Presidio Santa Barbara: From forgotten fortress to the cornerstone of the best city in the world

Going around Santa Barbara is like taking a walking history tour.  It seems that everywhere you look there is piece of the city’s history.  The courthouse.  Historic theaters.  The Mission.  No matter where you look your eyes will constantly be treated to marvelous landmarks that illustrate the city’s importance to California.  One place in particular does this extremely well.  El Presidio de Santa Barbara is definitely the place to go if you want to delve deep into the city’s origins.  Besides the Old Mission, no other building has as much claim to the history of Santa Barbara as the Presidio.

Presidio History 101

The year was 1777 and the first governor of the Californias spotted a weak spot in coastline defense.  The coastline from San Buenaventura to Point Concepcion had zero protection and therefore the weakest link in a strong line of defense against natives and foreigners.  The San Francisco and San Diego presidios were too far away to offer any help.  A new one had to be built.  Felipe de Neve decided that a fourth presidio needed to be erected in between San Buenaventura and Point Concepcion.

April 21, 1782.  That’s the date when Alto California’s coastline had its latest protector. The first construction only had barracks and a palisade.  These were temporary structures however.  When permanent construction was finished about 6 years later, in large part because of the efforts of Felipe de Goicoechea who saw to it that soldiers and their families’ housing and the presidio’s fortifications were built to resist.  The finished fortress had two defense walls, corrals, a chapel, and two bastions.

Even though the Presidio was a military fortress, it was never truly tested.  It had more use as a house of government.  Over the years, houses started to fill the outer landscape of the Presidio and this ultimately led to the establishment of the Pueblo of Santa Barbara. Earthquakes and little to no maintenance almost led to the demise of this landmark of Santa Barbara’s history.  Urban development in the Presidio’s area also took its toll.  Only two of all the original structures still remain.  These are the Cuartel and Canedo Adobe. The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation has gone through great lengths to make sure the Presidio keeps and important place within Santa Barbara lore.

Treasures behind the walls

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Image courtesy of Rachael Moore at

Within the Presidios walls lie some very interesting architectural treasures.  They would not have been possible were it not for the collaboration of the Chumash Indians.  Their expert craftsmanship resulted in beautiful yet simple structures.  The most notable one being the chapel with its magnificent bell tower.  Although It was destroyed by an earthquake back in 1857 the chapel was reconstructed and restored and is currently still in use for many Catholic celebrations.  The Visitor’s Center of the Presidio is actually one of the oldest buildings in Santa Barbara and one of the two surviving buildings from the original Presidio.  The Canedo Adobe gets its name from the soldier who gained ownership of the property once the fortress was retired from active service.  Then there’s el Cuartel.  It’s California’s second oldest and Santa Barbara’s oldest building.  The Cuartel housed the west gate’s soldiers.  The Padre’s Quarters and the Comandancia were recently restored and every day the Presidio is looking like its old self.

Modern activities that take you back

The buildings aren’t the only thing that provide visitors with insight into early California life.  The Presidio Heritage Gardens add to the experience by allowing people to see what was grown and harvested way back when.  The Gardens are filled with trees, plants, and crops from the origins of the Presidio.  It has been thanks to the community’s and volunteers’ cooperation that the gardens allow visitors to travel back in time.

Archaeology has played a huge role in conserving the Presidio.  Archaeological digs in the fortress’ surrounding areas, mainly those closest to the defense walls, have unearthed many wonderful artifacts.  It was thanks to these excavations that original Presidio perimeter’s alignment and location was discovered.

Any talk of Santa Barbara’s history has to go through El Presidio.  It’s the place where the American Riviera got its start.  It’s a testament to efforts made by people from different cultural backgrounds and spiritual beliefs to come together to build something that would join them as one.  Along with the Mission, it’s probably the place that laid the blueprint for the city’s Spanish and Mexican architecture.  The Royal Presidio of Santa Barbara is still showing us some new things every day.  With archaeological dig we learn more about everyday life at the Presidio.  Every restored building gives us a better idea of how grand the Presidio really was.  And finally, every visit to the Presidio is an unforgettable and rare opportunity to learn history by touching and seeing it firsthand.


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