Cota-Knox House. This City Landmark is SBTHP’s next restoration project, and our work will ensure that the building is not only restored to its original appearance, but also receives seismic and accessibility upgrades that will bring it into compliance with current needs.

Anne Petersen, speaking from the porch of the Cota-Knox House, introduces the restoration project to guests before their tour. Photo by Tim Aceves.

We made the interior of the building available to the attendees at our event so they could appreciate some of the special details in the sala. Inside, historians Mary Louise Days and Fermina Murray and SBTHP Associate Executive Director Michael Imwalle shared the architectural and social history of the building, as well as a display of medical artifacts from Dr. Knox’s practice, which were excavated on site.

Historians Mary Louise Days and Fermina Murray speak to guests inside the sala of the Cota-Knox House. Photo by Tim Aceves.

Architect Anthony Grumbine, Structural Engineer Jeff Haight, and Contractor Joe Handerhan led tours of the exterior. The team of building experts helped the guests understand the challenges of restoring historic buildings, including how to treat the delicate aging mortar between bricks, and the scarcity of similar materials to replace the originals. 

Architect Anthony Grumbine, Structural Engineer Jeff Haight, and Contractor Joe Handerhan discuss the facade improvements with guests as part of the restoration of the Cota-Knox House. Photo by Tim Aceves.

In addition to the process of the upcoming restoration work and the history of the building, we focused on the significance of this project to El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, the downtown and the wider community.  Restoration of this small brick home matters, for a surprising number of reasons:

  • It helps us tell the story of Santa Barbara’s somewhat destructive transition from a pueblo to an American town. María Olivera Cota’s Adobe home was demolished when Salisbury Haley’s new street grid was implemented, and her new house was built by her son-in-law José Lobero, across the street from his theatre.
Exposed red brick and deteriorating paint on the exterior of the Cota-Knox House (present-day). Photo by Tim Aceves.
  • It helps us interpret the medical history of our community. After María Cota’s death, the house was occupied by of of Santa Barbara’s first surgeons, a Civil War veteran from Philadelphia, who made significant modifications to the building
Glass vessels from excavations near the Cota-Knox House. Photo by Ashley Tammietti Aceves.
  • It is an unusual piece of vernacular architecture, with an early 19th-century symmetrical façade combined with later-period Victorian elements.
  • This small building is also a City Landmark, and a historic resource in El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. It is surrounded by other City Landmarks and is the last landmark on the block to receive the care and attention it deserves. In a time when our community is focusing on the revitalization of our downtown, the restoration of this landmark, as artist Thomas Van Stein said, “will have a big impact in the Neighborhood.”
The restored Cota-Knox House, by Thomas Van Stein.
  • This building is also important because of its use today. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has produced research studies that show that smaller, older buildings in cities like ours often serve as incubators for local and innovative small businesses and innovation. And the Cota-Knox House is evidence of that. Tenants Eric Watts and Betsy Cramer (representing the Citizens Planning Association) attended the event and graciously allowed us access to the building.
  • And it matters because our historic buildings ground us. As Professor of Historic Preservation Tom Mayes has argued, historic buildings help us define who we are through “memory, continuity, and identity,” and remind us about what makes our community special. 

We hope you too will get involved in the campaign to restore the Cota-Knox House.  For more information about the project and how you can help, click here.

Anne Petersen is the Executive Director at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

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