The Amazing History of Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Usually considered as one of the most beautiful courthouses in the United States, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a magnificent building located in downtown Santa Barbara, California. The whole complex, conformed by four buildings in total, was designed by master architect William Mooser III in 1926, in the Spanish/Moorish Colonial Revival style, an architectural style very popular at that time in the Santa Barbara area that emulates Spanish castles and fortresses.  The building was completed in 1929, during La Fiesta celebrations of that year.

The building gives its visitors an ancient feel, due to all the delicate details that it displays in its architecture. Clay tiled roofs, hand-painted ceilings, windows, arches and balconies of different sizes and shapes, decorative tiles, impressive murals, white stucco walls, and wrought iron chandeliers, gates and window grilles are just some of the features that make the visitors feel that they are back on time, cheerfully enjoying their time in an old Spanish castle, perhaps one of those that Don Quixote could have found in its multiple adventures around La Mancha. But despite this impression, the Courthouse is in fact a completely functional courthouse. Lawyers and judges handle different sorts of judicial businesses in there.

The building that visitors enjoy nowadays, completed in 1929, was not in fact the first one to be built on the current location. Three buildings have occupied this site in the city of Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara, one of California’s original counties when the latter was admitted as the 31s state on September, 1850, became the county seat. For that reason, a place for courts and county offices was required. A first adobe building was purchased in 1855 near the current location to house all those functions having to do with county government. This adobe building originally belonged to John Kays, a merchant who operated a general, mercantile store in it. Yet very soon a bigger building was required for its new functions.

One reason for the need of a new building was that the old adobe building did not have the space required for the fledgling county government. However, there was another reason. And it was that county officials began to feel dissatisfied with the fact that the adobe building did not have the symbolic appeal that it should be expected from a courthouse. So, for example, in its 1870 report, the Civil Grand Jury considered that the building was a disgrace. Part of the reason for this judgment was that people at that moment were used to monumental courthouses. Such majestuous buildings would have the kind of symbolic power attributed to law and government. And the old adobe building lacked all those features.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse_kenny slaught_
Image courtesy of Konrad Summers at

The new county courthouse, two-stories in height, was completed by 1873. It was built in the Greek Revival style, five or six feet above the surrounding ground, with big columns, a dome covering the central space, and a pediment. The building had a single courtroom on the second floor, whereas administrative offices were located on the ground floor. Until 1880, this single facility was used to operate the entire county government. Yet a new Hall of Records was built in the late 1880’s. However, by the turn of the century, the space of the building was inadequate again to handle county government properly, due to the growth of population. On the other hand, despite the renewed interest in Spanish-Colonial architecture in the Pacific area at that time, it was clear that Santa Barbara was losing its Spanish heritage by the early 20th century. There remained just a few Spanish-Mexican period adobe structures, and most of them required restorations urgently.

The earthquake of June 29, 1925 badly damaged the Greek Revival courthouse, and this led the County Board of Supervisors to order the construction of the current, historic courthouse in its Spanish/Moorish Colonial Revival style. It was built between 1926  and 1929, after a complex process of design and construction. Besides modern electronic systems, communication systems, and increased accessibility, the Courthouse has changed very little. It still amazes its visitors with the spectacular 360º views of the city, the ocean and the mountains provided by “El Mirador,” a 85 ft (26 m) clock tower located at the entrance of the whole complex.

National Historic Landmark Plate_kenny slaught
Image courtesy of daihung at

Due to its historical importance, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse first received the City Landmark Designation in 1981 by the County Public Works Director of that time. That same year, the site and buildings were added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (January 23, 1981). In 2003, the whole complex was also included in the list of California Historical Landmarks (#1037), with an important effort to provide documentation to justify its historical value. After such documentation was completed, the next step was to include the building in the U.S. National Historic Landmark, which took place in April 5, 2005.



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