It has been called “the unquestionable masterpiece of the courthouse interior.” As visitors enter the Mural Room, they are enfolded by Santa Barbara history — 6,400 square feet depicting scenes from the community’s past. This panorama is the work of Daniel Sayre Groesbeck (1879-1950).
There is an air of mystery surrounding Groesbeck’s early life, in part because he enjoyed spinning adventurous tales about himself. Most of his childhood was spent in Pasadena. Although it appears he fitfully attended art school, he was largely a self-taught artist. By around 1905, he had settled in Chicago and was gaining a reputation as an illustrator for books and magazines. His work appeared in the novels of Joseph Conrad and Jack London and the short stories of O. Henry, the latter a friend of his.
The problem in separating fact from fiction with Groesbeck is illustrated by his service in the Canadian army. He was part of the Allied expeditionary force sent to Russia in 1919 to intervene in the civil war there. He served as a gunner and also took part in a number of theatrical productions put on by the troops, designing scenery and costumes. He served a little more than a year. Groesbeck later expounded on his military service, saying he served for four years, fought against the Germans during World War I, then battled the Communists with the White Russians — highly dramatic embellishments.
After his discharge, Groesbeck returned to California. He exhibited widely and continued his commercial work. In 1924, Groesbeck settled in Santa Barbara. The local County National Bank hired him to paint a large mural of explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s 1542 California expedition for its new building on State Street. Groesbeck was paid $1,800 to execute the 9-by-12-foot work. “The Landing of Cabrillo” brought Groesbeck national recognition as a muralist. This mural now hangs outside the Mural Room at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
The work undoubtedly helped in bringing Groesbeck the courthouse commission. The Mural Room was originally designed as the meeting room for the county Board of Supervisors. As the architect put it to one of the supervisors at the time, “I’m going to create for you a throne room.” He and his assistants completed their work in a labor-intensive four months.
Groesbeck’s highly romanticized conception of Santa Barbara history as depicted on the walls of the Mural Room includes another Cabrillo scene, the 1786 founding of the Mission, the 1602 expedition of Sebastián Vizcaíno, and the 1846 arrival of John C. Fremont, which heralded the beginning of American rule. The wall on the right-hand side of the room depicts various industries such as mining, ranching, and agriculture. For his four months of work, Groesbeck received $9,000. Reportedly, Groesbeck left for Europe immediately upon completion of the commission, neglected to sign his work, and told one of his assistants to sign his name for him.
In the early 1920s, Groesbeck’s work had caught the eye of film director Cecil B. DeMille, best known for his spectacular movie epics. Groesbeck enjoyed a career of more than a quarter of a century as a Hollywood studio artist. Among the DeMille pictures he worked on were The Ten Commandments, The Volga Boatman, The King of Kings, The Crusades, and The Buccaneer.
With all his success, his murals at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse remain among his greatest achievements.