Just over 231 years ago, on the 21st day of April 1782, the ambitious Franciscan monk Junípero Serra; California’s first governor, Felipe de Neve; and a Mexican-born soldier of the Spanish crown named José Francisco Ortega stood atop a small hill in the shadow of a recently erected wooden cross, looking out over the ocean, oak groves, nearby lagoon, and coastal Chumash village of Syuxtun, whose politically savvy chief Yanonalit had proved quite friendly. With 40 or so leather-coated soldiers and their weary families looking on, Serra said a simple mass, blessed the ground beneath them, and set in motion changes that would alter the coastline forever.
“And so was begun,” wrote Serra in a letter one week later, “this presidio … dedicated to the most glorious Virgin and Martyr Santa Barbara.”
In the months that followed, Ortega, the presidio’s first comandante, directed his soldiers and some able-bodied Chumash (who were paid glass beads for their efforts) in raising walls of mud and stick near the corner of today’s Canon Perdido and Santa Barbara streets, laying the first foundations of a neighborhood that would become a center of civic, social, and cultural life in Santa Barbara for the centuries to come. In the nearly two dozen decades since, as the land that today houses El Presidio State Park changed hands from Yanonalit’s people to Spain to Mexico to the United States, Spanish colonists gave way to Californio settlers, who fanned out to set up adobes and ranchos throughout the region. Then came the Yankees by boat and by foot, waves of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, an art school of regional renown, and a bustling hub of commercial and residential activity, way before the term “mixed-use” was ever invented.
But by the 1960s, as a modernizing Santa Barbara lurched away from its past and toward multistory office buildings, apartment complexes, and otherwise often nondescript urban development, the presidio neighborhood’s colorful past seemed in danger of slipping away. Those who wanted to uncover the deeper histories, preserve what was left, and promote its importance to residents and tourists alike started to coalesce around Pearl Chase, Santa Barbara’s hallowed hellraiser of historical righteousness and the woman responsible for the rise of our red-tiled roofs. Come January 18, 1963, Chase had gathered enough momentum and money to form the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP), which set about unearthing the forgotten presidio foundations, buying up associated properties in the neighborhood, and working with Sacramento to establish the whole complex as a state park.
Fifty years later, Chase’s vision remains a work very much in progress, but the neighborhood survives as one of downtown’s liveliest destinations, a place where real and reconstructed history smashes every second into contemporary life. Due to the efforts of “the trust,” as SBTHP is best known colloquially, the bulk of five square city blocks — from State to Garden, Carrillo to De la Guerra streets — enjoys some level of historically minded protection, ensuring that those old adobes won’t ever be razed for office space and that the telltale touches of yesteryear won’t be allowed to fade away.
That preservation work is done in conjunction with California State Parks, which officially takes ownership of the land once the trust purchases properties. But due to special legislation crafted by state senator Robert Lagomarsino in the early 1970s, the trust continues to operate the park and manage the real estate holdings as a concessionaire. It’s one of the only such arrangements in the state, largely due to the fact that the trust is powered by a nearly $6 million endowment and can afford to do the work that a state department dealing with up-and-down budgets cannot. And it works, according to Rich Rozzelle, superintendent of the state parks’ Channel Coast District and a 25-year veteran of the system who only recently has seen other nonprofits pop up to help other parks. He explained, “It’s a very positive, productive relationship.”
But saving the past is just half the job: Recovering Santa Barbara’s old stories, whether through archaeology or scholarly research, and then retelling them to all of us, whether via interpretive exhibits or engaging lectures, remains an even more prominent part of the trust’s impact. And in recent years, the trust’s mission expanded geographically and operationally when they purchased the Santa Inés Mission Mills and adjacent olive orchards near Solvang, establishing a foothold in the Santa Ynez Valley and the source of a new olive oil production project.
“This is a model for how a nonprofit can partner with a state park to bring in funding and to bring in people,” said Keith Mautino, a trust boardmember and former member of the county’s Historic Landmarks Commission whose grandfather settled in Lompoc in the 1800s and whose mother was St. Barbara in the 1949 Old Spanish Days Fiesta. “It’s a model for how the two can get together and move forward rather than stall and potentially close.”
Oh Presidio, My Presidio
I know the presidio and trust story because I lived it, literally, for seven years, as a resident of the green-and-yellow house at 828 Santa Barbara Street. Built (as best anyone can tell) near the courthouse in the 1890s and moved sometime after the 1925 earthquake to a lot that would have been within the presidio’s adobe walls, the old, creaky, and tilted clapboard structure was shrouded in the spirits of yesteryear, and not a day went by when Santa Barbara history wasn’t part of my present.
If I looked out my bedroom window, I saw the presidio chapel, often with adobe bricks drying outside, sometimes with grown men dressed in the uniforms of Spanish soldiers blasting a cannon. When we turned the soil to plant cucumbers or grapevines, horse teeth, ancient bullet casings, and obscure leather straps would come forth from the dirt. Frequent visits to Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens — just over 100 or so steps from my threshold to theirs — revealed a once vibrant Chinatown that everyone else had forgotten. I became friends with artists who worked in the leftover buildings of the former School of the Arts, and we’d drink tequila on porches, amid drying canvases and ceramic statues. And, as you might expect on a block where every corner has plaques commemorating this or that, ghost sightings and associated heebie-jeebies weren’t uncommon.
Then there was the endless stream of Santa Barbara stories — myths, legends, and anecdotes from both the deep past and more recent eras — that we’d hear almost every day from the lips of both friends and strangers who knew the neighborhood well. Those we knew would often stop by unannounced while strangers would just holler from the sidewalk after actually stopping to smell our roses. Such openness is evidence of perhaps the presidio’s most endearing characteristic: It was a classic neighborhood in both the urban and urbane sense, a place where you constantly waved to neighbors and could find most everything you needed to survive within a few blocks.
Though wide-eyed from maps of landmarks and often wandering aimlessly, the tourists seemed to pick up on the welcoming vibe, too, always waving to us on the porch like we were part of the show. In a sense, we were, the latest generation enjoying centuries of life within the presidio, and we always obliged with a smile and directions. It’s been a while since I spent much time on those blocks, but I hope that spirit survives forever, because it’s one that more of Santa Barbara could use.
Distrust the Trust?
But as I grew enamored of the presidio neighborhood more than a decade ago, I was simultaneously indoctrinated into distrusting the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation as soon as I became their tenant. They were scoundrels, fakers, and liars, I was told, and when I learned that they were trying to kick out an artist from the School of the Arts property, I dove into the story headfirst. As a young and idealistic news reporter, it was a perfect chance to defend a bohemian, rage against a powerful institution, and show that I wasn’t afraid of uncovering the Truth, even if it would put me at odds with my own landlord.
At the heart of the story was the trust’s executive director, Jarrell Jackman, who started his tenure on January 1, 1981, rose to become director by 1987, and still occupies the post today, 32 years after first being hired. To fans of the presidio, Jackman is a brilliant historian and manager responsible for growing the trust from an all-volunteer outfit into a nationally respected entity that employs around 20 people and serves more than a quarter million visitors per year. To critics, he’s the embodiment of all that’s gone wrong since Pearl Chase died in 1979.
At the time, it was easier to believe the latter, likely because my colleagues at The Santa Barbara Independent were happy to fan my newfound flames. Many of them had waged war with the trust in the paper’s formative years, as the organization fought through a series of rough patches in the 1980s. Jackman, just then getting his feet wet, admits today that it was a tough time, remembering the era as being “hot and heavy.”
“The original plan was to demolish that entire neighborhood,” recalled popular historian and author Neal Graffy
The biggest controversy was the unveiling of the trust’s sweeping vision for the presidio neighborhood, which they wanted to essentially knock down and cover with a complete replica of the old adobe fort. “The original plan was to demolish that entire neighborhood,” recalled popular historian and author Neal Graffy, who was living there at the time and, along with would-be county arts commissioner Patrick Davis, activist Vicky Blum, and others, formed an organization called Santa Barbarans for a Limited Presidio in the early 1980s. “This neighborhood had survived floods, earthquakes, and 150 years of Santa Barbara history,” said Graffy. “To think that it was going to be demolished by a group dedicated to preservation?”
By 1988, the group successfully got the city, state, and trust to accept a dramatically scaled-back version of a re-created presidio alongside a still vibrant and working neighborhood, which is what Graffy wanted all along, as he also respects the importance of promoting the presidio’s history. “This exceptionally important story of Santa Barbara about the presidio settlers coming here to the middle of nowhere and having to survive is a stunning achievement, and I have no problem with them celebrating that,” he explained last week. “I just thought there should be a balance — show what the presidio was, but don’t demolish an entire neighborhood to do it.”
The other great agitation was over El Paseo, the historic mini-mall built in 1923 that inspired Spanish Colonial Revival architecture all over Southern California. After accepting the struggling commercial property and Casa de la Guerra as a donation from the Suski family in 1971, the trust — under the guidance of attorney John Woodward, who had helped draft the critically important concessionaire plan with the state park — turned it around, got it into the black, and started fixing it up. But after Pearl Chase died, there was a power vacuum of sorts on the trust’s board. After Woodward left the organization, a series of bad decisions by the board put El Paseo back into both the red and disrepair. In 1989, the trust sold the property, triggering hatred from many in the community that persists to this day, including in Woodward, who remains the trust’s staunchest critic.
Others, like Graffy, have mellowed a bit over the years. “With what they have been able to put together, Jackman should be proud,” said Graffy of his former foe. “They have done a great job.” But he, too, remains wary, happy to see their education influence and appreciation of other historical eras grow, but always fearful that they will release another grand vision that threatens the neighborhood. “I enjoy it, but I remain cautious,” said Graffy. “It might be that I will never be exactly at ease about the whole thing.”
Coming of Age
In retrospect, by the time I wrote my exposé of Jackman and the trust in April 2001, I was fighting against a machine that had already started to evolve. Because the 1988 decision blocked the trust from knocking down the neighborhood, Jackman and others had taken a proactive role in learning more about the multiple histories and fostering the public’s understanding.
By the time I moved out in 2007 (which I was aided in doing with relocation assistance funds from State Parks, which officially took ownership of the green-and-yellow house that year), the trust had become a loud proponent of the Asian-American history, thanks largely to the purchase of Jimmy’s that same year, and also started including the School of the Arts as a prominent part of its paraphernalia. In the years since then, that momentum has only grown stronger, and the Casa de la Guerra (where restoration finished in 2006) has emerged as a reliable center of civic life once again.
Today, Jackman is happy to represent all of the history of the area and said that the long-ago decision to scale back the grand plans is “fine by me,” in part because the trust hasn’t “even achieved half of what we were approved for.” More importantly, though, Jackman has grown to appreciate the multiple historical eras of the neighborhood, and it shows. “I’m very interested in the other periods of history now,” he explained.
“It’s really important for people to know that we’re there protecting it,” said Jackman.
Though he admits the sale of El Paseo was controversial, Jackman reminds that the trust still protects the complex’s historically valuable façades, which is the major reason it will play host to the trust’s 50th-anniversary bash this Saturday. “It’s really important for people to know that we’re there protecting it,” said Jackman.
But Jackman is most proud about how the trust has saved this part of town from becoming just another bastion of big buildings. “It became evident when they did Chapala Street that the world was changing,” said Jackman, explaining that he likes the architecture but fears the mass of the developments on that “channelized” street is out of scale with Santa Barbara. “Without the trust, it could have been different,” said Jackman, who regularly fields offers from developers to turn his parking lot into office buildings. “I think this neighborhood would have looked like Chapala Street.”
In 2011, during a ceremony in Buffalo, New York, the trust and Jackman were presented with the Trustee Emeritus Award for Excellence in the Stewardship of Historic Sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Arguably the highest honor for their work available in the country, the award also applauded the trust’s dedication to “protecting what is special and irreplaceable.” Specifically, the national trust’s director made a nod to the S.B. trust’s work in protecting the neighborhood’s eclectic past, as Stephanie Meeks explained, “Thanks to the ambitious work of the Santa Barbara Historic Trust for Historic Preservation, the varied past of this beautiful seaside town is alive and well.”