“What is the history of Santa Barbara’s City Hall?” — Susan Millward By Michael Redmon
For 24 years after Santa Barbara’s city government was formed in 1850, the ever-growing number of city departments were housed in buildings scattered around town. Initially, City Council met in members’ homes; by 1870, the city was spending $60 per month to rent a meeting room for the council in a commercial building. In a sense, therefore, there have been innumerable “city halls” throughout the years, but there have been just two buildings devoted solely to housing the machinery of the municipal government.
Cries increased for the construction of a City Hall in the early 1870s. One newspaper recommended budget cutting and elimination of some government positions, such as town marshal, to fund a City Hall. A new city charter, adopted in April 1874, called for a City Hall, a jail, and the town’s first fire department. In July, the City Council approved plans to build a two-story brick building in the middle of Plaza de la Guerra — at a cost of some $8,000 — to house the council chamber, police court, a three-cell city jail, fire department, tax collection office, and office of the city clerk. Construction began in September and the building was dedicated in March 1875 with a grand ball hosted by the volunteer fire company.
The building was in the form of a “T,” with most of the bottom floor taken up by the fire department, but also with room for the police court and the jail. The second floor housed various departments and the council chambers, which were equipped with a captain’s chair and spittoon for each councilmember. The building was surmounted by a tower with the city fire bell. The bell was rung three times every day at noon. For fire response, the city was divided into neighborhoods, each with a distinctive bell code, so firefighters would know where to respond. In the early 1890s, stables were built behind the hall to meet the department’s growing needs for horses. The plaza was now commonly called City Hall Plaza.
In 1910, government growth pushed the city into approving $4,000 to expand and remodel City Hall so as to house all city departments under one roof. There was growing dissatisfaction with the look of City Hall; one newspaper called it “incongruous … sticking into the Plaza like a sore thumb.” It was decided to redesign the hall in the Mission Revival style, which was popular at that time. Two large palms were planted flanking the rear entrance to City Hall; those trees are still there today. A Mission Revival tower was added to the hall’s northeast corner and the bell tower removed. The bell now sat in a 40-foot tower behind the hall, which was also used to hang and drain the fire hoses. The stables were converted to living quarters for the firefighters, as the department changed over to motorized vehicles.
By 1922, overcrowding in City Hall had become a serious concern. The decision was made to abandon the 47-year-old building and construct a new City Hall at the northeast end of the plaza, designed by the architectural firm of Sauter and Lockard. The City Hall with which we are familiar today opened its doors in 1924. The old hall was stripped of everything useful and, after an unsuccessful attempt to sell the building, it was torn down. This was easier said than done, however. Both the steam shovel used to raze the hall and a number of large trucks began to sink into a quagmire — the result of the underground drainage dumps used in the fire department’s steam engine days. After the 1925 earthquake, the entire plaza was spruced up and became known as De la Guerra Plaza.
Of course the hope of housing all city departments under one roof has long disappeared. The city has in some ways returned to the days before our first City Hall was built, when municipal offices were housed in different buildings scattered across the city
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.