Contemporary Hints in Santa Barbara
By Kerrie Kelly / Published by Dwell
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Lush, sun-drenched, relaxed, and nestled ideally between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Santa Barbara is one of America's best-kept secrets. From State Street and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the Channel Islands and the wine country, Santa Barbara basks in sunshine, natural bounty, cultural sophistication, and an appreciation for both architecture and taking life at one’s own pace.

Although the built scenery is distinctly influenced by the architecture of Spain, it's actually a blend of genres, including Spanish, Mediterranean, and Moorish. Key features of white stucco surfaces, famous red tile roofs, courtyards, wrought iron, handmade light fixtures, colorful tile staircases, and other accent elements gleam throughout the city. This aesthetic is largely the work of engineer Bernhard Hoffman, who founded the City Planning Commission and worked with other organizing bodies to enforce building codes and architectural standards at the advent of the 20th century. Hoffman demanded all new construction conform to modern safety guidelines. The new style which emerged was a tribute to Santa Barbara's Spanish heritage and the predecessor of the look with which many have fallen in love.

What many may not know is the way in which Santa Barbara architect Jeff Shelton, among others, is taking Spanish style to new heights, challenging the typical building aesthetic of Santa Barbara. Though it would be a stretch to call this a modern movement, there are contemporary twists that stand out in a sea of sameness where there weren't before. Let's take a look:

While visiting the cleverly designed Zannon House (407 State Street), one will be enamored with the four faux rugs that hang like fabric, but are really made of hand-painted tile, adding a punch of color to a second-floor balcony off the master bedroom, over the garage.

Gray-purple iron railings, a fuchsia and green wooden entry, and garage doors provide contrast to the white walls.

Gray-purple iron railings, a fuchsia and green wooden entry, and garage doors provide contrast to the white walls of this Santa Barbara home. Photo by Steven Holmes.

Custom light fixtures — hand-shaped with a cutting torch — hang from exterior walls to cast intriguing shadows in daytime and patterned lighting at night.

The architect’s latest creation, Ablitt Tower (13 W. Haley Street), a four-story tower luxury home, rises from a scrap of downtown back alley measuring just 20 feet by 20 feet. It took four years for the Ablitt family and Shelton to gain approval from the city, partly because of the project's improbable downtown location. The entrance to the lot is down an alley behind a popular nightclub on a stretch of State Street, the city's main commercial strip. The owners’ immediate view takes in the trash bins lining the alley and the unadorned back sides of buildings housing restaurants, a bar, a shirt shop and a metal plating shop. There's not another house in sight. The white stucco exterior is dotted with 57 variously-sized windows and topped with a colorful tiled dome.  

Another Jeff Shelton masterpiece built to maximize the indoor/outdoor living for which Santa Barbara is known, Cota Street Studios (225 E. Cota Street), displays how each individual multi-story, loft-style residence/work space is filled with its own unique energy and creative floor plan reflecting the local chic, casual, and comfortable lifestyle.

Indeed, these one-of-a-kind homes—varying between 1,400 - 2,000 square feet of distinctive living space—combine style and sophistication with a metropolitan feel and European-inspired design. Providing unsurpassed craftsmanship and attention to detail, local artisans have created these very special spaces brimming with originality and international flare through colorful custom pottery pieces such as strategically placed stucco embedded plates, pots, and even a cow on a corner rooftop.



Kerrie Kelly


Kerrie L. Kelly is an award-winning interior designer and author.

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