When I’m visiting a new destination, civic buildings that serve the governmental needs of a city are rarely on the top of my list of places to visit. Sure, some cities have interesting town halls or a stately old capitol building, but I usually only seem to give these buildings a passing glance or fleeting attention.
Before visiting Santa Barbara, I had heard that the county courthouse was a nice place to visit. But I originally dismissed it. After all, it was a courthouse – not a museum, not a monument…but a courthouse. How could a courthouse possibly be interesting? It’s a civic building – like the DMV or the post office, and we all know how spectacular those places are.
But I kept seeing more recommendations. ‘Spectacular architecture’, ‘incredibly unique’, and ‘amazing view’ were just a few excerpts from the glowing reviews I was reading.
So I decided to skeptically trust what I had heard and I made the courthouse my first destination on my visit to Santa Barbara.
Visiting the Santa Barbara County Courthouse
I found my way to the old county courthouse and what I found was truly spectacular. An old Spanish colonial architecture building standing on lush, green grounds was not exactly what I was expecting, but it was a very welcome surprise. I began to understand what everyone else was talking about.
The Courthouse Hallways - A labyrinth of grand halls, portals, archways, staircases, and other unique architectural elements can be found throughout the building. Whereas many civic buildings would neglect the details, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse draws attention to these details and gives them extra attention.
Elaborate Spanish tile work adorns staircases, fancy stain glass windows allow shafts of light to beam in onto the floor, and monolithic wooden furniture provides a respite for the walking-weary.
Wandering these halls feels like stepping into another time period or onto another continent. The entire atmosphere is more reminiscent of a Spanish colonial villa than a government building, and it’s easy to forget that behind many of the doors were just simple offices, document storage, or court rooms.
Library - The library is quite possibly the most stunning room in the courthouse. Large, ribbed arches support the roof where an ancient-looking starry-skied fresco adorns the ceiling. Staring into the dreamy painting above, it’s easy to forget that the shelves down below contain row after row of rather mundane law books.
When I visited, the library was full of local citizens researching laws, statutes, and a bunch of other things I’m sure I’ll never understand. But I can’t help but think that having the privilege of coming to this room makes the arduous task of legal research a little more bearable.
View Tower - A staircase leads visitors through the interior of the courthouse tower up to the viewpoint. But along the way, we stopped to peer into a room that looked like it was straight out of a Jules Verne novel. Antique machinery cranked in a central room with equipment stretching out into the central point on all four walls. It took me awhile to figure out what I was looking at.
I deduced that the machinery was controlling the massive clock that adorns each face of the tower outside.
Climbing up one more flight of stairs from the clock room I found what could quite possibly be the best view of Santa Barbara. Here, we were able to see in all directions from one of the highest points in the city. By this time, the marine layer had started to burn off and the sun peeked out illuminating the city below.
Mural Room – The mural room contains some of the most impressive artistry in the entire building. The large room has murals adorning each one of its’ walls with scenes depicting the history of California, including the construction of the nearby Mission. This room feels immense and almost church-like, with its rows of pewes all facing towards the front of the room.
When Reality Exceeds Expectations
Sometimes reality can far exceed expectations. Many sites, cities, and countries have far exceeded my expectations, while others did not necessarily live up to what I had thought they’d be.
The courthouse in Santa Barbara is just the latest example of a site that has blown me away. Perhaps it was because I had rather low expectations going into it. Perhaps it was because it really is a spectacular site. Either way, I was incredibly impressed.
When reality exceeds expectation I am once again reminded why I love travel. It is this process of discovering an otherwise unknown-unto-me place that gets me out of bed early in the morning with excitement.
What unexpected sites have surprised you the most?
1100 Anacapa Street
Santa Barbara, California, 93101
Hours: 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM Monday – Friday, 10:00 AM – 4:30 PM on weekends. Docent led tours take place at 2:00 PM daily.
Cost: Free to visit, free to tour.
TRR Tips – The building itself is spectacular in its own right, but to fully appreciate this destination, make sure you don’t miss the interior. The mural room and the library are the true highlights of this building. The courthouse is within walking distance to many other places of interest in downtown Santa Barbara including the shops of State street and many other historic buildings. Start your morning at the courthouse to get a lay of the land and use it as a base for visiting other sites downtown.