St. Anthony’s Altar Candelabra

By Elizabeth Stewart   |   June 25, 2024
The altar at St. Anthony Chapel in Santa Barbara

In the late 1920s, throughout California, towns and cities saw a boom in a certain symbolic style of architectural decoration; we will recognize the style when we visit San Diego’s Balboa Park, or San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. Santa Barbara contributed to his style in perhaps the most distinctive sculptural work, located in the rarely seen St. Anthony Chapel on Garden Street. I had a private moment in that 1927 Chapel, as my client SM from the St. Anthony’s Community asked me to appraise their altar candelabra. They turned out to be reproductions of 18th c. style sticks, not worth more than $400-500 the pair. But they were not my focal point!

Formerly a Seminary, when sold by the Franciscans the property became the Garden Street Academy. Now the property is being sold again. Though the St. Anthony’s Community has celebrated mass in that chapel since 1968 – when the Franciscan fathers opened the previously private chapel and invited the public to join them – the present group of worshippers, an inclusive Catholic community, must leave.

The Chapel’s centerpiece is the Reredos, the highly ornamental and symbolic structure behind the altar. The style is a combination of Spanish Renaissance style 16th c. plateresque (in the style of ornate silversmithing) and the mystery, mannerism, and exoticism of the late 1920s. There’s also an element of “set design” prevalent in this era of silent film. This reredos, huge at 22 feet x 38 feet, is a gem. It has close cousins in San Diego, but nothing as impressive as the back wall of the St. Anthony Chapel in Santa Barbara.

The work was designed by architect Ross Montgomery, who was charged with rebuilding the Chapel and other buildings after the 1925 earthquake; he requested the well-known cast stone sculptor Christian Mueller, who had just completed his beautiful façade for the 1926 San Diego Museum of Art, then called the Fine Arts Gallery. Montgomery re-designed the St. Antony Chapel for the Franciscan Friars in the Romanesque style with an Italian Renaissance campanile at 160 feet high, visible for miles. Work on Mueller’s show-stopping sculptural façade for the San Diego Museum of Art – produced in concert with the great San Diego architect William Templeton Johnson (1877-1950) –  began in 1922, the museum opening February 28, 1926. 

To that façade, Mueller added life size figures of Spanish Old Master painters Velazquez, Murillo, and Zurbaran, and included a small Michelangelo’s David. He also added such heraldic devices as the coats of arms of Spain, the USA, California, and San Diego. Christian Mueller lived in Burbank and had an apprentice – his 20-year-old son Chris Mueller. Father and son worked together on the massive “clam shell” fan over the San Diego Museum’s entryway. (Note the underwater themes Chris Mueller developed later in his career). Mueller, senior and junior, then had the rest of 1926 to devote to Santa Barbara’s St. Anthony’s Chapel reredos. Completed on May 27, 1927, the chapel was consecrated – by Friar and Seminary Rector Theophilus Richardt – as “Christ the King Chapel.”

Elder Mueller’s career in cast stone, which is actually a type of poured and molded concrete, extended to Federal and State buildings in Sacramento, St. Paul’s Cathedral in Chicago, Sacred Heart and St. Ignatius Churches in San Francisco, and the architect Betram Goodhue’s 1918 Park Avenue Church, St. Bartholomew. As Mueller’s son Chris developed as an artist, he was recruited for Hollywood films in the 1950s, sculpting the giant squid for the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and sculpting the title character for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the 1960s he designed Disney’s Haunted Mansion, Florida’s Disney Palace, and Disney’s Jungle Boat ride. In the 1970s he returned to San Diego’s Balboa Park, where he would restore and repair 1920s-era architectural elements his father had been obliged to produce with that day’s meager support of hay and wood. Chris Mueller Jr.’s masterpiece is the restoration of the decorative architecture of Carleton Winslow’s (1876-1946) Panama California International Exposition Food and Beverage Building (1915-16). For that effort, Mueller Jr. created a permanent installation of the old plaster palace, which was renamed the Casa del Prado in 1970. 

You’ll remember the pair of 80-foot-tall towers that once flanked the entrances to the Chris Mueller Jr.’s redesigned Casa del Prado. Mueller Jr. began his career under the eyes of his dad at St. Anthony’s Chapel in Santa Barbara. The great architectural tradition visible behind the altar, uniquely Californian, continues to fascinate in its symbolism. For example, note the large white unadorned disc in the middle of the reredos: that is the wafer, which after Consecration, is the body of Christ. The tree is a reference to Adam and Eve.  


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