An Insider's Guide to the Courthouse

by Courtney Dietz September 17, 2013

The beloved Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a designated National Historic Landmark and one of the most photographed buildings in the country. The Spanish Colonial Revival structure we know today was designed by William Mooser III and completed in 1929.

It functions as an active legal center, hosts weddings, and continues to draw thousands of visitors each year.

View from the Tower: The Santa Barbara County Courthouse

When the county bought the Kays Adobe at Anacapa and Anapamu streets in 1856, the courthouse was moved to its present site from where it had been at the Cota Adobe on Anacapa near Ortega Street. However, the classic adobe was quickly deemed insufficient and was demolished in favor of a Greek Revival structure (built by the same architect responsible for the Arlington Hotel), representing a notable rejection of Santa Barbara’s Spanish colonial heritage.
 
Around the end of World War I, the architectural style was already shifting in favor of the Spanish colonial theme and there was talk of a new courthouse. Plans were set to construct the new building after the massive earthquake of 1925 demolished much of Santa Barbara and badly damaged the courthouse.
As Patricia Gebhard and Kathryn Mason put it in their fantastic book on the architecture and history of The Santa Barbara County Courthouse (find it in our shop, here):
All of the philosophical jockeying, public opinions, preliminary public works codes, community committee work, and enthusiasm for the increasingly popular Spanish colonial revival style came together at that moment in history and provided Santa Barbara the best preparation it could possibly have had to conceive and construct a new and spectacular courthouse.
Check out the following facts for some trivia to impress your guests and friends:
    • Artist Daniel Sayre Groesbeck painted the Mural Room (it took 4 months) and he left town immediately upon completion of the mural. He neglected to sign his work and when asked to return, he declined. As such, the signature on the back wall is actually a forgery. While the credit for the project’s success must ultimately be given to William Mooser and Company, the brilliant sketches of J. Wilmer Hershey became the foundation for the Andalusian influence.
    • The jail wing is complete with cells, which are no longer used. The cells were built and then the building was added around them, making it impossible to remove the cells without severely damaging the existing building. There is discussion of making them part of the docent-led tour. The intricately carved judges’ chairs (now found in the Mural Room) were deemed so uncomfortable that the Supervisors and Judges removed them from daily use. Now just a few of the artistic chairs remain on display.

Look up! The Santa Barbara County Courthouse ceiling

Look up! The County Courthouse ceiling

The courthouse is still fully functioning today. Docent tours are led almost daily, (find tour information here). Simply take a stroll or take a tour, but be sure not to miss this impressive historical complex and gardens. And head over to our online shop to check out a few of our favorite artistic renditions of the courthouse for your wall or pick up a box of note cards and share the courthouse with your friends!


Courtney Dietz
Courtney Dietz

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