Santa Barbara Courthouse: Part II

By Lynda Millner   |   July 23, 2020
Santa Barbara Courthouse

As my docent Courthouse tour continues, we have exited the Mural Room and walked into the Lobby just outside the door on the second floor. We see the nine-by-twelve-foot painting of the landing of Juan Cabrillo which Dan Groesbeck had painted in 1924 for County National Bank. It was influential in his being chosen to paint the Mural Room.

In the Lobby hangs the largest lantern in the Courthouse. Visitors love it and so do the birds. They can fly in and out of this area and build their nests. There’s one there now. Back in the day there were these lanterns on Spanish ships. Supposedly when a galleon had had a successful trip it was the custom for the ship’s captain to give the lantern to the church from the town he had sailed from.

The tiles on the wainscot are from the Chemla factory in Tunisia. The National Historic Landmark, the Montecito estate Casa del Herrero, also has tiles from the same family factory. As you look across the way you’ll see a small balcony called a hoard. It would usually be on the outside of a castle and used to keep the “hoards” away by pouring boiling oil on the enemy. The architect put ours on the inside for visual interest (and there are no hoards). The small narrow window is called a lancet and is for an archer to rest his arm on the slant and shoot his bow and arrow. Again put on the inside instead of out.

The jail house wing of the Courthouse with the turret on top

Next to that wall you see a large painting of Dwight Murphy on his elegant palomino horse. He was a “man about town,” el presidente of Fiesta and breeder of the palomino horse.

If you take a few steps back and look up you’ll see the asymmetric arches. The Moors liked everything to be asymmetric, not symmetric which is visually more interesting. Artist Smeraldi painted the ceiling and the Byzantine angels. Behind us is a large rose window resembling those found in European churches. This sounds like quite a hodge podge of various art and religions all mixed together and yet somehow it is totally pleasing to the eye.

Now we walk into the Loggia which is an indoor, outdoor walkway often seen in castles. That’s how the birds enter. The walls are very thick and appear strong. In reality they are hollow and held together with lathe and plaster. Reminding one of a movie set – just a façade.

The Loggia looks over the Santa Ynez Mountains which go up to 4,000 feet. We had snow on them once this winter. In front of us is the old jail wing. When the Courthouse was built there was room for 140 inmates. The first floor was for the sheriff’s offices (and still is). The second was for the jailor and his family. The third floor housed women. The fourth was for men and the fifth for exercise. At the very top is a tower with two cells for solitary confinement. The cells resemble those at Alcatraz having been built at the same time. In 1971 a new jail facility was built in Goleta and this one closed. Now it is mostly used for storage. The architecture of the outer jail wall is a study in asymmetry. There are four different roof lines on the wing and many types of windows spaced all over the place.

Below us is the Sunken Garden, Santa Barbara’s outdoor auditorium. As many of you know all kinds of events are held here. Especially weddings. The steps are used for a stage during Fiesta in August and filled with Flamenco dancing and mariachis. Summer finds folks sitting on the lawn watching movies. There are concerts with most of the events free.

The Sunken Garden with the jail in the background

As we walk on we come to the Rotunda with its circular indoor, outdoor stairway. The 16 columns supporting the stairway are decorated with a design of acanthus leaves which mean immortality and done by Smeraldi. At the base of the stairway is a bronze medallion given by the Native Sons of the Golden West. The brown bear (a California symbol) is encircled by the dedication date of August 14, 1929. The Native Sons mixed sand and gravel from various counties representing natural resources of California with cement mix from various factories, representing industry and water from some of the 21 missions representing tradition. If one stands on the medallion, it is said you touch many parts of the Golden State.

The two original courtrooms are on this floor. Now there are six and a total of 13 in the neighborhood. In this wing hang five Theodore Van Cina paintings (a sixth smaller one hangs on the first floor portraying Fiesta in front of the Courthouse). The first is The Burial of Governor Jose Figueroa, governor of California during the Mexican period. He is buried at the Santa Barbara Mission church. The next is another landing of Cabrillo in 1542. Third is the placing of the cross at the Presidio when Santa Barbara was founded on April 21, 1782. Presidio means fort in Spanish. To protect the citizens there were four in California: San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco.

Midway down the Loggia we have the great doors. If you were a prominent Spaniard you would have large doors. The richer the larger. There was room for horses and coaches to enter. In case you just needed to go out for a simple errand there was the wicket doors (a door within a door). Across the hall is the Law Library which holds 30,000 books. Judge Canfield donated them to start the law library in 1891 for the old courthouse. The Gothic ceiling is beautiful done by Smeraldi.

The fourth Van Cina is the Pirate Bouchard Pillaging the Rancho Refugio west of Town in 1818. The fifth painting may be the favorite, The Fandango. It portrays the three-day wedding reception for Presidio Commandante Jose de la Guerra’s daughter Anita (age 15) to Alfred Robinson (age 29). We know all the details because a writer and sailor Richard Henry Dana was invited off a visiting ship and later wrote Two Years Before the Mast. This tome chronicled life in that era.

As we exit the building out the back we pass the corner stone of the 1872 courthouse. Then you’ll see a tall gate that looks like metal but is really wood. Imposing for a castle but wouldn’t keep anyone out for long. It has a wicket door as well. Nearby is the entrance to the underground garage where the judges park. It was a big deal in its day when underground parking was rare.

Carved into the arch is an inscription in Latin, “Learn Justice From This Warning.” That’s for the benefit of the prisoners who pass from the jail to the courtrooms. They cross the Bridge of Sighs, copied from the larger one in Venice, Italy that crosses over a canal.

While looking up notice the turret at the corner of the tower. It was meant to look like a castle watchtower but there is no access – only for the birds. At the base is a knight’s head. We don’t know whether he’s laughing or screaming.

Now we walk across the grass to the Hall of Records. The landscaping was designed by Ralph Stevens. Pearl Chase (a mover and shaker for Santa Barbara) had five redwoods planted to honor the five members of the Board of Supervisors. In the 1940s Henry Bauernschmidt loved palms and introduced about 35 different species of them. There are over 70 species of plants on the grounds.

The Hall of Records has an impressive entrance with its 8-by-13-foot high doors. The design on 30 copper plates is done in repousse where they hammer the back side. There is a restored 45-foot skylight. It was a big issue on how to heat and cool a National Historic Landmark. They installed a geothermal system to regulate interior water-based heat pumps. In 2003 the front lawn had 32 holes, 5 and 1/4 inches in diameter, 18 feet apart bored to a depth of 400 feet where the earth has a constant temperature of 69 to 70 degrees. Circulating water in pipes is heated or cooled to that constant temperature. The water is then pumped up into an area in the basement where it can be heated up to 75 degrees or cooled down. Even if you don’t need a birth certificate or a marriage license, it’s worth a look. You’ll see a basket hanging down from the balcony on a rope. In the days before computers the clerks had to run up to copy the paperwork and down to return it. Voila! A rope and a basket solved that problem.

We’ll end our tour in my next column talking about the historical fountain and the clock tower.


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