This structure is so intensely beautiful, it seems to elevate judicial function to a higher plane. The courthouse is composed of four buildings, walling off a large inner garden courtyard on three sides. The exterior and interior never fail to delight, changing with the time of day and weather. I can’t count the times we’ve entered the grounds when passing by, often not intending to, but unable to resist going inside "just for a few minutes." Minutes quickly add up, and it’s quite easy to spend an hour or two here.
A SoCal earthquake proved to be the catalyst behind this work of architectural art. The old 1872 Greek-Revival-style courthouse was getting too small for Santa Barbara anyway when a severe earthquake, in 1925, damaged it beyond repair. The much-larger Spanish-Andalusian-style courthouse that stands today, completed in 1929, was designed by San Francisco architect William Mooser III.
The courthouse takes up a full block, and you can enter from all sides. But if you face the building from the front (on Anacapa), you’ll notice that there are many asymmetrical features in the whitewashed, red-tile-roofed complex. Building heights vary, and windows range from square to arched to round; some are small, some large, and they’re at different levels. Some are decoratively barred, others unbarred. To the right, a clock tower rises above all.
Reconstruction is going on in a big way to the left of the entrance arch. The Hall of Records building and adjoining gardens are pretty well fenced off at the corner of Anacapa and Anapamu Streets. The project began in 2003. Later, from the heights of the clock tower, we will view the progress of restoration of the 44-foot skylight. Approaching more closely now, attention is drawn simultaneously to the massive entry arch and the frolicsome statue to the left of it: A nude couple holds up a large fanciful fish between them, from whose mouth issues a stream of water trickling into the blue-tiled fountain beneath. This is the Spirit of the Ocean fountain.
Above the arch solemnly sits Justice with sword and scale and the words Dios nos dio los campos. El arte humana edifico ciudades. (God gave us the countryside. Human art built cities.) Walk underneath and the arch passes right through the building into the sunken gardens. This is where the old courthouse once stood, which is now lawn and garden space, popular for concerts, celebrations, special events, and today, a small wedding. Behind a low hedge, a white-haired homeless guy sleeps soundly on the grass while the couple is getting married just a few yards away.
But step back inside to take a look at the intricately ornamented tile stairs, benches, and even drinking fountains in bold turquoises, blues, and mustards. You’re stepping on highly glossed terracotta tile, and even these are interspersed with smaller squares of decorative tile. Look up. You’ll be amazed at the hanging light fixtures, from which dangle superfluous ninja-star-like appendages. Look farther up and you’ll see kaleidoscopic-painted, wood-beamed ceilings, edged by tiered arches and painted blue with yellow stars. It’s geometry gone wild. It’s way beyond sensory overload by now. But the amazing thing is, it all fits together perfectly and pleasingly.
The Mural Room on the second floor is mostly used for meetings, but is so spectacular that it remains open for the public, meetings or not. The mural by Dan Sayre Groesbeck, set artist for Cecil B. DeMille, tells the story of first contact and early settlement. European invaders and indigenous American cultures forever changed. Pry your eyes away from Chumash and Spaniard upwards. There are gilded circles and floral patterns on deep-blue background, a velvet night sky.
Take the elevator and remaining steps to the Clock Tower for 360-degree views of Santa Barbara. Suffice it to say, there’s scarcely an inch of this building and surrounding grounds and gardens that isn’t worth a look. Daily docent tours of the building are free. Check at the information counter on the ground floor under the arch as you enter for times. View this map of the courthouse, sunken gardens, and terraced lawns. For yet more detailed information, go to the Santa Barbara County Historic Courthouse’s official website.