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September 30, 2022

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Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theater has a rich history dating back to the 1870s. While the Theater as we know it today opened on May 22, 1931, the red-tiled building stands as a perfect example of the Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival styles that have remained popular in Santa Barbara.

Large portico of Santa Barbara's Arlington Theater, with its Saltillo tile floor, fountain and multiple arches
Photo credit: Jasperdo courtesy of Flickr

Santa Barbara's Principal Performing Arts Venue

Featuring a covered courtyard with a fountain and an old-fashioned free-standing ticket booth, the Arlington was originally built to make theatergoers feel like they were sitting outside in the plaza of a Spanish colonial town. You might say the Arlington evokes a Spanish village sensation, complete with a night canopy of the starry sky above. Whatever you call it, the Theater is known by architectural enthusiasts as Santa Barbara’s heirloom of the grander days of theater palaces. Each wall features unique houses, staircases, and balconies that are not painted on but actually built out. The ceilings of the lobbies are heavily beamed and painted, too. And the auditorium itself seats 2,018 on the main floor and balcony.

Designed by local architects William Edwards and Joseph Plunkett, the Arlington Theater is our principal performing arts venue. The annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival is held there, along with popular and critically acclaimed movies, comedy shows, and live theater performances. But what some who visit might not know about is The Arlington has a fascinating and tragic history.

Front of Santa Barbara Arlington Theater showing its large marquee
Photo credit: Jasperdo courtesy of Flickr

The Tragic History of The Arlington Hotels

The place where today’s Arlington Theater currently stands was originally the site of the luxury Arlington Hotel. The lavish 90-room hotel, located downtown on State Street, was the centerpiece of Santa Barbara’s elite in the 1870s. During its heyday, the property, situated between Sola Street and Victoria Street, played host to presidents, kings, and queens.

But all that pomp and circumstance ended on a Sunday night in August of 1909 when a fire broke out. Luckily, most visitors were at dinner at the time, and no fatalities were reported. Still, the fire burned throughout the night, and by daybreak, the first-class Arlington Hotel was completely burnt to the ground with only the chimneys left standing.

Postcard of the Santa Barbara Arlington Hotel, circa 1911

In 1911, the Arlington Hotel was rebuilt, this time covering an entire city block. Los Angeles architect Arthur B. Benton designed the new building at the cost of $1.5 million, featuring a stunning arrangement of bell towers around the five-story-high central structure. It was meant to honor and surpass its lavish predecessor. In addition, Benton determined that a fire would never destroy The Arlington again, and he incorporated state-of-the-art safety elements, such as concrete, brick, and steel, into the 250-room complex.

Even with those precautions, the second Arlington Hotel, like the first, was the victim of a natural disaster. In fact, the entire town was ravaged when on June 29, 1925, the residents of Santa Barbara woke up to a massive magnitude 6.8 earthquake. Local heroes saved the day by shutting off the town’s gas and electricity preventing a catastrophic fire. Still, thirteen people died.

While most homes survived the earthquake in relatively good condition, nearly every chimney in the city crumbled, and most of the buildings in Santa Barbara’s downtown were completely destroyed. The business district back then covered about 36 blocks, and structures like The Arlington Hotel had to be demolished and rebuilt. Even the facade of Mission Santa Barbara received severe damage, along with the Potter Theater, the courthouse, jail, library, schools, hotels, and offices.

Santa Barbara’s Rebirth and Redesign

Since most of downtown Santa Barbara suffered irreparable damage, a large-scale construction effort followed. During 1925 and 1926, city and private resources focused on removing and repairing damaged structures like the Arlington. The entire area was busy with new construction, changing the city's character from Moorish Revival to Spanish Colonial Revival style. We have the Santa Barbara Community Arts Association, which was founded at the beginning of the 1920s, to thank. This vital charity, which is still in business today, turned the tragedy into an opportunity to unify our architectural style.

Exterior of a Spanish colonial style home in Santa Barbara, showing stairs flanked by landscaping

Today’s Arlington Theater is just one of the beautiful architectural wonders of Santa Barbara. Many of the homes in the county are also rich with history, like the coastal retreat pictured above. I recently sold this stunning example of Spanish Revival architecture that boasts unfiltered luxury at every turn, an ambiance of relaxed sophistication and seamless indoor/outdoor living.

I have more amazing homes for sale in the area that you can find listed on my comprehensive website. If you are considering a move, please call me at (805) 886-9378 or email me at We can discuss Santa Barbara’s rich history, including the Arlington Theater, and toast to your new home!

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“Cristal really breaks the mold. She knows every nook and cranny of this real estate market, understands value, and follows up on everything, all the time. She was incredibly patient with our two year quest to find the perfect house. Every house hunting trip from across the country was well planned, and our time was never wasted. On top of her professionalism and expertise, she is delightful to spend time with. We are thrilled with the home we purchased, and grateful to Cristal for so wisely advising us through this process, right through to the close and beyond.”

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“We met Cristal first in the course of renting a winter home (for three years), then buying a house using her as our agent. She was amazingly good at listening to our wants and showing us homes that fit our needs. Her mastery of the paperwork was perfect. Most importantly, there was never a situation where we doubted her straightforwardness or integrity. If we do another real estate transaction in Montecito (which I doubt, we’re happy with what we purchased), without question we’d use Cristal again.”

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“A little something about “our” realtor, Cristal Clarke. My wife and I came to Santa Barbara about fifteen years ago looking for a seasonal home from which to enjoy the weather and amenities of the central coast. Being in the real estate business myself I was familiar with agents and brokers so entered the market with open eyes. We “flipped” a few houses in the early years, dealing with various agents and finally ended up in Montecito. That’s when good fortune put us together with Cristal. To say we were impressed is to put it mildly. Cristal really knows the market. She is familiar with the area, its history and trends. When we have questions about a particular property she either has the answers immediately or gets back to us by phone or email. There is no waiting or wondering with Cristal. She is an agent who is “on top of it.” Her recommendations as to price points, contractors, inspectors and title agents have proven to be exceptional, showing great insight and the highest professional standards. We consider ourselves exceedingly fortunate to say that Cristal Clarke is our realtor and would recommend her services to any serious buyer or seller.”

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