by Tim Aceves
This past month saw the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP) return to a bit of pre-pandemic normalcy, with El Presidio de Santa Bárbara SHP reopening seven days a week and the Presidio Research Center (PRC) once again welcoming the public. While many are familiar with the aforementioned, it is more than likely many people have never set foot inside the PRC.
The PRC, Alhecama Theatre and the buildings currently home to Zaytoon Lebanese Cuisine and La Playa Azul Café once encompassed the Santa Barbara School of the Arts (founded in the 1920s). The school would eventually close in 1938, but the buildings have had long lives serving the community.
The PRC was created in 1986, formerly located behind the Cañedo Adobe, the Center moved to its present location fifteen years ago. The mission of the PRC is to develop and curate a collection of research materials and cultural objects to support the archaeological, research, educational, and curatorial programs of SBTHP and El Presidio de Santa Bárbara SHP.
Using original blueprints, building permits, and paint analysis, SBTHP restored the façade of the 1928 Spanish colonial revival building to its earliest appearance. The project began in 1999 with significant basement work (excavation, waterproofing, retaining walls, and drains) from 2001-2003, rehabilitation of the interior spaces including restoration of the floors, doors, windows, ceilings, and hardware from 2004-2005, and the interior furnishings, bookshelves, lighting, restrooms, and security from 2006 until the PRC officially relocated in 2007.
The PRC is home to a multi-format collection of materials about the history of the Presidio Neighborhood. This includes published books about local history, but it also includes photographs, scrapbooks, newspapers and journals, oral histories, and much more. “Santa Barbara is blessed with a number of great historical societies and institutions and what makes the PRC collections really unique is that we have an incredible depth of coverage for the history of this area, and how that is present across many different source types,” said SBTHP Archivist and Librarian Dez Alaniz.
“When doing research here you may encounter multiple types of sources that are relevant to your research, and that’s really special,” they added. Alaniz joined SBTHP in October after working for several years as a librarian UC Santa Barbara. Alaniz grew up on ancestral Kizh and Tongva lands in the San Fernando Valley before attending UC Davis. “My experiences as a queer, Chicanx researcher and student at UC Davis as an undergrad were hugely influenced by working with archives and historical materials, and experiencing that ‘wow, somebody created this AND held on to it!’ feeling has never gotten old to me.”
While many visitors may be most familiar with the Spanish and Mexican colonial histories of the Presidio park area, these are not the only community histories that are found in the PRC’s collections. In the early 20th century, the Presidio neighborhood was inhabited by Chinese- and Japanese-Americans and their families, whose businesses, homes, and community spaces stood within the historic boundaries of the Presidio Park. Through intentional and sustained community engagement with the living residents of the community, the PRC was able to collect oral histories, historic and family photographs, and cultural objects owned by members of the thriving Asian-American community in downtown Santa Barbara.
With the PRC reopening, guests can reserve two-hour time blocks to conduct research in the library (available Monday/Wednesday/Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Tuesday/Thursday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.). The PRC’s website also contains digital collections of oral histories and photographs, along with catalogs of books, subject files, maps, and other archival collections.
For those who are looking to do more than just research, the PRC is currently recruiting volunteers. Examples of volunteer projects include sorting through and describing photographs, digitizing images for our online collections, transcribing oral histories, and evaluating collections. SBTHP is offering a paid internship to interested undergraduate students to work more in-depth with our collections and gain experience in a museum, library, and archive setting.
The Presidio Research Center is located at 215 East Canon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara, California. For more information regarding research or volunteer opportunities, please contact Dez Alaniz by email or by phone (805) 961-5369.