On the morning of June 29, 1925, a professionally dressed 53 year old woman carrying an overnight travel bag and a set of architectural plans stepped off the train in Santa Barbara, California. As she walked up State Street, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck, throwing her to her knees. Dazed, she crawled into the street feeling for the linear steel streetcar tracks to orient herself in the blinding dust.
The woman was Julia Morgan, the first woman to earn an architectural degree from the respected École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the first licensed woman architect in the state of California, and the principal architect for William Randolph Hearst. It was for Hearst that she designed and constructed La Cuesta Encantada, better known as Hearst Castle.
This earthquake was not her first rodeo. She was also in San Francisco during the infamous 1906 earthquake and fire, and had rebuilt the badly damaged Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill. Once the dust had settled, Ms. Morgan spent hours walking among the damaged buildings observing the dynamics of the construction materials and how they had reacted under stress.
The 1925 earthquake ended up destroying 85% of downtown Santa Barbara. Over 400 brick and mortar, mixed wood, and masonry buildings were demolished or irreparably damaged. Amidst the ruins, the devastated city seized the opportunity to rebuild, and selected Spanish Colonial Revival as its unifying architectural style.
The Spanish Colonial Revival style was popularized by Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow Sr., ten years earlier at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park. In developing the style for the exposition, the architects re-interpreted Spanish Baroque and Spanish Colonial designs including Mexican Churrigueresque detailing.
Out of the rubble of the 1925 earthquake, Santa Barbara became a showcase for design and construction in this nascent architectural style. Architects James Osborne Craig and Mary McLaughlin Craig were early proponents of the style and masters of its form. George Washington Smith, who designed over 80 homes and buildings in and around Santa Barbara, is considered the “Father” of the Spanish Colonial Revival style.
Today, the appearance of the city is unified by its architectural style. Exemplifying Santa Barbara’s adoption of its civic style, the beautiful Santa Barbara County Courthouse has been called the grandest Spanish Colonial Revival structure ever built. The view of the city from the Courthouse clock tower reveals a characteristic sea of low-pitched red tile rooves and labyrinth of smooth white stucco walls.
As we walk the streets that Julia Morgan did on that fateful day in 1925, the architectural elements of the Spanish Colonial Revival design are all around us. Moorish light fixtures, hand painted Andalucian tile-work, wood beamed ceilings, arched arcades, courtyards, patios, colorful wood trim, small balconies, and wrought iron detailing, are design attributes of a style that rose out of the rubble.