The Santa Barbara County Courthouse: A Community and Global Icon

by Robert L. Ooley and Rodney Baker

Robert L. Ooley, FAIA, is the Santa Barbara County Architect. His office is located in the courthouse with responsibilities that include the oversight and management of any restoration projects and architectural work that occurs at the courthouse. Rodney Baker is past president of the Santa Barbara Courthouse Docent Council and Honorary Trustee of the Courthouse Legacy Foundation. As a volunteer, he coordinates all conservation projects at the courthouse and is involved in the training of prospective courthouse docents. The following article was published in La Campana, Spring 2020.

Grade school civics classes taught everyone that the nation is divided into states, states are divided into counties, and counties into cities. There is only one place in the nation where this is not true, Washington, D.C., which is a state, county, and city; and only one place in California where the city and county are the same, San Francisco. Otherwise, most counties have multiple cities formed within them. The distribution of resources among state, county, and municipalities varies, but generally functions as follows. Counties provide public health care, general law enforcement, courts, district attorney, property assessment, elections, and tax collection. Cities provide municipal services to residences, including: water, sewer, streets, and other general infrastructure. In some cases, cities also offer election services, as is the case in Santa Barbara.

Now, all of this general government business needs to be located somewhere, typically in a city hall, a courthouse, or government administration complex. In the early days of California statehood, the County of Santa Barbara housed these services in a repurposed adobe structure. Since Santa Barbara is the “seat” of Santa Barbara County, both city and county functions occupied the same building for a short time until a city hall was established.

Local government was first housed in the 1841 Aguirre Adobe on East Carrillo Street. While this provided a central location, the building was woefully undersized for government functions from the start.1 Between 1853-54, the Kays Adobe and surrounding land were purchased by Santa Barbara County and the adobe structures were converted to government offices, a courtroom, and a sheriff’s office.2 The Kays Adobe, which was originally a mercantile building, was situated on the land where the current historic courthouse is located. The 1875 Greek Revival Courthouse was designed by Peter J. Barber, a prominent architect of the day, and who served two years as Mayor.3 The adjacent Hall of Records was created by a local master carpenter, Thomas Nixon, in the Richardsonian Romanesque style.

View of the main entry of the 1875 Santa Barbara Courthouse designed by Peter J. Barber. Courtesy of Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

When the County Grand Jury raised the need to replace these buildings, an architectural competition was held in 1919. Several design firms from across the state submitted proposals.4 Many years would pass before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors could proceed with a new courthouse complex. As part of the 1919 architectural design competition, the William Mooser Company placed second. Some seven years later, while recovering from the devastating earthquake of 1925, the County Board of Supervisors selected The Mooser Company to undertake the design and construction of the new Santa Barbara Courthouse. The William Mooser Company was active across the state in the early part of the 20th century designing private residences, commercial buildings, and public structures, including courthouses, hospitals, and juvenile housing facilities.5

The William Mooser Company was based in San Francisco, and up until the mid-1960s it was the oldest architectural/engineering firm in California.6 Three generations of William Moosers led the firm: William Mooser I (1834-1896), William Mooser II (1868-1962), and finally, William Mooser, III (1893-1969).

William Mooser I was San Francisco’s first City Architect. William Mooser II was, at one point, the director of San Francisco’s City Public Works and a key figure in the Federal Public Works Act Administration for the Western United States. He was responsible for the first Building Code in San Francisco. His notable works include the Aquatic Park in San Francisco and Santa Barbara Courthouse. William Mooser III spent most of his college years in Europe studying architecture. He spent significant time in Spain and southern France, absorbing the culture and architecture. He returned to the United States to assist his father with the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. William Mooser III’s experience in the Andalusian region of Spain was particularly crucial in giving the architects an edge in the 1919 design competition, as the Spanish Colonial Revival Style was becoming very popular in California about this time. Santa Barbara civic leaders wanted the architecture of the new courthouse to reflect this trend and echo the city’s history.7

Design sketch of Anacapa Street elevation. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum’s Gledhill Library.
Construction drawing of Anacapa Street elevation. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.
Courthouse Complex

The effort to design and construct the new courthouse was highly collaborative, and Santa Barbara County leadership and local civic leaders were deeply involved in every aspect of the design process. The initial design of the Santa Barbara Courthouse remained unchanged, from the beginning construction sketch to the final Anacapa Street elevation. Mooser’s drawing of the Anacapa Street elevation represents what the courthouse looks like today, unchanged.

It was the cost of putting this complex together that drove many of the final details. For example, Hall of Records’ stone base (or plinth) is made of sandstone blocks. Then, exterior plaster was applied to the concrete building walls and against the edges of these large stones. When the Service Wing was being constructed the exterior detailing had switched to a method that made it less expensive to construct. The plinth was created using exterior plaster at a thickened depth, then troweled to match the real sandstone on the adjacent Hall of Records. This method continued for the remainder of the complex. Authentic sandstone was only used around significant doors and arches.

The Santa Barbara Courthouse Complex is comprised of four distinct buildings, joined by an arched bridge. The construction sequence was completed, starting with the Hall of Records and ending with the Santa Barbara Street Jail Wing. Each construction phase progressed from foundations to finishes. The Hall of Records shows what the architect had intended with the entire complex in its interior detailing. Only in the Hall of Records is there finished plaster scored with a dense bristle brush to simulate the wood grain in the massive support beams. The ceiling of the Hall of Records, like that of the Mural Room, Law Library, and the two original courtrooms, has been completed with intricate shapes and figures executed in a method referred to as “Dutch metal,” a technique that combines copper and zinc to simulate gold leaf applications. The symbols, images, and shapes that make up the design harken from the heraldic days of medieval times.

The interior courtyard of the Hall of Records is flooded with light from a fifty-foot skylight above. Courtesy of the County of Santa Barbara.

The general design of the Hall of Records is that of an outdoor courtyard. A space that one might stumble upon while navigating a narrow passage in Spain that explodes into a sunlit courtyard, surrounded by quaint shops. This approach explains why there is a fifty-foot diameter skylight that floods the interior space of the Hall of Records with light. The Hall of Records is narrower than the adjacent Service Wing by seven feet, most notable on the garden side of the building. This is because the original stone jail was located nearby and was still being used while the new Courthouse was under construction. This reality required that the Hall of Records be reduced in width to allow the old jail to remain functional for a time.

Floor plan of Hall of Records showing narrowing width. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.

The adjacent building, the Service Wing, is much less adorned in its interior detailing. This space is much like the backside of Hearst Castle; unfinished and rather pedestrian. Originally designed to house a community history gallery on the ground floor and an office for the District Attorney on the third floor, the gallery was never completed. Instead, a floor was inserted during construction to provide more office space. To the careful viewer, one will notice that the three large windows to the left of the Spirit of the Ocean Fountain reveal a floor line about a third up from the window sills. The County Architect’s office was once located in the space (the first window) above the Spirit of the Ocean Fountain. The babbling water of the fountain could be heard during the day. The wrought-iron grilles that shroud the opening of the three windows of this façade from the street appear to be sloppily made. If one looks closely, it is clear that none of the vertical or horizontal iron bars align. They appear randomly placed. One may also observe this irregularity in other ironwork around the complex.

Partial Anacapa Street elevation of three windows. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.

Another strange detail is the balcony on this elevation. Balconies are usually accessible by a door or a pair of doors. This is not so in the Santa Barbara Courthouse. Many of the balconies that one can see on the building, like that on the Anacapa Street side of the Service Wing, Garden side of the Figueroa Wing, or the large balcony over the entry on Figueroa Street, require climbing steps up and then a climb out of a window. A great example of this are the windows in the Law Library on the second floor of the Figueroa Wing (while access to the balcony outside the windows is prohibited, visitors can view the windows and balconies).

The Santa Barbara Courthouse’s main archway shown from the Anacapa Street side. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.

The Santa Barbara Courthouse’s Grand Arch is one of the most captivating features of the building. It provides an iconic marker in navigating around the complex. “Meet me at the arch honey” can often be heard during the day as a multitude of tourists descend upon the courthouse during operating hours. The Main Court Wing, comprised of the Anacapa hallway and Figueroa hallway, provides space for Superior Court and Court support operations. These portions of the building
also house the primary historical spaces: Mural Room, Second Floor Lobby, two Original Courtrooms, and the Law Library. These spaces are among the most ornate and detailed of all the areas in the Santa Barbara Courthouse Complex. The Hall of Records completes the five primary spaces on the site. Remember the precise detailing in the Hall of Records discussed above? The beam detailing in the remainder of the building is much different. The detailing had to be simpler for the project to stay within budget, which we all know did not happen.

Partial Anacapa Street elevation showing small bell tower at the upper corner of this elevation. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.

The superstructure is comprised of steel “I” beams encased in concrete. The wood formwork to hold the concrete while it sets were sandblasted before being erected. Once the wet concrete was poured into the formwork, it took on the texture of the wood formwork. When the concrete was painted brown, it was difficult to determine if it was wood or concrete. This construction trick helped to reduce costs and speed up the work. There are very few wood elements in the framing and construction of the Santa Barbara Courthouse. In the main lobby, by
the U.S Forest Service Topographic Map, there are small wood beams, painted with various colors and shapes, mounted on the ceiling. These are only there for aesthetics. This same detail is used throughout the building along the main second-floor hallways. The distinct rafter tails, elements just under the roofline, are also wood, and again are only to complete the aesthetics of the roof detail. They are in no way structural or supportive to the Courthouse roof. Another interesting fact that even most locals do not know is that there is a bell in a small tower at the very corner of the building, near Anacapa and Figueroa Streets. This bell was relocated to this spot from the first fire station in Santa Barbara. This bell can still be rung, but the method to do so cannot be disclosed here.

Santa Barbara Street elevation of Jail Wing. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.

The fourth building of the complex is the Jail Wing; this is the portion of the building facing Santa Barbara Street. In the authorization of the Courthouse Complex, the Jail Wing was initially eliminated from the project due to cost. However, Leo Preisker, Chair of the Board of Supervisors for the better part of twenty years, gave the contractor the green light to construct the Jail Wing, arguing that the presence of prisoners necessitated the construction of a jail. The Jail Wing also housed the Sheriff’s operations. Most of the prison cells remain and are mostly used for records storage. While there is very little ornamentation on the inside of the Jail Wing, there are a few painted elements in the Sheriff Civil Office. This wing was the original location of the County Sheriff’s Office, and since the office served the entire County, painted on the beams are the seals of each city in the county at the time the building was constructed. The majority of ornate detailing is on the exterior of the Jail Wing. A common misconception about the Jail Wing is that many believe the stone turret located high up on the Santa Barbara Street elevation is accessible. It is not accessible at all; it is purely an architectural castle feature, and designed to invoke defensive notions of medieval times.

The local community has been involved in the Courthouse since the very beginning. It was well before the earthquake that many in the community had become deeply involved in how the city was to evolve. The planning of streets, planting trees, and organization of public spaces. The notion that a collective community heritage was being erased with each new project prompted this involvement. The events surrounding the 1925 earthquake only gave a sense of urgency and immediacy to this civic engagement, which soared to its height during this time. It was through the establishment of the Community Drafting Room and design review boards, pressed by historic preservation advocates like Pearl Chase, that led to what is seen throughout the Santa Barbara community today, especially downtown. Countless thousands have fond memories of Fiestas, concerts, Earth Day celebrations, community galas and myriad weddings; many taking place at the Santa Barbara Courthouse. This history of community use underscores the fact that the Santa Barbara Courthouse is more than just a civic building where justice is dispensed, and vital records are kept. Over the years, community members have involved themselves in what happens at the Santa Barbara Courthouse, beginning with the oldest organization, called the Courthouse Docent Council. The Docent Council is now in its 40th year with over eighty trained tour guides who offer their knowledge of the property twice daily for free.

Community Involvement and the Making of a Landmark

The Courthouse Legacy Foundation and the Bisno Schall Clock Gallery Foundation are the newest non-profit organizations to join the effort to preserve the complex and its historic elements. The creation of the Santa Barbara Courthouse Legacy Foundation occurred in 2004; this 501(c)3 non-profit is focused on executing conservation projects at the Santa Barbara Courthouse that keep it in shape for all to enjoy. Some of their work is known already, including: the recreation of the Spirit of the Ocean Fountain, the restoration of the Main Arch Ceiling in association with the Pearl Chase Society, conservation of the Mural Room, and the current effort to conserve the stone on the Main Arch. The Bisno Schall Clock Gallery Foundation is focused on the care of the Seth Thomas Tower Clock, located in the Observation Tower.

Scan of tracing of imagery of the large support beams. These images can be found on the vertical surface of each side of each beam. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.

The Courthouse Complex was first recognized as a place of historical importance in 1981 when the property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1982, the property was designated a City of Santa Barbara Historic Landmark, and in 2003, the property was designated a California State Historic Landmark. It took the better part of six months to document and verify the facts required to complete the necessary forms for designation as a California State Historic Landmark. Once this work had been completed, completion of the National Parks Service nomination forms required much less time. A year of working the nomination through with both State and National architectural historians produced a document wherein which all the facts were vetted, and the nomination could proceed to public hearings and Nomination Sub-Committee review. The Santa Barbara Courthouse was named a National Historic Landmark in 2005. The benefits of being a designated historic landmark include access to grant funding only available to State or National Historic Landmarks and greater protections against changes that impact the historic fabric of the complex.

Conservation Projects

Over the previous twenty years, several conservation projects have been completed, from the restoration of the flagpole to the conservation of the central archway facing Anacapa Street. There is not enough space to talk about all of the projects, so a few highlights will have to do for now.

Flagpole

The flagpoles, located near the corner of Anapamu and Santa Barbara Streets, are comprised of two masts from sailing ships: the bottom pole from the U.S. Naval Frigate, USS Congress (1841), and the top pole from a vessel of unknown origin, but thought to be a Spanish cutter. The two masts were connected by a hound’s ring and Crow’s Nest from which men could view across the oceans for land or foe. The upper, much lighter mast was held in place against the bottom mast by a locking block fit into a wedge keyhole. The hound’s ring stabilized the upper mast against the bottom mast and forces of wind on the sails.

The flagpole was removed, and once the two poles were safely on the ground, a close inspection revealed that the crow’s nest anchors had completely rusted away—nothing held the nest in place but the dense layers of paint. The flagpoles were restored, including arranging for local Boy and Girl Scouts to repaint each pole. The Scout helpers each earned a community service patch for their efforts. The finished flagpole was dedicated on Flag Day in 2001 by the California Historic Preservation Officer, Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA.

In 2008, work was undertaken to preserve the imagery on the ceiling of the Main Arch. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.
Main Arch Ceiling

It is incredible that thousands of visitors pass through the Main Arch and never look up. Work had to be done to conserve the imagery on the ceiling of the Main Arch. Understanding what we needed to do, how to get it done, and who could help us get this critical work done were the first steps of the project. It was the Pearl Chase Society that stepped up and said, “We can’t let this ceiling go without restoration— not on our beat.” So, for the next seven weeks, the County Architect spent weekends up on a scissors lift tracing all of the graphics, carefully mapping them to a photograph of the ceiling. In 2008, the paint restoration of the main arch ceiling was finished and can now be viewed by all visitors who walk under the main arch of the Santa Barbara Courthouse.

Work being done to restore the ceiling of the Main Arch, 2008. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.
The Mural Room

The Mural Room, originally The Assembly Room of the County Board of Supervisors, is one of the most visited rooms in the entire building. The room is detailed with wood, fabric, tile, leather, textiles, and wrought iron. The ceiling is a highly decoratively-painted, Dutch- metal replica of the ceiling in Sicily’s Cattedrale di Monreale (Cathedral of Monreale). Many of the artistic elements found in this cathedral can be found in the Santa Barbara Courthouse. This can be attributed to two facts: the architect William Mooser III spent considerable time in Spain, and the painter, John Smeraldi, came from the Monreale area in Italy. The conservation work was prompted by a fire in the building that led
to a greater understanding of the real condition of the mural and its underlying supporting structures. After a successful fundraising effort and ten weeks of work, the conservation project was completed, which included museum lighting that highlights the paintings and ceiling.

The Mural Room is one of the most visited rooms in the entire building. The room is detailed with wood, fabric, tile, leather, textiles, and wrought iron.Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.
The Spirit of the Ocean Fountain

The Spirit of the Ocean Fountain, so named because of Santa Barbara’s association with the sea, was carved in situ by Ettore Cadorin, who emigrated from Italy. The subjects of this piece are based upon local teenage models who happened to be brother and sister. The piece, while it looks like one large block of sandstone, is actually five stones. As each block was stacked upon the other, lead shims were placed to level and precisely position the blocks. The composition of the blocks begins with the base blocks, those that express the lower torso, legs, and fish head. There is a left and right block with a vertical seam at the mid-point of the fish head. The next block is what we call the “people block.” This is the block that expresses the upper torso and chest of the male and female figure. The remaining blocks make up seaweed and corn stalks either side of the “people” block.

The Spirit of the Ocean Fountain. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.

The carving method used is referred to as “pointing,” and is a process of using a framed pointing needle to transfer the shape being carved from the model to the full-sized blocks. Reference points are created on each, the model and then the full-sized permanent piece that is maintained until the piece is nearing completion. Only then can these reference points be removed, and the final work is completed. When visiting the Courthouse, take binoculars to view the Spirit of the Ocean Fountain and look for small dimples on the surface of the stone, most noticeable on the face, arms, and legs. Look closely, because those dimples can be mistaken for pits in the stone. These dimples are the transferred points from the model to the stone and represent where the carver removed the excess stone to achieve the shape being created. The dimples remain as part of the artist’s execution of the piece. The original “people” block is stored in the basement of the Santa Barbara Courthouse, in hopes of displaying it in the building at some point in the future.

Details of the “people” block, Spirit of the Ocean Fountain. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Architect Courthouse Archives.

The sculpture had to be replaced because sandstone is not a very durable material, and naturally weathers faster than other materials. In the case of Spirit of the Ocean Fountain, this deterioration was accelerated by the application of waterproofing in the 1960s when there was an effort to protect the piece from the elements. This only served to entrap the moisture and contributed to the failure of the stone from the inside out. Porous stone needs to breathe to stay dry. While the piece looked okay to the casual viewer, the surface of the stone is the only part that remained mainly because of the painted-on waterproofing that glued the sandstone particles together. It was much like an ice cream cone with chocolate frozen on top. Once the ice cream begins to melt, all you have is the hardened chocolate shell. As part of the restoration of the piece, methods were included to ensure that the piece could evaporate moisture more effectively.

Notes

1. Patricia Gebhard and Kathryn Masson, Santa Barbara County Courthouse (Santa Barbara: Daniel & Daniel, 2001), 15.

2. Ibid.

3. Peter J. Barber collection, 1871-1909, BANC MSS 2002/200, Box 1, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California.

4. Superior Court Grand Jury Records, Santa Barbara Courthouse Court, Clerk’s Office.

5. Ray McDevitt, Courthouses of California (Berkeley, California: Heyday Books, 2001), 364.

6. Robert L. Ooley, FAIA, “The William Mooser Company: Bridging the Generations” (Conference Session Presentation, California Preservation Foundation, San Francisco, 2004).

7. Ibid.

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