Thursday, June 26, 2008

A few great shakes

In 1923, preservationist Charles Fletcher Lummis wrote effusively about Santa Barbara’s exquisite natural setting, and added somewhat wistfully, “If every building along each side of State Street, from the wharf to the upper end, were in Colonial Mission, would it be worth anything to Santa Barbara? It can’t all be done in a week, a month, a year, but some day…”

Whether Lummis was prescient, prophetic, or simply engaging in wishful thinking, his musing came true—and it took just minutes.
Of the millions of snapshots in time in Santa Barbara, there was no more significant moment in the city’s history than 6:42 a.m., June 29, 1925. The earth shuddered—an estimated 6.3 on the Richter scale—and the city shattered.
The city’s commercial district and most notable institutional buildings, including churches, schools and hotels, lay in ruins. The Mission sustained serious damage; St. Francis Hospital was reduced to rubble; portions of several older downtown buildings crumbled; rail, telephone and telegraph lines tangled and twisted; Sheffield Reservoir broke open, sending forty million gallons of water into Sycamore Canyon and flooding all the way to the ocean.
In a town of 25,000, only a dozen citizens died, and fifty more reported injuries. The toll would undoubtedly have been massive if the quake had hit a bit later in the day. While much of commercial downtown was destroyed, homes—particularly wooden bungalows constructed of lath and plaster—were left largely intact, but virtually every brick chimney in town toppled.
In the years just before the earthquake hit, visionary civic leader Bernhard Hoffmann had busied himself by giving the then-unremarkable downtown a “Spanish look,” restoring historic buildings and building the El Paseo complex, known as “the Street in Spain.” He also founded the Plans and Planting Committee (the precursor to the Planning Commission) and lobbied for the establishment of an architectural board of review.
Spared the fires that destroyed San Francisco, and rampant loss of homes that would have depleted the population, Santa Barbara just got to work. No one waited for government officials to arrive offering promises for relief. When the timely natural disaster cleared the way, influential community leaders recognized the opportunity for long-desired urban renewal and seized the moment. Within two weeks of the earthquake, the City Council passed the resolution establishing the Board of Architectural Review; within one month the board approved 102 reconstruction permits; ultimately more than 2000 permits were issued, almost every one in the Spanish style.
A contemporary reading of historical accounts of those post-earthquake days strikingly reveals how civic-minded philanthropists generously stepped forward at a time of real crisis, offering their treasure and talent to turn an ordinarily built city into something quite extraordinary. These thoughtful individuals including Hoffmann, joined by his wife Irene, architects George Washington Smith and Carleton Winslow, Sr., the influential Dwight Murphy, Caroline Hazard, Max Fleishmann and Pearl Chase, along with the well-connected-in-Washington local publisher Thomas Storke, among countless others.
Rallying with a motto of “Down with the Ugly, Up with the Lovely,” the city was rebuilt with astonishing speed. Institutions such as the Mission and St. Francis were rebuilt by 1927, the new, castle-like County Courthouse in 1929—all in the Spanish Revival style favored by civic leaders. Interestingly, it was only Storke who disagreed with the imposition of a particular style as an infringement on private property rights.
The historical perspective offered by architect David Gebhard in 1992 has never been more timely, “The pursuit of an ideal Hispanic atmosphere in Santa Barbara could never have been very successful if another factor had not been put in place: the realization from the 1920s on that the community must carefully retain its sense of small scale. This has meant that the classic American pursuit of growth—bigger equals better—had to be abandoned; the city’s density (people as well as buildings) had to be kept in some sort of check. The image of a Spanish city could never be maintained, for example, if high-rise buildings were introduced…”
Eighty-three years after the earthquake, natural disasters continue to inflict endless misery on the multitudes across the nation and around the world, we’re wise to look back at our local brush with devastation. With the obvious exception of the loss of life, the 1925 earthquake can largely be viewed as a fortuitous event that determined the city’s direction in a small and beautiful way. It’s a good time to consider whether we continue to honor our legacy—or simply keep pushing our luck.

• For a short course in Santa Barbara earthquake history, and to view a portfolio of 1925 earthquake photos, check out UCSB’s website,

Cheri Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. E-mail

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