An artistic courthouse

July 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

The Mural Room of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

By LYNDA MILLNER

Nature intervened in 1925 with a giant earthquake, which struck down the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and the Hall of Records. A $700,000 bond was passed, but expenses went up to almost $1.4 million. Now what? A stroke of luck. The Rio Grande Oil Co. struck oil at Ellwood, west of Santa Barbara. Revenue from the oil tax paid for the rest of the courthouse. And amazingly it was finished just two months before the stock market crash in 1929.

The Mural Room has never been a courtroom, but was the meeting place for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors until the 1960s. Now the Mural Room is used for weddings, ceremonies, parties and the like.

Artist Dan Groesbeck wasn’t given many instructions except to paint the history of Santa Barbara on all four walls. He had two helpers and was paid $9,000. It took them four months.

He began with the Canalinos Indians watching Juan Cabrillo landing near Santa Barbara in 1542. Then in 1602 along came Vizcaino, a Spanish explorer and mapmaker. He arrived on December 4, which was Saint Barbara’s feast day, hence our name and claim of the territory for Spain.

The next part of the mural is when Mexico was independent of Spain, beginning in 1822 and lasting only until 1846, when Captain John Fremont descended through San Marcos Pass and claimed Santa Barbara for the United States.

The third wall portrays what makes Santa Barbara’s economic engine run. First came minerals: oil, silver and diatomaceous earth. Next came cattle: thousands, giving hides and tallow until the big drought in the 1800s. Lastly agriculture: strawberries, broccoli and grapes, grapes, grapes.

On the same wall there is a painting of California’s symbol, the grizzly bear. Peeking out from around a tree is a young boy with a pixie hat depicting Peter Pan. What did he have to do with Santa Barbara? At the time a film company was out on one of the islands filming the story of Peter Pan, silent and in black and white.

The back wall shows the Chumash Indians working on the Santa Barbara Mission — the fourth since 1786, when our mission was 10th in a line of 21 in California. The signature in the bottom left-hand corner is a forgery. After Groesbeck was paid and on his way to Europe, they discovered the mural was unsigned. Upon being asked to return and sign his work, he said: “No. Just have someone do it.” And so they did.

— Excerpted from the Montecito Journal

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, with its distinctive clock tower.

‘The grandest ever built’

By RAY McDEVITT

Santa Barbara is one of the 27 original counties and the City of Santa Barbara has always been the county seat. By the 1870s, the Anglo political and economic ascendancy had become evident in architecture as well. The 1875 courthouse designed by Peter Barber, in a restrained classical style, was welcomed in part because it represented such a decisive break with the Hispanic past.

At the turn of the century, however, changing fashions led to a new appreciation of the provincial Spanish adobes now becoming scarcer. After World War I, interest in reclaiming the city’s Spanish architectural heritage intensified. The old courthouse, though a distinctive piece of architecture when built in 1875, had been outgrown by the 1920s. But no real progress was made in planning for its replacement until matters were brought to a head in 1925 when it was severely damaged by a powerful earthquake.

The board of supervisors commissioned William Mooser Co. Architects, the oldest architectural firm in the state, having been founded in 1854, to develop plans for a courthouse in harmony with the Spanish origins of the county. William Mooser Jr., son of the founder, was an accomplished architect. His son, William Mooser III, a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris who had lived for 17 years in France and Spain, returned from Europe to assist his father.

They succeeded beyond all expectations. Architectural historian David Gebhard assessed the Santa Barbara courthouse as “certainly the public monument from the 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival in California.” Charles Moore, in The City Observed, deemed it “the grandest Spanish Colonial Revival structure ever built.” Harold Kirker praised it as “a beautifully integrated structure . . . sensitively related to a vast sunken garden of stone terraces and half century old pines, palms and redwoods. The courthouse is equally impressive from every vantage point and is rich in wit, fantasy and surprises. It is a treasure house of architectural and decorative devices — archways, towers and loggias; tiled walls, vaults and floors; wrought-iron grills, balconies and landings — in which nothing is repeated or exactly alike.”

Excerpted from Courthouses of California (Heyday Books, 2001), edited by Ray McDevitt. Reviewed by Thomas Reynolds

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