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March 11, 2024

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Santa Barbara's architectural landscape is imbued with a unique blend of Spanish Colonial Revival, Mission Revival, and Mediterranean influences, resulting in a style affectionately known as "Santa Barbara architecture." At the heart of this architectural renaissance are several pioneering women who defied societal norms and left an indelible mark on our unique built environment. The following iconic architects of Santa Barbara were trailblazers. Lutah Maria Riggs, FAIA; Julia Morgan, FAIA; Mary McLaughlin Craig; Harriet Jean Moody; and Anna Louise Murphy Vhay, each contributed distinctively to the region's architectural legacy.

A vintage black and white image of architect Lutah Maria Riggs sitting behind a desk with a large book in her hands and bookcases behind her.
By Unknown author - Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, Public Domain,

Lutah Maria Riggs

Lutah Maria Riggs stands as a towering figure in the architectural history of Santa Barbara, leaving her mark on Santa Barbara’s urban fabric. Santa Barbara's first female architect played a significant role in redesigning the city after the devastating 1925 earthquake. Celebrated for her groundbreaking designs, she left an enduring legacy with her iconic landmarks that have become intrinsic to the city's character. Among her most celebrated projects stands the Lobero Theatre, a Spanish Colonial Revival architecture masterpiece. Completed in 1924, the theater has served as a cultural hub, hosting countless performances. Riggs's meticulous attention to detail is evident in the theatre's elegant arches, vibrant tiles, and impeccable craftsmanship, which underscores her talent for creating visually captivating and practical spaces.

The Spanish Colonial Revival-style facade of the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, with its red tile roof and 3 large arches fronting the large portico.
Justin Rizzo-Weaver, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Riggs's architectural prowess extends beyond her important projects; she also played a role in the architectural discourse of her time. As the first female architect to be elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA) in California—and only the second in the country—Riggs broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations of women in the field.

The front of the Hearst Castle with steps leading to a garden fountain and the castle in the background.
Foto Anke Meskens, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Julia Morgan

Julia Morgan blazed her own trail in architecture, achieving numerous groundbreaking milestones throughout her illustrious career. As one of the first women to receive an engineering degree from the University of California and the first woman to earn an architectural degree from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Morgan shattered gender barriers and set new standards of excellence in her profession.

Her most renowned work is Hearst Castle, pictured above, which she designed for William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon. However, Morgan's impact extended far beyond San Simeon and left an indelible mark on Santa Barbara.

In 1917, Morgan completed a 3,000-square-foot ballroom for the Montecito estate, The Peppers, showcasing her mastery of design and craftsmanship. Utilizing redwood, mahogany, and oak, the ballroom featured a magnificent fireplace, exemplifying Morgan's attention to detail and dedication to quality.

Another prominent project of hers was the Margaret Baylor Inn, commissioned in 1925. Spearheaded by Pearl Chase in honor of Margaret Baylor, a prominent figure in the settlement house movement, the inn aimed to provide accommodation for young professional women. Despite the challenges posed by the devastating 1925 earthquake, Morgan rose to the occasion, designing a Spanish Colonial Revival structure that seamlessly integrated with the city's architectural guidelines.

Following the earthquake, Morgan was entrusted with designing a new city gymnasium on East Carrillo Street to replace the damaged structure. Using Spanish Colonial Revival architecture elements, Morgan's design included features such as handball and tennis courts on the roof, reflecting her commitment to blending functionality with aesthetic appeal. Today, the gymnasium stands as a City Structure of Merit, a testament to Morgan's enduring gift to Santa Barbara.

A portrait of Santa Barbara architect Mary McLaughlin Craig alongside a blueprint of her work with the words In the Archives, her name and other information
Image, “In the Company of the Craigs” courtesy of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum Volume 54 No. 4, 2015 and News from the ADC

Mary McLaughlin Craig

An unsung hero of Santa Barbara's architectural heritage, Mary McLaughlin Craig made significant contributions through her Spanish Colonial Revival designs. Despite the challenges she faced as a woman in a predominantly male profession, Craig's determination and talent shone through, leaving her mark on the city's skyline. Her Plaza Rubio houses and other significant works are cherished landmarks, embodying the timeless beauty of Spanish Colonial architecture.

In 1919, she married architect James Osborne Craig. They worked together as architects in Santa Barbara until developing her own architectural practice, which focused mainly on residential works of architecture. She worked throughout California despite her lack of formal training as a proponent of the Spanish Colonial style. The archive of her correspondence, specifications, drawings, notes, and photographs was acquired in 1976 by the Art, Design, & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as part of the Architecture and Design Collection.

A black and white photo of architecut Harriet Moody. taken during her older years, sitting in front of a fireplace with a plaid blanket over her lap.
Courtesy of the Montecito Association History Committee

Harriet Jean Moody

Exemplifying her visionary approach to architecture, Harriet Jean Moody's enchanting Storybook Cottages added a whimsical charm to Santa Barbara's landscape. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Moody's designs earned her a revered place in its architectural history.

Today, an estimated three dozen of these enchanting "pixie homes," most of which were built in the 1930s and '40s, dot the landscape of Santa Barbara and Montecito. The quaint, picturesque appearance characterizes her design sense and is reminiscent of cottages straight out of storybooks. They boast steeply pitched roofs, asymmetrical facades, and intricate details like dormer windows, twisted chimneys, and rustic timbering. Each cottage is a true work of art, adorned with unique features and flourishes that bring to life a world of enchantment and imagination.

While Moody’s work may appear diminutive compared to the grandeur of Montecito's sprawling mansions, her Storybook Cottages are among the most prized properties on the South Coast, commanding substantial prices. The Moody name maintains a significant presence in the real estate market.

As we celebrate Women's History Month, it is crucial to recognize and honor the remarkable contributions of women architects throughout history. These pioneering women have defied societal norms, shattered glass ceilings, and left an enduring legacy in the field of architecture in our coastal enclave.

The stories of Santa Barbara’s female architects inspire and empower us, reminding us of the transformative power of determination and vision in shaping our cultural heritage. Speaking of cultural heritage, if you're seeking a retreat nestled among the hills of Montecito or a stunning residence with panoramic ocean views, contact me at (805) 886-9378 or via email at Let's transform your vision into a cherished piece of cultural heritage for you and your loved ones.

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