Above image: Von Romberg home. Source: Santa Barbara Magazine
Architecture enthusiasts in the Santa Barbara region are almost certainly acquainted with the work of Lutah Maria Riggs, the first licensed female architect in the city. An eccentric character, talented draftsperson, and visionary architect, Riggs designed some of our most iconic theaters and homes in the early-mid twentieth century. Although she is relatively little-known outside of the region, her work left an indelible mark on the “American Riviera” and is a big part of what visitors fall in love with when they visit. In this post, we share a look at some of her designs and discuss their influence on Dylan Chappell Architects.
The Lobero Theatre
Probably the best-known Riggs structure in the area is the Lobero Theatre, the longest continuously running theater in California. Originally founded in 1873 and rebuilt in 1924, it is recognized as one of Santa Barbara’s architectural jewels and a State and City landmark. Located on East Canon Perdido Street in downtown Santa Barbara, it is part of the historic theater district that includes Granada Theatre and the recently renovated New Vic Theatre. The Lobero has been a noted venue for musical performances, hosting such masters as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, and Dizzy Gillespie. Today, it is the home stage to most of the major performing arts groups in Santa Barbara including Opera Santa Barbara, State Street Ballet, Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, Speaking of Stories, Sings Like Hell, CAMA’s Masterseries, Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, Flamenco Arts Festival, Santa Barbara Theatre, Music Academy of the West, and many others.
A recent exhibition at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum chronicled the work of this important architect, Under The Umbrella: Lutah Maria Riggs & Her Santa Barbara Style. The exhibition offered the wonderful opportunity to view original sketches by Riggs, including this drawing, which shows the unique shape of her design.
The foyer, with its classically inspired arches, greets visitors to the Lobero’s performances. The main doors to the building are located at the back of this foyer, making the iconic front facade an example of the blended indoor/outdoor spaces so popular to the architecture of southern California. The lobby forms an arc around the angled seating of the auditorium, which has a capacity of about 600 occupants. The grand stage space is emphasized from without by the assertive profile of the structure’s tallest segment. Today, that headspace houses the sound, lighting, and projection systems of the modernized theatre.
Lutah Maria Riggs Residence
This structure was carefully placed on the site so as to avoid disturbing the oak trees. Here again, Riggs uses arches, though this time without the columns seen in the Lobero design and the Vendanta Temple, below. The home was an elegant retreat, built for one.
Located at 927 Ladera Lane in Santa Barbara, the Vendanta Temple is a spiritual retreat.
Krishnaprana of the Vendanta Society of Southern California said of Riggs’s professional tenacity and vision, “She’s absolutely unique because even through the entire Depression she was able to support herself using her profession. She had to go to Hollywood and do set designs, but she – for her entire life – she never compromised her profession to support herself. Which is unique in any time.”
Isla Vista Cottage
Isla Vista, located in western Santa Barbara, is best known as a colony of undergraduates attending the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara City College. A close second claim to fame has to be their gorgeous beaches. In this cottage, Lutah Maria Riggs takes full advantage of the coastal view.
Looking toward this small home from the backyard, the view is nearly as lovely. This strongly rectilinear structure contrasts with the more organic shapes seen on the Lobero’s exterior, as it does with Riggs’s experimentation with unusually-shaped rooms in the Montecito estate featured below. The small footprint includes an large outdoor living area, and the large windows wash the whole interior with light from sunrise to sunset.
Montecito is the hilly home to Santa Barbara’s rich and famous, and its spectacular residential estates are a major point of notoriety for Santa Barbara architecure. The development of Montecito into its current built landscape reaches back to the late nineteenth century, when the relatively affordable land and presence of hot springs attracted tourists from the eastern and midwestern United States. Its distinctive character is due partly to its development by Lutah Maria Riggs and fellow architect George Washington Smith, who popularized the Spanish Colonial Revival style for which Santa Barbara is also known. Here, we spotlight one of Riggs’s Montecito projects complete with extensive grounds.
The eye-popping landscape architecture on this property was designed by Lockwood de Forest III, who’s part of a regal Santa Barbara lineage you might recognize from the plein-air paintings of his grandfather. (We suggest visiting Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery in Santa Barbara to see his work.) The design includes symmetrical gardens with theatrical flourish, sweeping lawns and water features, rose gardens, and a fruit orchard.
This unique octagonal room shows off walnut cabinetry and a ceiling depicting the streets of Paris. Windows bring in natural light and vintage fireplace adds warmth. The room also provides central access to public rooms and the upstairs bedrooms, office and media cove.
This space is located in the estate’s west wing, which also boasts an opulent powder room with separate washroom, first floor sumptuous guest/master suite, first floor office with access to basement storage, and staff quarters with kitchenette.
French pocket doors off this chef’s kitchen open to the view terrace and ocean breezes. A light filled butler’s pantry and laundry room adjoins this elegant kitchen, which features carrara marble, coffered ceilings, vintage crystal chandeliers and carved cabinetry. It serves as the hub of east wing, connecting dining rooms, family room and service entrance.
A poolside cabana fully equipped for entertaining includes a lounge, bathroom and changing room, vine-covered pergola with fireside seating. To top it off: a jacuzzi!
The property features a tennis-court-sized lawn, sport court, outdoor grilling, and guest house.
Thinking of adding a guest house to your property? Stay tuned for our upcoming post on the special design challenges and opportunities involved in creating a complimentary guest structure on your property.
To learn more about this fascinating figure of Santa Barbara Architectural History, we recommend checking out LUTAH A Passion for Architecture: A Life in Design, which premiered at the 2014 Santa Barbara Film Festival. Watch the trailer here. To listen to a recent KCRW feature on Riggs, click here. The work of Santa Barbara-based independent writer and art historian Melinda Gándara is brought to life in the film: