In the Footsteps of Old Santa Barbara

Objectively speaking, there can’t be a single best neighborhood in Santa Barbara. Subjectively, the Presidio wins hands down. Its nine square blocks have more character than most Southern California towns. Just look at these buildings!

In fact, those nine blocks—bordered by Carrillo, Garden, Ortega, and State—are so rich that this post is going to run extremely long and still omit a lot. The neighborhood’s porousness makes it difficult to explore in a linear fashion, and only after I got home did I realize that I entirely missed the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

I parked outside the Community Arts Workshop at Garden and Ortega, where I took the opportunity to admire Dave Shelton’s marvelous gates. The last photo is atilt because I had to dash into Garden Street, and while I love doing Siteline, I’m not prepared to die for it.

The architecture in the Presidio’s eastern corner skews industrial/utilitarian. The little building in the first photo used to have “Survey Office” over the door, but that signage has come down. Google says Ortega Groundwater Treatment is at the address (220 E. Ortega), which must explain the tanks.

I love a Quonset hut!

Advanced Scientific Concepts is no longer at 135 E. Ortega—it moved to Goleta—but I thought you might want to know what it does: “Advanced Scientific Concepts, Inc. was founded in Santa Barbara, California, by Dr. Roger Stettner in 1987. Roger and the ASC team invented and successfully commercialized global shutter flash LIDAR for a wide range of military, space, and commercial applications. […] Gsf-LIDAR is the real time 3D imaging/ranging sensor modality of choice for digital elevation mapping, relative navigation, domain awareness, object tracking, sensor fusion and augmented reality applications.” That clears things right up, doesn’t it?

The drab building below is home to Pacific Acoustics North, “one of the longest standing Ceiling Restoration and Renewing companies […] with over 1 Billion square feet of Ceiling Cleaning Restoration across the United States!”

Given that architecture, perhaps the city thought it was OK to put minimal effort into making this solar array look anything other than functional. Don’t get me wrong: solar is wonderful, and we need it everywhere it can go. But I refuse to believe that it has to be this cheap and ugly, especially so near the historic center of town.

On to lovelier things, like the font on the sign at La Cuesta High School (“a comprehensive continuation high school designed to help students recover credits at an accelerated pace”) and the two houses on Ortega east of La Paloma Cafe.

I wish La Paloma would reopen for lunch, because it has one of the prettiest outdoor spaces in the city. And that intersection—Anacapa and Ortega—is shaping up to be very interesting, with Gala restaurant opening in the old Low Pigeon space, someone (reportedly from L.A.) buying the former Black Sheep building, and a storefront still available in the fourth corner.

I came across a notebook on Anacapa and opened it, hoping to find a stranger’s innermost thoughts and desires.

The 500-square-foot office bungalow at 707 Anacapa is a cutie.

Oy, the Santa Barbara News-Press. That building and parking lot are ripe for bigger, better things. Imagine a top-notch hotel there, overlooking De La Guerra Plaza….

The former NS Ceramics showroom—a terrific piece of real estate—is part of the News-Press complex, but it’s empty. I always get a little kick from the decorative metalwork protecting an alarm.

Nomad, which makes cases and other gear for phones, iPads, etc., is also in the News-Press building.

I didn’t spend much time on State Street for this walk, but I did peek inside the future site of Belching Dragon Tavern. (The glass has a film on it.)

And I stopped to admire the lamppost at the entry to the paseo leading to De La Guerra Plaza.

As you likely know, the city is moving toward a full-scale reinvention of De La Guerra Plaza (or Plaża De La Guerra, depending on whom you ask), and it can’t happen quickly enough. The News-Press building will be a dud till the dilettante owner folds, but once the rest of the plaza gets rethought, it will be the town square it was always meant to be.

The first building below is a winner. Once the plaza is revamped the other buildings on it will surely adapt to look less like freight entrances.

One of the best is currently the site of ARM Studio, an offshoot of American Riviera Magazine. You can take an aerial dance class there through December.

808 State! Flashback to 1989.

Rewinding much further in time: Casa de la Guerra on De La Guerra Street.

This adobe residence was constructed between 1818 and 1828 for José de la Guerra, the fifth comandante of the Presidio. In addition to his military post, de la Guerra acquired four large ranchos, ran an active commercial trade enterprise, and served as the patriarch for the local community. Casa de la Guerra home was the social, political, and cultural center of Santa Barbara during the Mexican period (1821-1848). José’s children and grandchildren occupied the building until 1943, when the Casa was fully incorporated into the El Paseo complex. In the 1990s, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation restored the building to its appearance between 1828 and 1858.

A privacy fence was still up for an event the night before. Did you know the cost to rent the courtyard is just $2,600 for 10 hours? ¡Qué ganga! It was just the first of several places that got me thinking about planning a party.

So much patina.

Quality knockers always bring Young Frankenstein to mind, no?

Some of the rooms at Casa de la Guerra are free to explore. I’m not the best judge of whether they’re interesting, because I kind of assume this is how people lived. I’ve seen movies! But I do think it’s a powerful reminder that we live in cushy times

For me, the emptier the room, the better.

I paid the $5 to explore the rest of the rooms (which includes admission to the Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park on Canon Perdido; more on that later). Highlights: the model that shows Casa de la Guerra before El Paseo got built on the back half; a photo from 1911, when the structure looked very different; and an exhibit of the many wallpaper remnants uncovered in one room.

The how-they-lived rooms must be more pleasant with the courtyard doors open.

I rarely have reason to visit the El Paseo complex, directly behind Casa De La Guerra, but whenever I do, I’m just delighted by it. I can still remember the first time I wandered in from Anacapa, feeling like an explorer as I turned this way and that, ultimately ending up on State Street. It’s fantastically fun architecture. So much of the charm of downtown lies not just in the preserved architecture but in the porousness, something you don’t see much of in the United States.

I’m more of a wine-with-dinner guy than an afternoon taster, but the courtyard seating is pretty irresistible. By the way, how come almost all tasting rooms tend to close at 6 p.m.?

Passing by El Paseo restaurant always feels like you’ve happened upon an alternate world.

I got excited when I saw these stairs, but I couldn’t quite work up the energy to barge into a women’s clothing boutique.

This room in the middle of El Paseo always baffles me. The door leads to yet another courtyard—another party venue waiting to happen….

Time for a signage update, folks.

Heritage Group: “Founded in 1930, The Heritage Group is a fourth-generation family-owned business managing a diverse portfolio of more than 30 companies specializing in heavy construction and materials, environmental services, and specialty chemicals.” The May Firm: personal injury lawyers. ClarionDoor: “Innovative technology for end-to-end insurance product distribution. […] ClarionDoor’s intelligent software provides seamless product distribution for rating, quoting, issuance, forms, and performance tracking—all in real time.” Sexy! Avant Global: venture capital.

As one might expect, there are many historical markers.

Not until this wander around El Paseo did I realize that the complex includes a relatively large office building. (Who looks up?) The second photo shows it from Canon Perdido. One tenant—the primary one, judging from the sign on State Street—is LogicMonitor, “the leading SaaS-based unified observability and IT operations data collaboration platform for enterprise IT and managed service providers.” Who would’ve guessed that a post about the Presidio would include so much tech/business jargon?

Built in 1849, the Oreña Adobe on De La Guerra is—eh, just read the sign yourself. The door was open, so I went inside. Another courtyard! The last photo is how it looks from Anacapa.

Two more cuties.

In the parking lot next to the Polar Bear kids’ clothing shop—which is celebrating its fortieth year in business—I came across the Volkswagen van of Diane “Poppy” Popovich, a.k.a. Poppy Possible, a “DreamMaker, Speaker, Author, and Thought Leader.”

Ooh, Meridian Studios. A blog post from 2008 gets into the history of the complex, built as artists’ studios and now offices. I have yet to be inside, but a tenant recently invited me, so perhaps soon….

It’s possible that my walk around the Presidio took less time that it does for you to read this post. In any event, another highlight is the old guard house, where the courtyard facing Anacapa is now home to Frequency Wines‘s pretty outdoor seating, and the back is on Santa Barbara’s oldest street, Presidio Avenue. I’m unconvinced that the nook in the last photo is the ideal spot for a bank of mailboxes, though.

I have never wanted an office more than when I saw the “for lease” sign at the Presidio Plaza Building.

And I only just learned of another paseo, or maybe more of a cut-through, from the lush gardens of the Presidio Plaza Building to the parking lot next to the Cheese Shop. You emerge near the white structure in the second photo.

Hibiscus tree!

Finally, the actual El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, “a 5.5-acre park that preserves the site of the last Spanish fortress, or presidio, founded in Alta (Upper) California in 1782. Two of the fort‘s original adobe buildings still exist and are open to the public—El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe.” I still think the man in the painting inside El Cuartel looks like Adam Driver.

This was my first time inside the Cañedo Adobe. Because I am dad-joke age, I had to ask about the discount for Time Travelers. It’s a reciprocal arrangement for members of historical museums across the country.

I don’t want to hear about how deep your Santa Barbara roots are unless your ancestors are in this database.

There were the usual museum exhibits. To be honest, I was getting tired.

But this perked me up: new paseos! Although when you look at the satellite view, it appears to be sidewalks alongside parking lots, which will be more interesting if/when those lots get developed someday.

Meandering around the grounds was enjoyable, and I may have been the only visitor on the premises.

One for you NRA members.

That’s total chickenshit.

King Carlos III of Spain knew how to throw a rather queenly pose, if you catch my drift.

That’s the rooftop basketball court at the Carrillo Recreation Center, slated to get a much-needed makeover. Must be neat up there. Another party spot?

More how-they-lived rooms and the very sweet chapel ($1,800 for a six-hour rental, but probably not appropriate for any kind of event I’d want to throw there).

I recognize this outfit from a window at the Montecito Country Mart.

Too bad I was alone, because I would’ve gone for the photo op—or more likely, both.

Finally, the last paseo, at least for this excursion. La Playa Azul restaurant on Santa Barbara Street is in a building that’s part of the State Historic Park (as are Zaytoon, Panino, and Three Pickles/Pickle Room). Walk alongside it and you end up in an open area flanked by a couple of buildings, including the Alhecama Theatre ($1,500 for 10 hours), also part of the State Historic Park.

At the far end is a path that winds through the grounds of the Palihouse Santa Barbara hotel, which you may know better as its previous incarnation, the Spanish Garden Inn. You have to pass through the lobby, but before you know it, you’re out on Garden Street and ready to go home.


Walk With Me…

Downtown Santa Barbara
Brinkerhoff, Bradley, and Beyond
Mixing Business and Pleasure in East Beach
It’s Only Milpas Street (But I Like It)
The Haley Corridor Is Keeping It Real
The Small Pleasures of Bungalow Haven
↓↓↓ Is There a Better Neighborhood for a Stroll Than West Beach?
E. Canon Perdido, One of Downtown’s Best Strolling Streets

Oak Park / Samarkand
The Side Streets and Alleyways of Upper Oak Park
The Small-Town Charms of Samarkand

Eucalyptus Hill
On the Golden Slope of Eucalyptus Hill
Climbing the Back of Eucalyptus Hill

San Roque
Voyage to the Heart of the San Roque Spider Web

TV Hill / The Mesa
West Mesa Is Still Funky After All These Years
A Close-Up Look at TV Hill

Hidden Valley / Yankee Farm
An Aimless Wander Through Hidden Valley
• The Unvarnished Appeal of Yankee Farm

The Heart of Montecito Is in Coast Village
↓↓↓ Quintessential Montecito at Butterfly Beach
Once Upon a Time in the Hedgerow…
Where Montecito Gets Down to Business (Coast Village Circle)
In the Heart of the Golden Quadrangle
Up, Down, and All Around Montecito’s Pepper Hill
Montecito’s Prestigious Picacho Lane
School House Road and Camphor Place

Summerland / Carpinteria
A Stroll in the Summerland Countryside
Admiring the Backsides of Beachfront Houses on Padaro Lane
Whitney Avenue in Summerland

Goleta / Isla Vista
Where the Streets Have Full Names
The Past Is Still Present in Old Town Goleta
Social Distancing Made Easy at UCSB


Sign up for the Siteline email newsletter and you’ll never miss a post.



Hugh Margerum

Wow! That’s is just about the most comprehensive look at the Presidio Neighborhood that I’ve ever seen. Great photos and research!

Jonathan Mackey

Isn’t there one important and iconic space obviously missing from this tour?


Could not agree more! This is hands down my favorite area in town. Extremely thorough profile, ha. I also agree with your thoughts on the News Press. I would love to see a mixed-use development and some further outdoor areas to tie into DLG plaza. With the news the NP is discontinuing daily delivery it seems we might be inching closer to it shuttering or at least retaining that prime location and lot. Lutah Maria Riggs had proposed plans for DLG that are far more inviting than what we have now. They were published in a book I purchased a copy of. I hope the dreaded splash pad isn’t happening.


Re: NP – typo meant to say “at least *no longer retaining*” that physical property.


awesome- loved driving my van full of girls to SB High for 6 am waterpolo practices- walked these same paths to fill my time before picking them up at 8 with smoothies

Diane Benton

It was nice seeing the sign/scroll work in El Paso! My husband has done beautiful hand painted work through out the El Paso and Santa Barbara for over 50 years. I have always admired the way he is able to design so many signs for Santa Barbara, David Benton is one talented man!

Lee Skeen

We were in these places with Neal Graffy on tour with Historical Museum.
Do you have pictures for Riviera and Mission area?

Anne A

The Westside, please. A great place to walk. Santa Barbara’s quiet forgotten neighborhood. Our house was built in the 1860s and there’s a Victorian farmhouse on nearly every block. The old timers still living in the neighborhood can tell you lots if history.


Well done, Erik. Your “I’m new here, but I’m eager to explore and learn” attitude is so refreshing. Yes, you missed quite a few nuances, but wandering around a 250 yr old chunk of Santa Barbara, that is to be expected. There have been at least eight generations of SB history encased in those several blocks of land, and those adobe, brick and craftsman walls have much to say….but the whispers of SB grow faint unless someone amplifies them as you have.
Thank you, from an ex-pat SB-er, who leaned in to your fresh presentation of some cherished venues.

Erik Torkells

Thanks! But I’m actually tough to walk with—I’m highly distractible.

Suzanne G. Shanelec

Erik, Thank you for a most comprehensive and enjoyable tour of some of our most beautiful architectural treasures of downtown Santa Barbara. I am trying to find out the history, someone to contact whom might know the information, of the Two Blue Vases atop the Presido Plaza building Roof adjacent to the Main Post Office, one building in from Anacapa Street. As a forty-one year resident these have always intrigued me and I have never been able to obtain their history, please! Thank you!


This walk takes my breath away…….thank you. Living in Hawaii for many years and being able to spend time in S.B. and enjoy these magical streets and paths takes my breath away…..there is so much beauty when walking and even driving I never want to stay inside. Thank you!