“What is the history of Santa Barbara’s City Hall?” — Susan
Millward   By Michael Redmon

History_032.jpgFor 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

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

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

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.


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