By Michael Redmon

Santa Barbara was originally built with the oldest known
construction material: mud. Santa Barbara’s buildings were made
from adobe brick, the word adobe deriving from the Spanish adobar,
“to plaster.” Santa Barbara’s early Spanish settlers found a
landscape largely devoid of trees, and lumber was virtually
impossible to come by. An alternative building material had to be
found and the answer turned out to be adobe brick.

The central ingredient in adobe brick is clay-like soil. The
physically arduous task of making adobe bricks would begin by
digging a pit into which soil was thrown and water added. Once
blended into a smooth mixture, straw and sand were then added,
which served to bind and strengthen the adobe. The sand also aided
in the even drying of the adobe bricks so they would not warp or
curl. Hitting upon the correct proportions of soil, water, straw,
and sand was vital, otherwise the bricks might crumble or be too
soft. Trial and error was often necessary until just the right
formula was achieved.

The adobe was then poured into wooden forms to create the
bricks. Once removed from the forms, the bricks were set aside to
dry. Depending on the size of the bricks, which generally averaged
anywhere from 50 to 60 pounds, they could take as much as a month
to completely dry. Once the bricks had achieved a consistent color
throughout, they were ready for use. A surprising number of bricks
were needed to build even small structures; a one-room home could
take as many as 5,000 bricks.

Water is both a key ingredient and the great enemy of adobe;
untreated bricks can dissolve. Construction of a proper foundation
was very important, for the foundation not only gave a building a
firm base upon which to rest, but also protected the adobe walls
from groundwater. Each wall had beneath it a trench filled with
rounded stones covered with mud.

Adobe walls were thick by modern standards: around two feet for
smaller buildings. Two-story adobes were fairly rare. To give the
walls greater strength, they were covered with a coating of sand
and mud. Window openings were usually small and these often were
fitted with wooden bars or covered with a steer hide or

Glass was virtually unknown. Wooden floors were atypical. Most
floors were packed earth with a coating of steer’s blood to make
them hard and smooth. New coatings were periodically reapplied. The
next step was construction of the pitched roof. A ridgepole ran the
length of the building and was connected to the side walls of the
adobe by rafters. Saplings were placed perpendicular to the rafters
to create a crosshatch effect. Atop this was placed thatch and atop
that curved tiles of kiln-fired adobe, laid in an overlapping

Finally, the adobe walls were sealed with a plaster made of
lime, which was produced by firing seashells. The lime was mixed
with sand and water and the mixture applied to the walls with bare
hands. As the mixture dried it would harden, forming a protective
coating. This coating tended to flake and so was periodically
reapplied. The finished adobe was cool in the summer, warm in
winter, and proved to be quite durable. Santa Barbara’s historic
adobes have survived any number of earthquakes over the

The increasing influx of Americans to Santa Barbara after 1850
caused a decline in the popularity of adobe construction; the
newcomers wanted houses that reminded them of home. In some cases,
adobes were covered with wood siding. Construction of Stearns Wharf
in 1872 allowed for increased imports of lumber and hastened the
arrival of Victorian architecture. Many adobes succumbed to
development. For example, the imposition of the grid pattern of
streets in the early 1850s led to the razing of any number of
adobes. Yet the architecture of modern-day Santa Barbara, with its
white walls and red-tile roofs, very much harkens back to the
city’s “adobe days” — a salute to the mud-walled city of old.

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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