Through the decades Santa Barbara has been beautified by the efforts of a number of talented and innovative architects. The name of one of these, Joseph J. Plunkett, will be forever linked with one of the most distinctive buildings in the city, the Arlington Theatre.
Plunkett was born in Rome, New York, in 1900. He entered Syracuse State University in 1919. During his junior year in 1922, he and some friends took a trip to California. Plunkett never returned east and never completed his degree. Instead, he associated himself with an architect in Santa Maria, where he engaged in design work for the Santa Maria Inn. In 1923, he married, and the young couple planned to move to Los Angeles. They never got farther south than Santa Barbara, and here they settled.
The earthquake of June 1925 presented young Plunkett with a marvelous opportunity. Not only was there the need to rebuild the city, but the trend to give Santa Barbara a unified architectural look, centered on the Spanish Colonial Revival style, accelerated. So Plunkett, a great admirer of George Washington Smith, the foremost practitioner of this style in Santa Barbara, was in the right place at the right time. He joined with William A. Edwards to form the firm of Edwards and Plunkett soon after the earthquake. The following year, Henry Howell joined the duo. Howell would leave in 1928.
Plunkett’s trademark was his ability to quickly sketch design ideas on anything that was handy — menus, napkins, book covers. Shortly after the firm had received the commission to design the Arlington Theatre, it sent a set of drawings and plans down to the investors in Los Angeles in October 1930. The investors, Fox West Coast Theatres, not entirely happy with the drawings, asked Plunkett to come south to meet with them. The night before the meeting, on the top of his hotel room dresser, which was not even large enough to hold an entire sheet of drawing paper, Plunkett formulated the design for the theater with which we are so familiar.
Edwards and Plunkett designed both commercial and residential buildings. One of Plunkett’s finest designs was the clubhouse for the Santa Barbara Woman’s Club. This rambling Spanish-Colonial building blends beautifully into its rustic Mission Canyon setting. Other buildings that may be familiar include the fire station at 415 East Sola Street, Cold Spring and Garfield schools, and the National Guard Armory at 700 East Canon Perdido Street. Plunkett was a stickler for detail, and his designs are characterized by the attention paid to window treatments, ornamental iron, tile designs, and so on.
The firm of Edwards and Plunkett dissolved in 1940, when Edwards left to take a government job. Their last major commission was the design of the terminal building at the Santa Barbara airport, which still stands next to the present-day terminal. Plunkett continued on alone. His last design was the El Presidio building at 802-812 Anacapa Street, with its charming domed tower. He did not live to see the building completed. Joseph Plunkett died in May 1946. His career in architecture had not been particularly long, just a little over 20 years, but it had been a remarkable one.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Santa Barbara Independent, 12 East Figueroa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.