The white, wooden building at 914 Santa Barbara Street in El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park (SHP) has had quite a life. Its multiple adaptive reuses have ensured that it not only survived, but that it continued to be valued by the community and to contribute to the character of Santa Barbara’s Downtown.
The structure was originally two residences, built sometime during the early twentieth century. At that time the 900 block of Santa Barbara Street was residential, with small wooden houses dotting the curb. Until the 1925 earthquake, the much older second commandant’s quarters of the Presidio, or Flores Adobe, anchored the center of the block.
In 1926, the new Santa Barbara School of the Arts, operated by the Community Arts Association, joined the two structures to be used as offices. The offices were intended to be temporary, while the School built its impressive Spanish Colonial Revival campus on the same site. Due to the Great Depression, however, that dream was never realized. The conjoined residences remained in use as offices for the Community Arts Association, and later the School District’s Adult Education Program and Santa Barbara Junior College.
In 1982 the entire Santa Barbara School of the Arts campus was added to El Presidio de Santa Barbara SHP because the site of the Presidio’s northeast corner is located in the parcel. As park operators, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP) are both lucky and proud to have a family-run local business occupying the building and allowing continued community access to this special place.
La Playa Azul originally opened in 1977 at 902 Santa Barbara St. and operated there until it moved to 914 Santa Barbara Street in 1988. The site of 902 Santa Barbara Street is now the location of the reconstructed Northeast corner of the Presidio. Playa Azul owners Delia and Ignacio Elias operate this locals favorite. Their beautiful outdoor patio, seafood dishes and happy hour win praise from anyone who visits! SBTHP is proud of this long-term relationship with one of our best local businesses.
Historic buildings age, like any organic object, and require ongoing care to survive through the generations. This summer, SBTHP replaced the roof and gutters on 914 Santa Barbara St. and repaired some of the adjacent woodwork. We are proud to partner with Delia and Ignacio Elias to care for this piece of Santa Barbara’s history, in what has evolved to be a long-term and treasured collaboration.
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.
[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.
That’s how many miles the bells at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara SHP have travelled since they were first cast in Mexico. From Zacatecas, Mexico, to San Blas, Mexico, to Santa Barbara, California, to Milton, Massachusetts, to Los Altos, California, and ultimately back to their home at the Presidio – these bells have had quite the journey since they were originally cast back in the late eighteenth century.
Both bells originate from Zacatecas, Mexico, where they were cast in 1781 and 1792, and each had quite a different journey before they were returned to SBTHP. The oldest, dedicated San Pascual Bailon, left El Presidio in 1855 when they were moved to Our Lady of Sorrows. In 1904, the bell was purchased by Spencer Borden of Massachusetts. Mr. Borden then left the bell to Milton Academy where it rang daily, calling students to class, until 1981.
The second bell, which reads “LA PURISIMA CONCEPCION ORA PRO NOBIS ANO DE 1792” translates to “THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION PRAY FOR US YEAR OF 1792,” also went to Our Lady of Sorrows and remained there until 1929. It was then installed at El Retiro San Inigo Jesuit Retreat House in Los Altos, California. In 1978, El Retiro returned the bell to SBTHP.
In 2001, the bells were installed in the newly rebuilt Presidio Chapel bell tower, where they still ring loudly over the Presidio Neighborhood.
A fun fact…
As designs were being finalized in 2001, research was being conducted by Michael H. Imwalle, Associate Executive Director for Cultural Resources at SBTHP, as to how the bells were rung at the Presidio. They would have been used to call the residents of the Presidio for mass, the rosary, rations, and to sound quarters for the watch at night. They also regulated work schedules, welcomed the arrival of prominent visitors, signaled alarms, and celebrated festivities.
During a visit to San Antonio Mission, Mike was shown a file that contained an inventory of seven Franciscan bell patterns from the last Indian bell ringer at San Luis Obispo Mission. Gregorio Silverio rang the bells for sixty-three years, beginning in 1889, and had been taught by the previous bell ringer Florentino Naja who had been ringing bells since 1820. Also on that inventory was a recording from 1947 or 1948 of Gregorio ringing the bells over the radio station KVEC. With the help of the San Luis Obispo Mission, they were able to locate a reel-to-reel recording and created a digital audio tape (DAT), which is now preserved at the Presidio Research Center.
To learn more about the travels of the Presidio Chapel Bells, please contact the gift shop to purchase La Campana, Spring 2017 where the article “Ups and Downs: The Well Travelled Bells of the Santa Barbara Presidio Chapel” by Michael H. Imwalle was originally published.
In 2019, UC Santa Barbara’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (IHC) offered its first Public Humanities Graduate Fellows Program, which includes internships and fellow-designed community projects. These paid opportunities enable fellows to apply their academic training in community settings. SBTHP partnered with the IHC and hosted its first Public Humanities Graduate Fellow internship last summer. The success of this partnership’s pilot year led us to continue offering this unique internship opportunity in 2020.
Unita Ahdifard, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in UCSB’s Department of English, was selected for 2020 internship after SBTHP staff interviewed a slate of applicants in March 2020. Her work with SBTHP’s Public Engagement department officially began on June 15, 2020, and her work will help us to increase the public’s awareness and interest in our house museum, Casa de la Guerra, as well as increase visitors’ knowledge of how the site’s history relates to contemporary issues facing people in the Santa Barbara community.
Unita will work with staff to develop more interpretive programming to pilot at the site, and assist with expanding our online and digital resources relating to the history of Casa de la Guerra and the De la Guerra family.
Originally from Toronto, Canada, Unita says she has always been passionate about museums, archives, and historical homes; “whenever I visit a new city, one of the first things I usually do is find a way to learn more about the history of the particular place, be it through a park, museum, or reconstructed “old town.” Unita’s current graduate work focuses on women writers and Anglo-Persianate relations in the early modern period, postcolonial theory, and the boundaries around fictional and nonfictional genres in travel writing.
When asked what she hopes to gain from joining the team for the summer, Unita explained: “I’m looking forward to learning more about how historic preservation happens on the ground, especially with the SBTHP’s work with the Casa de la Guerra. Non-profits such as the SBTHP do the incredibly important work of making community history accessible to the public, keeping history alive through the tangible experience of walking through historic neighborhoods and structures, and being able to learn about the daily lives of their inhabitants from decades and centuries past. I’m excited to contribute to this public history and preservation work however I can during my time here.”
Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, the last Chinese family-owned and operated business in Santa Barbara’s Chinatown, was a longtime favorite for locals and tourists alike before closing its doors in 2006 with the retirement of operator Tommy Chung. Opened in 1947 by Tommy’s father, Jimmy Yee Chung, Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens had been an important part of the diverse community of people who have lived and worked within the Presidio Neighborhood. In March of 2007, SBTHP purchased Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens from the Chung family. Shortly thereafter the building was purchased by the State of California, becoming a part of El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park and a historic resource that will be preserved and protected in perpetuity.
Following the acquisition of Jimmy’s, SBTHP formed a community advisory committee to help guide us in a series of programs related to Santa Barbara’s Asian American history. The group helped SBTHP begin an oral history project focusing on Chinese and Japanese Americans in Santa Barbara. In addition, through its interpretive planning process, the organization developed a concept for a permanent exhibit inside the historic Jimmy’s building, now home to our tenants Three Pickles Deli and The Pickle Room, owned and operated by Clay Lovejoy and family.
Our new display includes a life-size photo mural of Jimmy Chung and his son Bill serving drinks to local patrons at the bar, as well as multiple oral history quotes and photos that help tell the story of the Chung family and the life they created in Santa Barbara’s Presidio Neighborhood. The display includes original artifacts from Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, as well.
The display is dedicated in memory of Thomas Yee Chung and Robert Harry Lovejoy for their efforts to preserve and restore Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, an icon of Santa Barbara’s Chinese-American Community. Special thanks to UCSB graduate student Mika Thornburg, Demachkie Design, SBTHP’s dedicated volunteers, our partners at California State Parks and all community donors that made this special project possible.
“Over the past few months we have witnessed tremendous financial distress at cultural organizations across the country, which have been compelled to furlough staff, cancel programs, and reduce operations to make up for revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic,” said NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede. “NEH is pleased to provide $40 million to preserve thousands of jobs at museums, archives, historic sites, and colleges and universities that are vital to our nation’s cultural life and economy.”
SBTHP’s $29,634 grant will fund the second iteration of the new, annual school program, Where We Are From (WWAF). In partnership with Santa Barbara Junior High School and UC Santa Barbara‘s History Department, WWAF is a multi-week, cross-disciplinary, interactive program held at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park that reaches approximately 400 seventh-grade students and their families. The program involves hands-on, multimedia and digital learning activities utilizing the Park’s historical resources and digital learning platforms. The grant will also provide SBTHP with the opportunity to hire four graduate students from UC Santa Barbara’s History Department as project consultants and co-facilitators.
“The knowledge and practice of history is vital to sustaining healthy individuals and communities,” said SBTHP Associate Director of Public Engagement Kevin McGarry. “Where We Are From is the programmatic embodiment of SBTHP’s institutional mission and values. The project highlights and promotes the diversity of Santa Barbara, especially the layered, cultural history of the Presidio Neighborhood. Where We Are From is a student-centered educational experience designed to deepen the connection the participating seventh graders have to their own family stories, as well as our collective past as a multi-cultural community. The hope is that the program will inspire the students to make that first step toward a deeper commitment to shaping a better future for us all. Thank you NEH for recognizing SBTHP and our partners’ commitment to this important goal.”
As SBJHS history teacher Kristin Martinez-Pettit explained, the goal of this program is to “build a sense of community amongst the students as well as stoke their interest in the human story while cultivating their own.” SBJHS’s Principal, Lito M. García, says that the positive effects the program on his students has revealed the “importance of collaborating with a local organization to enhance our students’ understanding of their city, their home.” The NEH CARES grant will also allow SBTHP to adapt the program for new modes of learning designed for remote access. Mr. Garcia explains, “As we have entered new ways of educating our youth beyond the school site the need for access to digital platforms and devices is greater than ever. Where We Are From must continue for several reasons. One, the educational value of research, reading, writing, and speaking. Two, the intrinsic value of knowing more about the community you live in. Three, the need to have access to and the ability to learn remotely.”
For the highly competitive NEH CARES grant category, NEH received more than 2,300 eligible applications from cultural organizations requesting more than $370 million in funding for projects between June and December 2020. Approximately 14 percent of the applicants were funded.
The project to lovingly restore the Santa Barbara Presidio Chapel doors is complete. The process entailed the fabrication of new doors, mounted on new pivot hinges on a new threshold, and the restoration of the existing lock hardware. In November 2019, recently-elected SBTHP Board member Joe Handerhan and his team from Channel Coast Corporation began the project by measuring and drawing the existing doors, hardware, and molding profiles to create shop drawings to manufacture the replacement doors.
Once the 1985 doors were documented, carpenter Teo Ellinwood began ripping and planing lumber to assemble the door panels. The door frames were fit together using mortise and tenon joinery. The molding profiles of the old doors were used to cut custom router blades so that the raised detail of the door panels were a perfect match! More than sixty eight-inch-long hand-forged nails made by Santa Barbara Forge were used to fasten the door panels to the frames. With the door panels finished it was time to start the installation. Each nail had to be driven through a pre-drilled pilot hole, heated with a torch, bent over at the tip, heated with a torch again, then bent over the back of the frame.
In order to install the new doors, the existing threshold needed to be replaced so that new pivot hinges could be installed. The original threshold was rotting and could no longer support the weight of the doors, each weighing more than one hundred and fifty pounds. Once the threshold was replaced, the new doors were delivered to the site and sandblasted to raise the grain in the wood to match the weathered wood surrounding the entrance to the chapel. Juan Ramirez arrived onsite to help Teo fit the new doors onto the new pivot hinges and to help remove the original hardware from the old doors.
It was a delicate dance replacing the threshold and the doors, all the while leaving the chapel open to visitors and being able to lock it securely each evening. Once the new doors were hung, painter Luis Castro (the stain master) began applying a custom stain to the new doors. The stain is made by adding ground iron oxide pigment to a mixture of turpentine and linseed oil. Luis has been mixing this special stain for projects at El Presidio SHP for more than ten years.
With the doors mounted and stained, it was then time to install the original lock hardware. On February 10, 2020 the new lock hardware was installed using custom hand-forged nails made by horseshoer Larry Sell of Sierra Forge Farrier Service. That afternoon the new chapel doors were locked with the original hardware for the first time. SBTHP and California State Parks are extremely grateful to the John and Beverly Stauffer Foundation and all the individual contributions that made this project possible. Hopefully these doors will welcome celebrations of life, marriage, and community for many generations to come.
Michael H. Imwalle is the Associate Executive Director for Cultural Resources at SBTHP.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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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