Thursday, March 15, 2012

Courting Beauty: The Santa Barbara County Courthouse

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse has been rightly called the most beautiful public building in America, and honestly there is no argument. You don’t have to know anything about architecture to be in awe of this impressive building so make sure you bring your camera. This is classic Santa Barbara and you need to see it when you visit. Covering an entire block the courthouse is a stunning example of Spanish and Moorish (Persian) design. William Mooser III designed this courthouse to replace the earlier 1872 version built on the same site, a Colonial-Jeffersonian looking thing with a massive domed copula and lots of columns.
The Sunken Gardens from the Clocktower

But the 1926 earthquake changed the face of Santa Barbara forever. When the new courthouse was completed in 1929 it was unlike anything in the city. Lush grounds including the copious lawn and Sunken Gardens (you’ll find lots of concerts and events happening here) lay the foundation for the sandstone building with arabesque windows, archways, hand painted wood ceilings, and walls with intricate designs, and pueblo tile inlays nearly everywhere flashing brilliant colors and native designs. While you visit make sure you look up - the hand painted ceilings and beams were done in a style known as Dutch-Metal whereby paint was mixed with copper and zinc to achieve what looks like gold inlay.
Of particular note is the Mural Room, once used for the county board of supervisors for about 30 years. The huge room (40 feet wide by 70 feet long with 25 foot ceilings) is covered in a mural depicting the early Chumash Indians and following the history of the area towards California statehood in 1850. (As a matter of worthless trivia, the City of Santa Barbara is actually older than the State of California: Santa Barbara was founded on April 9th, 1850, and California achieved statehood on September 9th, 1850, so there!) The chandeliers in the Mural Room weight in at half a ton each.

The Clocktower, known as El Mirador, is one of the tallest structures in the city, a mere 85 feet, but it is here where you will get the best views of downtown, the mountains and ocean from a downtown perspective. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. Once there, a dozen steps lead up and out to the platform. You’ll be thrilled at the red tile roofs splayed out in front of you on the nearby buildings, the Rivera where you can see the twin Mission towers, the Channel Islands, ever the tip of Ventura, and of course everything in between. There are placards describing points of interest at each direction so you can easily get your bearings. This is a must photo-op.
From the Clocktower you can see the red tile roofs of Santa Barbara

This is also still a functioning courthouse (I know this all too well as I served on jury duty here for three weeks, but in a crappy unadorned courtroom!). You don’t need the tour to appreciate the sheer beauty and craftsmanship of the building, but they will give you more specific information. Ironically, by Santa Barbara County’s current building codes and standards, the courthouse would never be approved and built today: it’s massing would be considered too great, it would violate the height ordinance of 60 feet, and there is no adequate parking. Fortunately it remains a jewel in Santa Barbara and frankly, the best expression of what Santa Barbara was envisioned to be like in the late 1920s.
There are beautiful details everywhere

The Courthouse is located at 1100 Anacapa St. (805/962-6464, and free docent tours are conducted at 2 p.m. daily, except Sunday. Additional tours are at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. 

WATCH my 2 Minute Travel video shot in the Clocktower here:

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