We head up the road this week to Mission Santa Barbara, “Queen of the Missions.” Not only did Saint Barbara lend her name to the city, her namesake mission generously shared what we now recognize as Santa Barbara style. This was the social capital of Alta California, even when Monterey was its political capital. But the presidio came first, in 1782, and the mission, California’s tenth, was built four years later.
Despite an aura of ease and comfort, then as now, Santa Barbara has suffered—two major earthquakes (the first flattened the original mission), a massive tidal wave, direct enemy attack during World War II, an ecologically devastating offshore oil spill in the 1970s, and fires, many, many fires, racing down through the chaparral, threatening to shove Santa Barbara right into the sea.
But back to that Spanish Colonial style, which you’ll literally see everywhere in Santa Barbara. The town’s trademark look—cream-colored stucco, sloping red-tile roofs, and wrought-iron grillwork—is now the law, a citywide architectural statement you can appreciate even at McDonald’s. A devastating earthquake in June 1925, which left the city in ruins, was the best thing that ever happened to Santa Barbara, style-wise, until then a mission town more or less like any other. During reconstruction, the architectural review board declared that new buildings would henceforth be Mediterranean in design and style, evoking the community’s Hispanic heritage.
To explore the result, start out old school, at the mission itself. The Queen of the Missions still stands tall, queenly as ever, presiding over the city and sea below with two massive squared and domed bell towers, an arched entrance and arcades, dignified Ionic columns, and graceful double-paneled doors. Except during church services, you can wander just about everywhere except the monks’ quarters, including the grounds and gardens. A special treat, available only with advance reservations, is lovely La Huerta Historical Garden, with plantings that represent what you would have seen growing here during mission days, from Sonoran wheat, olives, grapes, pomegranates, peaches, and citrus trees to bananas, sugar cane, guava, and prickly pear.
The genesis of the city’s original water system is also visible at Mission Santa Barbara, once an impressive network of aqueducts, filter house, and Spanish gristmill. The larger of the mission’s two reservoirs, built in 1806, was still used to supply city water into the 1990s.
After the mission, head downtown to El Presidio State Historic Park, Spain’s final military outpost in California, where you can visit two of the old fort’s original adobes—El Cuartel, Santa Barbara’s oldest building, and the Cañedo Adobe, now the visitor center. An ambitious reconstruction of the entire presidio has been underway for many decades, and continues.
As for that inimitable post-earthquake Santa Barbara style, don’t miss the 1929 Santa Barbara County Courthouse. An L-shaped Spanish-Moorish castle decked out with murals, mosaics, ceramic Tunisian tile, and carved woods, this is quite possibly the most beautiful public building anywhere in California. County supervisors meet in a room dominated by a romantic four-wall historic mural created by a Cecil B. DeMille set designer, sitting under handmade iron chandeliers in comfy brass-studded chairs. The spectacular views of the city from the clock tower or the mirador balcony alone make the courthouse worthwhile.