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Shelton in his downtown studio.

Paul Wellman

Shelton in his downtown studio.


Jeff Shelton, Santa Barbara’s Architectural Wizard

Is Pearl Chase rolling over in her grave, or is she jumping for joy?


From the rooftop of El Andaluz, the newest building going up along the Chapala corridor, we could see the dazzling panorama that is Santa Barbara: Sailboats bobbing in the marina, red-tiled roofs defining white stuccoed buildings, the Santa Ynez Mountains cascading toward Rincon-a city of natural beauty and human charm. To the north, of course, stood the charred, color-leached hills stretching from Montecito to Goleta, a devastating vista left by four wildfires within two years.

Surveying this contrasting scene with me was Jeff Shelton, arguably Santa Barbara’s most intriguing architect. It was only a few days after the Jesusita Fire, and El Andaluz, his nine-unit mixed-use project, seemed to be rising like an exuberant phoenix from the ash-covered streets below. He pointed up toward Mountain Drive, once famous for its bohemian residents and bacchanal festivals, and more recently for the 78 homes that burned there in last November’s Tea Fire. Shelton, who had been raised near Mountain Drive, had spent his childhood running in and out of many of those now-destroyed houses, houses he felt had inspired his architectural creativity. “They were of human scale, built by artists,” he said. “I soaked them into my bones.”

By Paul Wellman

Jeff Shelton’s fanciful designs include ceramics such as this tile work at his studio.

How this imprinting worked its way into Shelton’s buildings, into his design aesthetic, can be glimpsed in his new courtyard at El Andaluz. From the Gaud—like archway, fanciful details define the experience: Extensive handmade original tile work provide an Escher-like mind-buzz; sculptural raw metal encases the balconies; deeply hued pots by regional artists punctuate the curvy, sensual plaster walls. This friendly whimsy extends into the street, welcoming fellow Santa Barbarans to have a seat on a colorfully tiled bench or a refreshing drink at the water fountain.

The ‘canyonization’ complaint is bullshit if the buildings have people living there,” he said.

Despite these inviting features, El Andaluz, built with his longtime collaborators Dan Upton and Leon Olson, is not without its detractors. Some decry its bulk, its height; the whole thing that is happening on Chapala as the construction of large mixed-use buildings radically changes the streetscape. Though he is quick to point out that the one building he designed, El Andaluz, is under the city’s new height limits, Shelton is an outspoken proponent of greater density in Santa Barbara’s city core. “The ‘canyonization’ complaint is bullshit if the buildings have people living there,” he said, “and if they are delightful spaces. That is what a city is. Engaging, pedestrian-oriented architecture is what we need.”

While surveying this city that has became his canvas, I asked Shelton what he imagined Pearl Chase-that indomitable visionary who, by sheer force of will, reshaped Santa Barbara after the devastating earthquake of 1925 into its present Spanish Colonial Revival form-would say about his iteration of her aesthetic. “It would depend on how she felt about density. If she stayed with the idea of a sleepy little Spanish village, she probably wouldn’t have much good to say. If you want a sleepy little village, fine. Then limit the height to one story. Hey, I’ll work with that. But beware, only rich people would be able to live here.”

The staircase in El Andaluz, with metalwork by Shelton's brother David.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

The staircase in El Andaluz, with metalwork by Shelton’s brother David.

On a Street named Fig

In the middle of Fig Avenue, a short block of vintage Santa Barbara tucked behind lower State, there is a building that Shelton described as a decorated shed. Originally an 1880 carriage house, it has a carved wooden facade of either Asian or Eastern European influence. In the 1980s, Shelton’s brother, David, bought the place to save it from becoming a parking lot for Smart & Final. This is the architectural studio where Sheldon plays his magic flute. He has designed 24 projects here that now animate our city in all quarters, and he is working on 23 more.

In the corner of his studio sits a building model that looks like a Dr. Seuss daydream. And yet a block away, right off Haley Street, stands the actual construction, now known as the Ablitt House. Built on a wisp of a lot-20 feet by 20 feet-with its sorcerer’s cap dome peeking above the storefronts on lower State Street, it is already a tourist attraction. The tower, with its one-room-per-floor-space, is owned by Neil and Sue Ablitt, who moved there from a boat in the harbor, and Shelton designed it for them with a nautical efficiency.

Obviously, Shelton did not make his name as an architect of the huge ego-inflating palaces that have increasingly come to define Santa Barbara in the last decade. In fact, most bedrooms in a Jeff Shelton-designed house, such as in the Ablitt House, are small, cozy rooms where, as he is fond of saying, “people only have room to sleep and make love.”

Jeff has brought a whimsy, an appreciation for art and designs that relate to people. What Jeff has done in Santa Barbara is to enlighten it with a sense of freedom, shifting the dialogue while staying within the vernacular, much like Gaud- did in Barcelona.”

Viewing the Ablitt House-or any other Shelton-designed building, such the Andalusian fantasy village of work/live spaces called Cota Studios-you get the sense that his main architectural daddies surely were Gaud- and George Washington Smith. Though the two architectural giants are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, Shelton’s buildings do manage to combine the creative exuberance of Gaud- with the Spanish Colonial traditionalism of Smith.

Barry Berkus, the dean of Santa Barbara architects, believes Shelton is that rare architect who is defining a generation and someone who is freeing Santa Barbara architecture from what has become “the tyranny of the ‘20s,” when Pearl Chase set our course. “Jeff has brought a whimsy, an appreciation for art and designs that relate to people. What Jeff has done in Santa Barbara is to enlighten it with a sense of freedom, shifting the dialogue while staying within the vernacular, much like Gaud- did in Barcelona.”

Shelton with his model of the one-room-big and four-story-tall Ablitt House.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Shelton with his model of the one-room-big and four-story-tall Ablitt House.

In the Shire

Jeff Shelton, now 51, grew up in what he describes as a “fantasy world,” a parcel of an old estate called Oakleigh, sandwiched between two other fantastical realms, Lotusland and the boho enclave known as Mountain Drive.

On an unusually warm evening in late winter, I drove up Cold Springs Road to visit Shelton where he grew up and where he still lives. Similar to every other estate on this tony road in Montecito, a pair of sandstone pillars announce the property. Once inside, however, the whole mansion mystique shifts, and you get a clue as to what turns Jeff Shelton on. And it is not ersatz Tuscan megavillas.

Instead, I found simple wood-framed cottages embraced by lush meadows and riparian woodlands. What look like found-object art installations are scattered about willy-nilly: A stone that resembles a breast, an iron sculpture with a boot that I later discovered is used to ritually “boot out” the Shelton kids going off to college. On the lawn, a pleasant looking man was setting up Adirondack chairs in front of a huge sheet. It tuned out to be movie night. Behind the makeshift screen, the incredible sight of the Tea Garden arches captured my attention. Ground zero for the devastating Tea Fire, its triple stone arches still stand like an unbowed monument.

I found Shelton in the open doorway of the 700-square-foot Quonset hut that he shares with his wife, Karin, and their two daughters, Elena and Mattie. The space was pure magic, both ends opening onto the wild gardens that surround the structure. A loft bedroom has its own slide to the outdoors for purposes one can only speculate : maybe it’s there just for the fun of it.

The whole of Oakleigh crackled with creative energy that is both humble and expansive. As Shelton showed me around his domain, I heard how the Shelton clan came to possess this pristine and intact piece of land that had miraculously escaped the Vanity Fair transformation of Montecito: Oakleigh got its name from its first owner, a sea captain who landed in the rustic hills of Montecito in the 1800s. It eventually became the Dean’s School, which educated privileged boys until 1933. Hewitt Reynolds, the beloved headmaster, and his beautiful wife, Annie, owned the land, 33 acres of which they sold in 1967 to Westmont College. The Reynolds kept a lifetime right to a house on the property which ended three years ago when Annie, long widowed, died at the age of 106.

By Paul Wellman

Jeff Shelton

Shelton’s father, Rath, who still lives on the property, came to Santa Barbara originally to attend the Santa Barbara State College on the Riviera. World War II intervened, and after, he returned to Westmont, originally to complete college, and later to work in its public relations office for 25 years. Rath paid $50 a month rent for the property, which gave Shelton and his three brothers free range over the 45 acres of the now-abandoned Dean’s School. “I never grew up in a normal house,” Shelton said as he pointed to various modest structures: “That was the library; that was the infirmary; we made them all into homes.”

In 1971, with only $38 in his pocket, Shelton’s father was able to make a down payment on 12 acres of Oakleigh, and the talented Shelton brood took root. A passion for art ruled the compound. Rath’s art was jazz. Jeff’s older brother David, always good with his hands, eventually became an accomplished sculptor and an ironworker. (His workshop, also on Fig Avenue, is a fun factory in its own right, where he produces the distinctive ironwork that has become one of the hallmarks of a Shelton building.) His oldest brother, Ron, is the well-known Hollywood screenwriter of Bull Durham and other notable films, and his other brother, Steve, is a musician and a well-regarded English teacher at Santa Barbara Junior High. His mother, Peg-a Pasadena native who died in 1984-was the glue who held this wild bunch together, according to Shelton: “The drinkers, smokers, and pregnant folk at Westmont hung out at our house because they could have a refuge and talk openly with her.”

It’s clear the party tradition at Oakleigh continues to this day. There’s a swimming pool, strings of colorful lights hanging in the trees, and large tables fit for bountiful feasts. Most of the festivities, according to Shelton, focus on various competitions between the nearby Mountain Drive community and the “flatlanders” of Oakleigh-croquet, badminton, softball, gondola races, horseshoes, tiddlywinks, spelling bees-culminating on a full-moon night in October with the annual Bocce Ball Tournament. The spirit of competition never seems to end. When I noticed a huge pumpkin decaying on the ground, Shelton explained the 95-pounder was the winner in the last Queen’s Pumpkin contest. “Mountain Drive won,” he said with his signature twinkle. “They cheated.”

The burned hills of Mountain Drive, so near to this serene spot, were never far from his mind, however. Shelton showed me a plot where the Oakleigh crew was putting in a plant nursery to help replenish the denuded landscape of their esteemed Mountain Drive competitors. Shelton is also spearheading a Mountain Drive architectural review board, something that had never been considered in this notoriously anarchistic community where people built their shelters out of whatever was close at hand. Shelton is offering to help redesign houses, some pro bono, some at much less than his usual fees.

I lived in a small world down here at Oakleigh, but the things that were happening up on Mountain Drive were always large.”

Looking up at the scorched area, Shelton said, somewhat nostalgically, “I lived in a small world down here at Oakleigh, but the things that were happening up on Mountain Drive were always large.” Marked by rows of dilapidated mailboxes starting at the top of Coyote Road, Mountain Drive has always had a bohemian vibe that tweaked the manicured environs of the rest of Montecito. During the Tea Fire, Shelton and his extended family had watched the flames rampage through the rustic community above them. “We got out the whisky and toasted the place before we took ourselves off with the chickens.”

When we drove up to Mountain Drive later that day, it was a heartbreaking sight as we pulled off the road at the top of Hyde Drive. Shelton looked around at this deeply familiar landscape, now scarred and healing. “This is the shire,” he said. “This is the place of family-raising nests.”

He pointed up the hill. “And there is where the Castle once was.”

It was shocking to see the barren knoll where so recently this legendary house had stood, famous for its cavernous great hall and huge stone walk-in fireplace where many a Twelfth Night Bacchanal took place and where the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin partied down back in the day. Shelton has taken on the rebuilding of the Castle; same fireplace, same great room with its truly great proportions. When I said that the Castle would be very hard to replicate within the present day building requirements, Shelton was quick to say, “Don’t you think that keeps me up at night? It can’t be made of wood this time, but I will make it work; I will preserve its integrity.” He knows it has got to be a place where Janis and Jimi would want to return.

By Paul Wellman

Jeff Shelton

We passed the burned-out home of architect Frank Robinson, one of six that the extended Robinson family lost in the Tea Fire. Robinson, who came up repeatedly in our conversations, was Shelton’s one true mentor. Frank Robinson built many of the “nests” that had so enthralled the young explorer. Right out of architectural school, Shelton went to work for Robinson. He admired the way Robinson utilized whatever was available to build his “sleepy little Hobbit” homes. “Except for the Chumash huts, Robinson’s neo-salvage aesthetic and his use of adobe made him the only real builder of vernacular architecture we have here. : On Mountain Drive, we didn’t build monuments to success,” he said. “We built shelters to live and raise families in. There was no such thing as architectural pornography there.” For Shelton, Frank Robinson epitomized the good life. “I try to get the enjoyment of life into my buildings, and I learned that from Frank. He was also my mentor for how to live life; he was that for everybody on Mountain Drive.”

That’s where we held Twelfth Night this year. We put a tarp on the roof and had at it like we always do, choosing our king and proclaiming the rules of the kingdom for the coming year.”

On our tour of this grim landscape, Shelton was still full of merriment and hope. As we drove down Hyde Drive, he pointed out what looked like a bombed-out adobe brick building, another casualty of the fire. “That’s where we held Twelfth Night this year. We put a tarp on the roof and had at it like we always do, choosing our king and proclaiming the rules of the kingdom for the coming year.” Across the street, another destroyed house that he identified as Duke McPherson’s place. “They just got their trailer!” Shelton realized with obvious glee. The McPhersons were sitting in lawn chairs having what looked like a cocktail hour on their burnt-out property. “Welcome home,” Shelton shouted. The couple waved back.

By Paul Wellman

Shelton with his daughters, Mattie (left) and Elena (right), and his wife, Karin.

Back to the City of Dreams

The manmade city of Santa Barbara was not always considered the American Riviera. When Pearl Chase, a Boston native, stepped off the train at the Victoria Street station in 1906, she later reported, “I was ashamed of the dirt and dust and ugly buildings and resolved then and there to devote my life to making Santa Barbara beautiful.” Her big opportunity came when the 6.8 earthquake of 1925 leveled much of the city. At that time, State Street was not the charming tree-lined street we see today but an ugly hodgepodge of commercial buildings and rickety wooden sidewalks. After the quake, Chase marshaled everyone within reach, the great and the humble, to get behind her ambitious plan to return Santa Barbara to what was in actuality a romantic fantasy of old California under Spanish and Mexican rule-thus our city’s defining look, and all the building codes and restrictions that go with it.

I am so comfortable working with plaster, red tile, ceramics, and ironwork. I love putting something in my designs that plays off these familiar elements, something that is humorous with them.”

There are architects who chafe at what they consider to be stifling architectural regulations. But not Jeff Shelton. Although he acknowledged the bureaucracy can swallow alive many a good-intentioned architect, he finds the red tape part of the palette with which he works and the restrictions a creative challenge. “I am so comfortable working with plaster, red tile, ceramics, and ironwork. I love putting something in my designs that plays off these familiar elements, something that is humorous with them.”

Like Pearl Chase, Jeff Shelton is a man with strong opinions about the shape and future of Santa Barbara. And one of his strongest has to do with the controversial subject of density. “As it is, we are restricted to building fewer and bigger units that cost more. I would like to see smaller, more affordable units being built all over town. Preserve the mountains and coasts, and pack it in downtown. It will become more pedestrian in nature, with more streets closed off to the stupid automobile. Enlightened density. That is what I hope will be the future of Santa Barbara. It is not utopian, it is just sensible. : If everyone would just meet the sky here, we could realize our dream of being a great architectural city. Look at every great city. The skylines are fantastic. When you pay attention, not just to the fa§ade on the street, but the skyline, you are giving back to the city.”

When you get Shelton talking about Santa Barbara, you get an earful:

Too many cities and towns get designed by politicians and developers, trying to make a quick buck or to get elected. Look at all the shit-hole cities that have no big picture. I can hardly travel in the U.S.A. anymore without getting sick from seeing so many Subway-Red Lobster-Quiznos malls. Every place looks the same. Here we have Spanish Revival architecture, which makes sense as it is really Mediterranean architecture and we live in a Mediterranean climate. The guts of the idea are about human scale, a pedestrian-oriented architecture that is simple in shape and form, and yet full of mystery, surprise, seduction, and erotic pleasures. And all with using local artisans. This is an opportunity to invent some odd new Mediterranean-based architecture. We should embrace progress.”

Remember, this is from a guy who hasn’t yet read the El Pueblo Viejo Guidelines.”

And then he adds, with a familiar twinkle in his eye: “Remember, this is from a guy who hasn’t yet read the El Pueblo Viejo Guidelines.”

Working with Santa Barbara artisans is essential to his work. The talented tiler Juan Rios and his crew “are always saving my ass.” And Upton, his longtime contractor, never “squelches ideas out of the box and makes it all happen.” These men, and other important collaborators, have their names recorded in tiles and embedded in the walls of every Shelton building.

Shelton describes Santa Barbara as a grand fabric of white buildings and hopes that his buildings are adding “interesting little threads” in this tapestry. Yet he is aware that there are those who are critical of him, not only for his stance on density and height limits, but also for his vivid architectural imprint on our city: “Modernists think I am wasting my time, people who want ‘old Spain’ re-created don’t like my buildings, and I often hear that I need to constrain myself.” Despite his merry bravado, he sometimes gives the impression that he is baffled by all of the attention paid to his work. “I am just this guy who is happiest when I am in my studio drawing my imagination.”

But this, after all, is not Los Angeles. “In L.A., everyone is trying to be the one,” he said, “and there is no context honored in that.”

So what would Pearl Chase think of this puckish wizard who grew up in a place called Oakleigh, in the shadow of Mountain Drive, drawing fantasies that become realities in a 19th-century carriage house on a street named Fig in a lovely red-tiled-roof city by the sea called Santa Barbara? We will never know. But we do know what Jeff Shelton thinks of her:

She helped save the town; now we have to keep it going : with new ideas.”

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