by Anne Petersen
In Fall of 2019 the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation began repair work on a 1928 commercial building at 131-137 East De la Guerra Street. This modest Spanish Colonial Revival building holds four businesses and one residence. It is included within El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park because if its proximity to the front gate of the original fort. Built with interior gutters, the structure had leaked internally for years without our notice. And once we became aware, precious time passed as we worked on plans, estimates, permits and hired a contractor for the work.
The building is not the oldest, most historically important, or architecturally unusual structure in the Park. Does that mean it is not significant? Not at all. This little building contributes to the qualities and atmosphere that help make up the character of the Presidio Neighborhood. Its low height, inviting display windows and smaller retail spaces give it a scale that makes it comfortable for pedestrians, and imminently usable for local small businesses. Its architectural details give it personality and connect it to the larger city-wide story of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture built after the 1925 earthquake.
The businesses inside are also special. They include Kurt and Leigh Legler’s Warbler Records, the last record shop downtown where you can also find refurbished turntables and other gifts. Mike Pico’s Mailboxes Express has been in the building for over twenty years and serves the entire Neighborhood with his PO Boxes and shipping services. During the holidays be prepared to queue up to mail holiday packages! Steven Soria at Make Smith Leather Co. is our newest tenant. His third-generation leatherworking enterprise just reached its second anniversary, with a workshop in the back and classroom and retail space in the front. Lee and Barbara Nelson at Beads have anchored the corner of the building for over thirty years. Their combination brick and mortar and online business selling a variety of beautiful beads, supplies and beaded jewelry, continues to draw artistic customers with a DIY ethic.
Older, smaller, commercial buildings truly help cities thrive. In a 2017 article touting the results of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s (NHTP) Atlas of ReUrbanism study, former NTHP Executive Director Stephanie Meeks reports:
[In] a comprehensive, block-by-block study of the American urban landscape, areas of older, smaller buildings and mixed-age blocks boast 33 percent more new business jobs, 46 percent more small business jobs, and 60 percent more women- and minority-owned businesses.1
131- 137 E. De la Guerra Street is one of these buildings, and its tenants contribute to the vibrancy of our community by offering essential services and artistic enterprises that enhance the uniqueness of Santa Barbara’s downtown. Our mission at SBTHP is to steward the past and present of the Presidio Neighborhood and inspire preservation advocacy throughout the County in order to create a more vibrant community. In caring for this building, we are both fulfilling our stewardship mandate, as well as caring for the “present” of the neighborhood, those small, local businesses, and the community that supports them.
To repair 131 – 137 E. De la Guerra Street, we worked in two stages. The first involved pulling off the plaster, reframing the wall, replacing the gutters, restoring and reinstalling the retail windows, replastering and repainting the wall, installing new gutters, and reinstalling the awnings on the Santa Barbara Street side of the building. We completed this work in Fall 2019. Early in 2020 we began the same work on the De la Guerra Street side of the building. The outbreak of the COVID -19 pandemic slowed this work considerably and added exceptional stress to our retail tenants. We are pleased to announce that the work has been completed, and our thoughts are with our tenants and we try to support them through the compounding challenges of construction and pandemic-related closures.
In January 2020, the Santa Barbara City Historic Landmarks Commission, in recognition of this building’s contribution to the Presidio Neighborhood, and representation of post-earthquake Spanish Colonial Revival Style commercial architecture, designated the building a Structure of Merit. SBTHP would like to offer special thanks to our partners in this project, Harrison Design, Channel Coast Corporation and Ehlen Spiess and Haight. We encourage you take a walk downtown to this lovely gem, visit the shops, and experience for yourself why it feels like such a special place. There’s a lot to see and do throughout El Presidio SHP!
1. Stephanie Meeks, “Density Without Demolition,” City Lab, June 11, 2017. Accessed September 23, 2019