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Remembering an Architectural Visionary

From the Post Office to the Biltmore, Reginald Davis Johnson Helped Shape Santa Barbara’s Visual Identity


Reginald Davis Johnson wasn’t the only architect who stamped Santa Barbara with its world-famous Spanish Colonial Revivalism (William Mooser III, Bertram Goodhue, and George Washington Smith also shaped the city). However, expressing the style through more than 20 commercial and residential projects, Johnson was an important one, as thi Thursday’s Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP) panel illustrates.

How prominent? Johnson’s designs for the Music Academy, Post Office, and Biltmore helped put Santa Barbara on the must-see destination map after civic leaders Bernhard Hoffmann and Pearl Chase spearheaded a new urban plan for the seaside enclave in the wake of the 1925 earthquake.

“Before the earthquake, we looked like any American town. Afterwards, there were books that promoted what we had done,” said SBTHP Curator Rose Thomas, who, alongside Dr. Lauren Weiss Bricker and architect Marc Appleton, discusses Johnson’s life and career. A related exhibit runs through September 18.

There’s a reason why Santa Barbara doesn’t resemble other coastal California towns including nearby Ventura or San Luis Obispo. “Santa Barbara was one of the first communities to have architectural boards. Later, San Clemente jumped on board,” Thomas said.

Truth be told, discussions were already underway prior to the natural disaster to overhaul our seaside town as “sort of a new Spain,” Thomas said. The quake merely made everyone more emphatic about going down that camino.

New York–born, MIT-educated Johnson was the son of Los Angeles’ first Episcopal bishop. Thomas believes this informed Johnson’s approach: Despite his reputation for lavish houses, Johnson also designed modest cottages for the help, gardeners, and migrant workers. “He had a lot of humanity,” Thomas said.

During college, Johnson trained under prominent architects Myron Hunt and Robert Farquhar and launched his successful career in 1912. “He was constantly working, even in the Depression,” said Thomas. Although based in Pasadena, Johnson had summered in Montecito growing up. Thomas speculates that “old money” connections between both communities brought local commissions his way. Designing interiors, Johnson employed light as much as Smith coveted darkness.

“The Biltmore is an absolute monument to this man,” Thomas said. Johnson’s Post Office was a byproduct of the New Deal in 1936. Cate School boasts Monterey Revival architecture. There’s also the Huguette Clark–commissioned Bellosguardo mansion reflecting his client’s French heritage. His exquisite Rancho San Carlos is currently on the market for $125 million.

“He contributed to our architectural identity with his quality of design,” said Thomas. “He wasn’t a one-trick pony either. He adapted to modern building techniques [across his career].” Influenced by California’s emerging style in his final years, Johnson dabbled with modernism but never completely abandoned his imprimatur.

Others, including James Osborne Craig, area firm Edwards, Plunkett & Howell (Arlington Theatre), and then-rare female architect Lutah Maria Riggs all advanced Santa Barbara’s ersatz-Spanish profile. However, Johnson differentiated himself from his peers through the most exquisite of details. As Thomas put it, “He was considered an architect’s architect.”

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Reginald Johnson’s Contribution to Santa Barbara’s Identity is 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, at Casa de la Guerra, 15 East De La Guerra Street. Call (805) 965-0093 or visit sbthp.org.



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