Cristal's Blog


April 29, 2024

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Santa Barbara, often dubbed "The American Riviera," is a city renowned for its picturesque landscapes, Mediterranean climate, and, notably, its architectural charm. For decades, the coastal enclave has been defined by a consistent aesthetic—a fusion of Spanish Colonial Revival influences characterized by red-tiled roofs, whitewashed buildings, and intricate Spanish-Moorish accents. This architectural legacy, meticulously preserved since the early 1920s, has become synonymous with the city's identity, embodying its rich cultural heritage and timeless elegance. However, amidst the backdrop of tradition, a visionary architect has emerged whose work challenges conventional norms and redefines the architectural landscape of Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara architect Jeff Shelton standing in the doorway of the lime green and poster-covered.
Photo Credit Chris Jenkins

Enter Architect Jeff Shelton

Jeff Shelton is not your typical architect. This native son of Santa Barbara has breathed new life into the city’s architectural tradition with his distinctive flair for innovation and a penchant for whimsical design. As such, Shelton has become a beacon of creativity in Santa Barbara's architectural scene. Over the past 30 years, Shelton has spearheaded a remarkable transformation, infusing the cityscape with a playful yet sophisticated aesthetic that captivates the imagination and challenges perceptions of what architecture can be. Watch this video, and you'll understand what I'm talking about.

Collaborating with a diverse team of local artisans, builders, and craftspeople — most notably Dan Upton Construction, and his own siblings — Shelton has left an indelible mark on the city, with more than 60 residential, commercial, and mixed-use projects to his name. His architectural vision celebrates Santa Barbara's past, present, and future; a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation that resonates with residents and visitors alike.

The courtyard of a Jeff Shelton-designed two-story building that incorporates traditional Mediterranean design elements and Shelton's bold, whimsical, contemporary twists.
Photo Credit Jason Rick

Embracing a Fearless Approach to Design

What sets him apart is his fearless approach to design. While respecting the rich tapestry of Santa Barbara's architectural heritage, he seamlessly integrates traditional elements with bold, contemporary twists, creating spaces that are both timeless and cutting-edge. His buildings exude a sense of whimsy and playfulness, characterized by vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and unexpected details that surprise and delight at every turn.

Shelton's creations have become beloved landmarks in their own right, attracting admiration and acclaim from architectural enthusiasts worldwide. One of his most notable achievements is revitalizing the downtown core. That’s where you’ll find eight of his signature designs clustered within a 10-block radius, forming a modern-day architectural marvel that contrasts the city's historic landmarks. Included in that collection is the iconic "El Zapato" building with its whimsical shoe-shaped façade.

A whimsical, cartoon-style map drawn by architect Jeff Shelton depicting the Santa Barbara walking tour of Shelton's buildings.

A Unique Walking Tour Exploring Singular Architectural Gems

For those eager to experience Shelton's architectural marvels firsthand, a self-guided Jeff Shelton Architecture Walking Tour offers the perfect opportunity to explore the city's contemporary architectural gems. The downtown walking tour starts at The Pistachio House (407 State Street), a fittingly named project crafted for the owners of Santa Barbara Pistachio Co. The commercial front section, dating back to 1925, sets the stage for Jeff's residential addition, which was completed in 2002. Explore the inviting outdoor living spaces adorning all four sides, adorned with tile "blankets" cascading over the second-floor balcony and ironwork inspired by pistachio nuts and leaves.

The Jeff Shelton-designed, 5-story, Ablitt Tower near downtown Santa Barbara, displaying the architect's whimsical, Dr. Seuss-like design elements, and illuminated from within at dusk.
Photo credit Jim Bartsch

From there, you’ll walk to see Jeff's crowning achievement, the Ablitt Tower (13 West Haley Street), located on the same block. Despite its modest 20 x 20 foot lot nestled in a commercial alley, this five-story marvel, erected in 2006, defies expectations. Rising 53 feet above ground with caissons delving 40 feet below, its narrow proportions and whimsical details evoke imagery straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. From the wavy lines to the asymmetrical windows offering panoramic city views, every aspect exudes charm. With 680 square feet of usable living space, including one bedroom, a living room, one-and-a-half baths, and both indoor and outdoor kitchens, the Ablitts—proprietors of a local multi-generational dry cleaning business—now offer this unique dwelling to visitors, inviting them to experience its magic firsthand.

A portion of a highly stylized courtyard at a Jeff Shelton-designed condo complex, showing large, modified Ogee arches.

Next up is El Andaluz (531 Chapala Street) on Chapala Street, a grand condo complex erected on the site of a former parking lot. Opening its doors in 2009, this three-story residential edifice boasts a timeless interior courtyard design adorned with vibrant tile work, exotic fruit plantings, and a magnificent fountain. A bridge connecting the two buildings not only adds architectural intrigue but also serves as a captivating entry point. Reflecting Jeff's collaborative ethos, a retired science teacher was enlisted to assist with tiling the front arches, while Jeff himself meticulously painted the exterior woodwork to ensure the project remained within budget.

As a companion to the traditional Red Tile Walking Tour, this modern-day odyssey provides insight into Shelton's creative process and the inspiration behind his most iconic designs.

A fun and interesting looking building with a beautiful tree in front and lots of tile and balconies
Photo Credit Jason Rick

Epitomizing Santa Barbara’s Enduring Creative Spirit

In essence, Jeff Shelton represents the evolution of Santa Barbara's architectural identity, a testament to the city's enduring spirit of innovation and creativity. By challenging convention and pushing the boundaries of design, he has redefined what it means to build in Santa Barbara, leaving behind a legacy that will inspire generations to come.

Santa Barbara's architectural landscape is a testament to the city's rich cultural heritage and unwavering commitment to tradition. However, visionaries like Jeff Shelton breathe new life into these timeless traditions, infusing them with creativity, innovation, and a sense of wonder. As we continue celebrating Santa Barbara's architectural legacy, let us also embrace the spirit of exploration and discovery that defines local architects like Shelton and their extraordinary contributions to our beloved city.

If you’re excited to embark on Jeff Shelton’s architectural tour, simply download the map, slip on your walking shoes (or flip flops—no hills required!), and immerse yourself in his enchanting world. Meanwhile, if you're searching for a classically Mediterranean estate, a contemporary estate with breathtaking panoramic ocean vistas, or some other fantastic property currently on the market here, please allow me to assist you every step of the way in selling and buying. Reach out today at (805) 886-9378 or via email at to kickstart your journey towards owning a piece of Santa Barbara's architectural heritage.

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Client Reviews

“It was an emotional experience selling our mother’s home in Montecito that we all loved so much but Cristal made the process easier on our whole family by guiding us through the transaction every step of the way. She knows the market so well and everything she recommended was on point including the asking price, painting, and staging the home, which looked beautiful and helped the buyer envision her new home. We sold it the first day it hit the market with an offer above asking! Cristal did an incredible job communicating with us and the buyer to ensure that the transaction would run smoothly. We highly recommend using Cristal, she was a pleasure to work with! ”

- J & A

“Cristal is a pleasure to work with! Her knowledge of the local real estate market coupled with her amazing listening skills resulted in her showing us an array of homes that were all excellent choices. Her low-pressure patient attitude made us feel extremely comfortable with the whole process. I cannot recommend her highly enough.”

- M.F.

“Cristal Clarke is #1 in her field - and you don't become #1 by luck. Cristal works harder, and longer, and with more charm and patience than any real estate agent I have ever worked with in the past; her calendar has no weekend, her days have no clocks, her only concern is selling your property as soon as possible and for the best price on the market. Am I a fan? You bet!”

- P.B.

“We have used Cristal now several times and cannot express how grateful we are for her expertise, dedication, and unwavering support throughout the entire home-buying process. Cristal is knowledgeable, patient and attentive. Her attention to detail is remarkable, and she consistently went above and beyond to provide us with all the information and resources we needed to make informed decisions. Cristal is a skillful negotiator and advocate. She can navigate complex negotiations with professionalism and grace and felt like a true partner to us in the home-buying process. Cristal has a genuine passion for real estate and a deep commitment to her clients' satisfaction. I cannot speak highly enough of Cristal and her exceptional service. She is a true expert in her field and her dedication to excellence, combined with unwavering support is the reason we choose to work with her for all our real estate buying needs.”

- T.C.

“Cristal is a top-notch realtor who sold my home before it ever went on the market. I had two competing offers that enabled me to get top dollar for my home. Not only is Cristal superb but her team is extraordinary. I cannot say enough about Cristal and her team. They are simply phenomenal, the consummate professionals, who took care of every possible detail, making the sale and transition period, smooth from our end. They are also lovely, caring people, who knew all the right professionals, to get the job done. Thank you, everyone!”

- D.R.

“I could list lots of cool adjectives to describe Cristal. All good by the way. But, that is not why I or anyone should hire Cristal. My reason for hiring her, which proved to be correct, is very simple. She got the job done. And, she does it time and time again and with zero issues. And, that is why she is one of the top agents in the country. End of subject. ”

- M.A.

“Working with Cristal was a complete pleasure. Cristal was extremely patient with us as we evaluated nearly 2 dozen homes over a span of 2 years. Her knowledge of the market is unmatched. Cristal provided us with exceptional counsel as we evaluated opportunities and negotiated pricing. The closing process was handled thoroughly and efficiently. We could not be happier with our purchase and even more happy to now call Cristal our friend.”

- D.K.

“Cristal Clarke has conducted numerous real estate transactions for me beginning 13 years ago with the purchase of a Lemon Ranch. She has handled both large and small purchases and sales with equal dedication. As a negotiator, you can’t find anyone better. Her transactions are always conducted in the most appropriate and professional manner. Cristal has considerable knowledge of the Santa Barbara market.”

- S.N. Decker Ph.D.

“Living in Europe, we were to say the least, unaccustomed to the nuances of Real Estate acquisition in California and Cristal steered us through the process with absolute professionalism and personal attention to detail at every turn. Her in-depth knowledge of the market place combined with enthusiasm and drive was the only reason we secured the property of our dreams and will be forever grateful. If you are looking for personal discrete and private representation of the highest quality we suggest you look no further than Cristal Clarke.”

- Johan and Paula van den Berg

“Cristal is very straightforward, cheerful, helpful, professional and trustworthy….we felt very lucky to work with her.”

- John and Lacey Williams

“After considering our many choices, we are grateful it was Cristal Clarke of Sotheby’s International who represented the sale of our Montecito cottage. We are familiar with Cristal’s reputation of hard work and dedication to clients, but it was her attention to detail that made our experience so positive. She offered suggestions for staging the property, worked in harmony with potential buyers and was even able to secure back up offers. The sale of our cottage was completed much sooner than we expected, due in great part to Cristal’s professional skills and support. We highly recommend Cristal as a first choice for anyone needing representation with real estate.”

- Michael & Nancy Lee

“Our experience in working with Cristal Clarke resulted in the successful and discrete acquisition of a property which was not yet on the open market. Her knowledge of the Montecito/Santa Barbara area and vast expertise blended with her passion for real estate and architecture, provided us with the very highest level of professionalism and personalized services. Cristal exhibited a rare combination of excellent communications, attention to detail, creativity and patience.”

- Richard and Catherine Frinier

“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.”

- Laurie Siegel

“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.”

- Ken Saffir

“Susan and I just want to thank you for your efforts in the sale of our home. You are really quite amazing. Your competence, persistence, optimism and humor made the entire process effortless. Every problem that arose, you somehow fixed; any obstacle, you overcame. We have bought and sold many homes. It has never been such a painless and enjoyable process!”

- Michael & Susan Marquart

“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.”

- Rob & Judi Kelch