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Brochures tout the Santa Barbara County Courthouse as “the most beautiful government building in the United States.” I haven’t seen enough government buildings to know how true that statement is. But the Courthouse is undeniably beautiful, and interesting enough to be a reason for a visit to Santa Barbara.
You’ll have the unusual experience of wandering around a functioning public building (with working courtrooms and offices) that’s also a county park, a popular tourist attraction, a historic landmark designated by the city, state, and federal governments, and a genuine work of art. I highly recommend taking one of the daily free tours led by volunteer docents. If you have a decent docent you’ll learn about the building’s history and architectural quirks, and be able to enjoy it a lot more.
The Courthouse was the centerpiece of a project beginning in 1926 that completely rebuilt Downtown Santa Barbara after a 1925 earthquake destroyed much of the city. The “Spanish Colonial Revival” architectural fad, which began with the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park, was then at its peak. The designer of any major public building in Southern California was thus obligated to feature the quadrangular whitewashed adobe, arches, courtyard, and red tile that invoked 18th and 19th century Spanish mission architecture.
San Francisco architect William Mooser took this obligation and ran with it, creating what might be the apotheosis of Spanish Colonial Revival. He designed a fantasy of a medieval Spanish-Moorish palace, occupying an entire downtown square block. The elaborate architectural features include archways, turrets, sculptures, a red tile roof, and “El Mirador,” a 26 meter high clock tower. Mooser also placed differently-sized windows and doors asymmetrically, a distinctive feature of the Moorish Mudéjar style.
The dedication in 1929 was a grandiose celebration. Its culmination was a ceremony of attaching a bronze medallion to the Courthouse with cement containing sand and gravel from every California county and water from each California mission. That idea might have been borrowed from Los Angeles City Hall, dedicated the previous year. The same highly-symbolic ingredients were mixed into the concrete with which that building was constructed.
The courtyard in the center of the complex is the Sunken Garden, where Santa Barbara’s 19th-century courthouse stood before it was damaged beyond repair in the 1925 earthquake. The Sunken Garden, with its collection of trees from 25 countries, is a popular venue for concerts, weddings, and other gatherings.
If it’s a nice day, an elevator ride to the top of the clock tower will literally be the high point of your visit to the courthouse. From the observation deck you’ll have a great view of the courthouse and its red-tiled roof, along with the city, mountains, and ocean that surround Santa Barbara. You can also see the distinctive ironwork close up.
The courthouse exterior is festooned with arches, asymmetrical gates and entryways, and medieval-inspired light fixtures. The Spirit of the Ocean fountain adorns one side of a Roman-style triumphal arch that leads to the Sunken Garden. The fountain, a sandstone sculpture carved in 1929 by the Venetian-born artist Ettore Cadorin and restored in 2011, symbolizes Santa Barbara’s connection with the ocean. Cadorin also created the statues representing “Justice” and “Agriculture” at the top of the arch.
The interior is just as imaginative. Corridors are open-air loggia arcades with Tunisian floor tiles. Originally intended to provide cooling air for buildings in sunny Spain and Italy, the loggia arcades undoubtedly save money on air conditioning in the summer. But they might well be less practical in cold, rainy January and February.
Dan Sayre Groesbeck, a set designer for Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood epics, painted a mural that covers all four walls of the large room originally intended for County Board of Supervisors meetings. The mural depicts the history of the Santa Barbara area during the Spanish and Mexican eras, from 1542 through 1846, and includes silent-movie “title cards” explaining each scene. Today the Mural Room is a place for weddings, concerts, and public meetings. The foyer outside the Mural Room features a tiled staircase and a rose window.
I first visited the Santa Barbara courthouse in May 2001. I couldn’t help noting the contrast between it and what was then the very newest courthouse in Los Angeles, where I had the unhappy experience of serving jury duty a year earlier.
The Los Angeles Airport Courthouse might be described as a nine-story concrete tombstone with green-tinted windows. On the roof is an overhanging circular metal lattice— perhaps an abstract depiction of a gallows? It looms over an isolated industrial park near the airport. Even a year and a half before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, anyone entering the building had to go through the metal detector and x-ray security gauntlet found at airports. Possibly to keep visitors usefully occupied while waiting, the Authorities thoughtfully provided signs detailing the many things one is forbidden to do or to possess while in the building.
Everyone we jurors encountered felt the need to apologize for problems with the facility. The jury supervisor apologized for the lack of adequate parking, the lack of proximity to public transit, the lack of a cafeteria, and the lack of anything within walking distance. Judges apologized for the courtroom decor (which resembled office cubicles), and for the inadequately-sized jury boxes that would make economy-class airline seating seem spacious. Even lawyers appearing before judges were constantly apologizing for violations of normal etiquette caused by the unconventional and dysfunctional layout of the courtrooms. A few months later, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about workers’ complaints that the building’s ventilation system was causing various illnesses.
Here was a courthouse hostile not merely to criminals and jurors, but to judges, lawyers, employees, the public, and indeed to anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves inside it. I could only conclude that whoever designed it was interested only in creating a Monument to Bureaucratic Arrogance. It needed to be not merely impressive to those who behold it, but oppressive.
But in all their grandiose plans, the designers and their clients seem to have forgotten— or perhaps intentionally disregarded— the fact that people were actually going to use the building! Unlike the Santa Barbara Courthouse, it was clearly designed to be an intimidating and even repellent monstrosity. Nobody would (or should) venture anywhere near it unless officially Summoned by the magisterial Justice System— either to serve it by satisfying its insatiable demand for jurors, or to submit to its Awesome Wrath.
The differences between the courthouses in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara could reflect changes in American society over three quarters of a century. The Santa Barbara courthouse might represent a time when government was perceived as open, friendly, trustworthy, and accountable to the people it served. County officials thus put their courts and offices in a distinctively beautiful building that invited the public to visit and to enjoy it. They sought to embody citizens’ pride in their architectural treasure and in the institutions it housed. Perhaps, then, the hostile fortified edifice in Los Angeles similarly reflects how officials regarded the relationship between citizen and Government at the end of the twentieth century.