A Brief Tour of Six Santa Barbara Architectural Treasures

Santa Barbara, California, has a balmy, Mediterranean climate that makes it a favorite among vacationers and locals year-round. Spectacular views of the sea, sky, and mountains abound, and the city has a number of particularly intriguing architectural landmarks. Any design enthusiast will enjoy a visit to the area’s Old Mission, Stow House, Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and more. The city’s architecture blends Spanish, Mexican, Mission Revival, English Country, Moorish, and other stylistic influences to create a truly multicultural experience.

1. The Santa Barbara Mission: Situated on Laguna Street, the Santa Barbara Mission is one of California’s richest repositories of Spanish culture and design, as well as a California State Historic Landmark. It continues to serve as a focal point of community activity and as a major spiritual home to the people in its parish, even more than two centuries after its founding. Of the 21 Franciscan missions established during the age of Spanish colonization of the state, the edifice at Santa Barbara was the 10th one. Friar Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén founded the mission in 1786 on the feast day of Saint Barbara, December 4. Often dubbed the Queen of the Missions for its delicate lines, subtle mingling of colors, ornate Greco-Roman columns and expansive building plan, the Mission offers the sumptuous La Huerta Historic Gardens, as well as a museum and a gift shop.

2. The Rafael Gonzalez House: Located on Laguna Street and another stop on the National Historic Landmark trail, the Rafael Gonzalez House is an adobe-walled, tile-roofed townhouse that dates from the state’s period of Mexican rule. Rafael Gonzalez, a former Spanish military man who had served at Santa Barbara’s Presidio, constructed the house in the 1820s in order to please his bride. A classic exemplar of a medium-sized dwelling in the Spanish-Mexican tradition, the Gonzalez House opens out into a pair of single-room wings projecting from the center, seven additional rooms, and a covered veranda. In the middle of the last century, the house underwent an expansion and restoration in keeping with its original architectural style. The Randall House Rare Books and Fine Art store, now a part of the house, is open to the public.

3. The Santa Barbara Courthouse: The building that currently houses the judicial offices of the county of Santa Barbara was completed only months before the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Constructed in an elegant, scrolling Spanish-Moorish architectural style, the courthouse is among the most beautiful governmental administrative buildings still in official use. Lush lawn spaces and a tropical sunken garden surround the buildings, making the courthouse popular for a number of civic celebrations. When you explore the buildings, you will find plenty of finely crafted, delicate details: Murals, hand-painted ceilings, and imported tiles give the courthouse the feel of an ancient Andalusian palace.

4. Stow House: Situated about 10 miles from Santa Barbara in the Goleta Valley, the residence of the pioneering Stow family is now the home of the local historical society. Originally named Rancho La Patera, the property was first built up by William Whitney Stow, an attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad and a driving force behind the creation of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. A tour of the property today offers an intimate look at Stow House itself, designed in Carpenter Gothic style; as well as the bunkhouse that housed numerous immigrant Chinese workers, an arboretum featuring examples of tropical and subtropical plants, and the ranch’s former packing and storage shed.

5. El Presidio de Santa Barbara: Part of its own state historic park, Santa Barbara’s Presidio is among four such military governing structures that the Spanish conquistadors built in Northern California. The Santa Barbara Presidio, constructed in the Spanish Colonial style, dates from 1782, and two sections of the original quadrangle remain. The Presidio’s chapel, which originated in 1788, is the largest structure in the complex. It has been faithfully reconstructed, and even features the use of authentic period furniture. Within the complex is the residence of the Presidio’s commander, Jose de la Guerra y Noriega, who had it constructed in the 1820s to house him and his family. The u-shaped, adobe-construction Casa de la Guerra is among the treasures of California’s Spanish-Mexican past.

6. The Crocker Row Houses: A series of five homes at Crocker Row on Garden Street, which have been lovingly restored or preserved by their owners, exemplify the Mission Revival style of architecture developed in California toward the close of the 19th century. Mission Revival sought to bring a contemporary sensibility to elements that most typified the classic Spanish mission construction, such as gables and bell towers. Arthur Page Brown, who was among the leading architects of his day, built the Crocker Row houses in the mid-1890s. An additional charming feature of the Crocker Row buildings is the fact that one of them is home to a 300-pound metal sculpture of a dog named Rover.

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