Santa Barbara Courthouse Gets a Multimillion-Dollar Face-Lift

Project Manager Aims for 2029 Completion Date in Restoration of National Historic Landmark

“It’s going to be beautiful when it is finished,” said Diane Galt, the project manager overseeing the multiyear restoration of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. | Credit: Emma Spencer

Nearly a century ago, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse was constructed for twice its initial price tag, facing bloat that could only be defeated by a couple of cunning politicians. Now, construction workers are back on the scene for Phase One of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project to restore the historic building’s roof and exterior. 

Phase One of the Courthouse’ restoration, which started on June 7, will focus on the corner of the building on Anacapa and Figueroa streets. | Credit: Finnegan Wright

“We’ve been planning to do [the restoration] for a while,” Project Manager Diane Galt explained. She has an extensive background in historic preservation, having worked at the Smithsonian and Yale, along with being the executive director of the Casa del Herrero Foundation, making her quite qualified for this assignment. “It’s going to be beautiful when it is finished,” she later added. 

This project will repair parts of the building that have barely been touched since they were built while making sure to maintain the historical integrity of one of the county’s most notable buildings. The county has contracted the Architectural Resources Group and the Plant Construction Company — two San Francisco–based companies well versed in the restoration of historical landmarks — to undertake this four-phase project. Galt’s hope is that it will be completed in time for the Courthouse’s hundred-year anniversary in 2029.

Dedicated in 1929, the Courthouse had quite a calamitous birth. Following a 1915 San Diego exhibition, Spanish Colonial Revival architecture began to take California by storm. As the movement flourished in Santa Barbara, eyes began to turn to the county courthouse. Standing in the same place as today, the former courthouse had Greek Revival–style architecture and was becoming increasingly inadequate to fulfill Santa Barbara’s legal needs. So, when the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake hit and practically destroyed the former courthouse, community leaders jumped on the opportunity to redesign the building.

Credit: Finnegan Wright

The William Mooser Company was contracted to design the courthouse, and a modified Andalusian-Spanish castle design was agreed upon. Chair of the County Board of Supervisors Charles Leo Preisker led the charge to obtain funding for the building even as its cost bloated from the original price tag. After spearheading a successful election to use bonds to pay the initial $700,000 price, Preisker worked with Supervisor Sam Stanwood to secure further funding through taxation on petroleum, an ingenious idea as oil was found in 1928 along the coast. This was ultimately enough to cover the rest of the cost, which brought the price of the Courthouse to $1,368,000 total, $20 million in today’s dollars. The chief architect, William Mooser III, thankful for his friend’s help, jokingly told “Caesar Preisker” he would include a throne room for him in the finished courthouse. 

Alas, this throne room has yet to be found.

Now, almost 93 years later, Santa Barbara has the beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival–style courthouse, a unique structure that is a National Historic Landmark under the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s National Park Service. Phase One of the building’s restoration, which started on June 7, will focus on the corner of the building on Anacapa and Figueroa streets. 

Credit: Finnegan Wright

Construction workers, secured on scaffolding 50 feet in the air, will be repairing the leaky roof and various external features such as deteriorating balconies, wood windows, cast stone elements, skylights, and drainage systems. They will concentrate on protecting and reusing original materials in order to maintain the historical authenticity of the building, and if all goes according to plan, Phase One should be finished by September. 

The inside of the Courthouse will continue functioning and remain open to visitors for the duration of the project. Additionally, the phased design of this project guarantees scaffolding will never be covering too much of the Courthouse at one time, so the project is not expected to disrupt tourism, whether people are coming to see the outside or inside of the Courthouse. Weddings are also not expected to be impacted in Phase One, although they may need to make slight accommodations in later phases.

Ultimately, the project intends to ensure that the Courthouse has a safe, durable roof that can resist the elements and maintain the building’s stability. Phase One is projected to cost $2.1 million out of the county’s General Funds, as part of the Capital Improvement Plan. Phases Two through Four will begin when funding is made available for the project, focusing on the same restorations for the other sections of the Courthouse. The project overall is estimated to cost roughly $10 million, but this number is subject to change due to volatile markets.

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