Santa Barbara County Courthouse

By Lynda Millner   |   July 2, 2020
The clock tower at the Courthouse

While we’re waiting for this pandemic to subside it might be fun to learn a bit about one of our five National Historic Landmarks, the County Courthouse. The others are the Mission, Casa del Herrero, the Raphael Gonzales Adobe, and the Santa Barbara Club. As I write this the Courthouse has a lock on the door and is closed for business. But usually it is bustling with visitors, tourists, and attorneys.

There are about 80 docents (the Docent Council) who volunteer their time to take folks on a tour of the building seven days a week. There is also a docent in the information booth as you enter all day to help with directions.

The tour begins in the Mural Room which the architect William Mooser II designed to be the “throne room” for the king and queen. Well, the building does look like a Spanish castle! Instead the Mural Room has never been a courtroom but the meeting place for the five Santa Barbara County board of supervisors until the 1960s when they moved across the street to the admin building. Now the Mural Room is used for many weddings, ceremonies, parties, and the like.

So welcome to my tour! How did we get this spectacular public building? It goes back to when California became the 31st state in 1850. Now we needed a courthouse. The city rented the Kays adobe at first. The town was rather wild and wooly with 25 saloons on State Street and a population of 500 and 500 more in the County. Then Santa Barbara needed a larger courthouse so a bigger adobe was acquired. The County was outgrowing their western frontier days and wanted a fancy eastern style place. They built a Greek Revival building complete with lots of marble and brass. As that became too small a new Hall of Records was constructed, but sadly in a Queen Anne style which didn’t blend with the larger building at all.

Now it was time to have a contest to choose an architect for a new courthouse. By now the town was interested in a Spanish style building and a Spanish town, white stucco walls and red tile roofs. The city fathers chose first, second, third and fourth place winners, but then had no money to build with. Finally nature intervened in 1925 with a giant earthquake which struck down the courthouse and the Hall of Records. Now was the time to start anew. The second place winner was chosen for the job, William Mooser II. He knew about Andalusian architecture (the southwest part of Spain where the Alhambra palace is located in Granada). Also Mooser’s architect son had lived in Spain and knew all about Andalusia so he came back from Europe to help his dad.

The town had never had a plan that all agreed on so they went to the city architect J. Wilmer Hershey and asked him to draw them a quick sketch. They were in a hurry. Lo and behold the group liked it and so began our current courthouse. A $700,000 bond was passed but expenses went up to almost $1.4 million. Now what? A stroke of luck. The Rio Grand Oil Co. struck oil at Elwood, west of Santa Barbara. Revenue from the oil tax paid for the rest of the courthouse. And amazingly it was finished in just two months before the stock market crash in 1929.

Now to decorate the Mural Room, artist Dan Groesbeck was chosen. Everyone had loved the large painting of Juan Cabrillo’s arrival in 1542 which hangs in the lobby just outside the Mural Room that Groesbeck had painted for a local bank in 1924. He had illustrated books for O Henry, Joseph Conrad and Jack London and also worked in Hollywood for Cecil B. DeMille. He was to decorate all the walls and Giovanni Smeraldi was chosen to paint the ceiling. He was from Palermo, Sicily and much influenced by the cathedrals near his home. He had worked in the Vatican, Grand Central Station in New York, the blue room in the White House and the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

The grand arch and fountain at the Courthouse

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 (before the Chumash) Indians watching Juan Cabrillo landing in Santa Barbara. (He may have landed on one of the Channel Islands.) The artist took some liberties. If you notice the ship is supposed to be anchored out, but the anchor is on the side of the ship. The sails are wide open to the wind. In real life it would have sailed away but artistically this looked better.

Then in 1602 along came Vizcaino, a Spanish explorer and mapmaker. He arrived 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 only lasting until 1846. 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 draught in the 1800s. Lastly agriculture: strawberries, broccoli and grapes, grapes, grapes. When I first came here there were only 12 wineries in Santa Ynez Valley and one in Santa Barbara. Now there are over 200 in the Valley and dozens in town with as many tasting rooms.

On the same wall there is a painting of California’s symbol, the grizzly bear, known to be all brown. But this one has a white nose – artistic license, I guess. There is also a hedgehog “crawling” across the painting. No one knows why. There is a wish for health and wealth (Saluda y Peseta) and Thank God (Gracias a Dios). Peeking out from around a tree is a young boy with a pixie hat on 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 Mission – the fourth (various disasters had occurred including an earthquake in 1812) since 1786 when our Mission was the tenth in a line of 21 in California. There are also images on this wall of characters from Hollywood like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Robin Hood, and Friar Tuck. 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.

The chandeliers were custom made in the USA and weigh one thousand pounds. In fact everything in the Courthouse was made in the USA except for the tiles that form the wainscot and a few others. They came from Tunisia. When Mr. Steedman was building his George Washington Smith home, he and his family moved in the day of the earthquake because there was no damage. He still needed more of the Tunisian tiles and ordered them. But nothing came. Two years later here came the tiles. Turns out the Chemla factory was small and couldn’t keep up with the Courthouse orders and Steedman’s.

The carpet on the dais is original as are the drapes. The varguenos (Spanish desks) on the dais are original too. The supervisors had no offices so they kept their papers in them, with the large piece of furniture for the chief. The benches are original and used to be covered in cowhides instead of vinyl. That is why they are the length of a cow and its hide.

In 2010 there was a fire in the ceiling causing smoke damage to the whole Mural Room. Insurance kicked in until it was discovered that the mural was on muslin, glued to the wall and then painted. The stucco behind the paintings was disintegrating and the room needed a total renovation to save the mural. This was finally accomplished in 2014. The workers left a square foot of the wall unrestored, so you can see just how bad it had been.

As you leave the Mural Room you will notice the large Spanish bolt located on the outside of the door. It seems if the bad guys were attacking, the lock should be on the inside. The joke that goes around is that if the supervisors didn’t make the right decision, they would just lock them in until they did. It may have been the architect’s little joke.

When the latest padlock goes away after the lockdown, come see your Courthouse. It presents itself as a grand palace and is frequently called the most beautiful public building in the United States. I think so. The rest of the Courthouse tour to be continued. The Courthouse is temporarily locked because of the pandemic.


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