Santa Barbara’s State Park, Located Downtown
When I think of a state park I think of mountains and trees, not downtown Santa Barbara. Wrong! We have one in the middle of town. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park sits between Anacapa and Garden streets on East Canon Perdido Street.
The main part of the site is across the street from the city Post Office and about two blocks from City Hall, de la Guerra Plaza and two museums, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum and Casa de la Guerra, including a reconstructed quadrangle with soldiers’ quarters and a chapel. Only two portions of the original presidio (fort) survive. A remnant of the Canedo Adobe serves as the visitor’s center for the state park.
The site administrator is the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, which has reconstructed the rest of the site. The Presidio Chapel and courtyard were also completed during the construction of the quadrangle. Although it is not a canonical Roman Catholic oratory, Catholic weddings are sometimes performed with permission of the local Roman Catholic Santa Barbara Pastoral Regional bishop.
There were four presidios in California (San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco). The site of our presidio was chosen by Felipe de Neve, the fourth governor of Las Californias. He felt the coast at Santa Barbara was vulnerable to attack so he found a spot near the harbor that was sheltered from severe storms with an ample supply of building materials and water. Construction began in 1782 with Padre Junipero Sierra blessing the site.
The Presidio was made of adobe – mud and brush – around a quadrangle 330 feet on a side housing 61 officers and men. The first commandant, Jose Ortega, planned fortifications and irrigation works. He obtained livestock and planted orchards. The town grew up around the Presidio but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1857. The mission was located a mile and a half inland and was mainly intended for use by the native Chumash neophytes after their conversion to Catholicism.
The Presidio was never attacked by a major force in its 60 years of operation but nature had its way with several devastating earthquakes in the 19th century. The Presidio Chapel turned into Our Lady of Sorrows Church at the corner of Figueroa and State and then Anacapa and Sola streets in 1929. The Presidio has the honor of being the last military outpost built by Spain in the New World and in 1973 was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
In 1963 the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation was founded by Dr. Pearl Chase and other community leaders with a plan to restore the Presidio. In 1966 the Presidio land became a State Historic Park. In 2006 the Trust renewed its ongoing agreement with the California State Parks Department to manage the Presidio. Restoration is ongoing.
At the time of the Mexican-American War very little remained of the fort. And then on December 27, 1846 Major John C. Fremont came through San Marcos Pass in the rain and came upon the Presidio and the town. The Presidio surrendered without a fight as the garrison was way south in the pueblo of Los Angeles. Today El Presidio is a busy tourist attraction, museum, and an active archaeological site but is temporarily closed because of the pandemic.
The two bells above the chapel have traveled 11,000 miles since they were first cast in Zacatecas, Mexico. Then sent to San Blas, Mexico, to Santa Barbara, to Milton, Massachusetts, to Los Altos, California and ultimately back to their home at the Presidio. In their day they called the Presidio residents for mass, the rosary, rations and to sound quarters for the watch at night. They regulated work schedules, welcomed the arrival of prominent visitors, signaled alarms and celebrated festivities. During the pandemic they no longer ring, but when it’s over they will gong every noon.
Across the street from the Presidio is an adobe called El Cuartel, which is the second oldest surviving building in California. Only the chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano is older and is called “Father Junipero Serra’s Church.”
The businesses that are in the State Park are tenants and pay rent such as Jimmie’s, Panino, Zaytoon, Playa Azul, and more. The Trust for Historic Preservation recently completed repairs on the façade of the 1928 commercial building at 131-137 East De La Guerra Street, now a City Structure of Merit.
“We also replaced the roof at 914 Santa Barbara Street, two conjoined early 20th century homes now occupied by beloved restaurant La Playa Azul,” said the trust’s executive director Anne Petersen and board president Debby Aceves in a statement. “Now they are asking for your help with a new and equally transformative project.”
That would be improvements to the intersection adjacent to the Moullet House at 834 Santa Barbara Street. It too is a Structure of Merit and was built by J. F. Moullet as a home for his family in 1896. It is one of the few 19th century brick buildings in Santa Barbara. In 1932 it housed the branch headquarters for the Chinese Nationalist Party as this part of the neighborhood became New Chinatown.
In the mid-20th century, new store windows were added to the home and a succession of small businesses, a liquor store, and a printing company followed. The Trust for Historic Preservation plans to reduce the amount of asphalt and expand the brick patio to restore the appearance of a proper front entry to this Victorian home. Above-ground plants will become vehicle barriers to expand outdoor dining. The vintage planter and odd light fixture will be restored and rescued from the overgrown plants. The project can be completed for $10,000. If you would like to contribute, send a donation to Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 123 East Canon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101-2215.
Stewarding the past and present of the Presidio Neighborhood is the mission of SBTHP. You can see more at their website www.sbthp.org/moullethouse or by calling 805-965-0093. The Presidio area will also be used for seventh grader field trips as part of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Pearl Chase, who played such a big role in our history, would have been happy to see how all her endeavors have made our town not only beautiful but historically meaningful.