Established in December 1786, Mission Santa Barbara was constructed by Franciscan missionaries, craftsmen, and Chumash laborers between 1789 and 1833. While many of the original colonial buildings have been razed, the 1820 church and portions of the original convento survive. The central patio garden, constructed in 1872, became a formative model in the development of mission gardens during the twentieth century. Continuously occupied by Franciscans since its founding, Mission Santa Barbara at one time included a seminary and retreat center, and it continues to serve as a Franciscan residence, archive, Catholic parish, and popular tourist destination.
Mission Santa Barbara was the tenth in the series of missions established along the coast and inland valleys of Alta California. The California missions were sited strategically near fresh water sources, arable lands, and Native communities. The selection of the Santa Barbara site followed this pattern with its proximity to several Chumash villages, as well as the nearby Santa Barbara Royal Presidio (established in 1782). The mission’s initial buildings were wattle and daub or log structures chinked with mud and small stones and thatched with earth and grass. As more resources became available, the wooden huts were replaced with adobe brick and tile structures built by the Chumash people. At the time of colonization, the Chumash lived in villages and harvested wild plants, hunted game, and were skilled fishermen who caught deep sea mammals, as well as other oceanic and riverine fish species, using sophisticated watercraft and tools.
The first adobe sanctuary was erected in 1788 and, as the mission population grew, it was replaced with larger structures in 1789 and 1793, respectively. The first quadrangle was completed in 1796 and the second in 1800. Following the layout typical of the missions, Santa Barbara continued to expand with the addition of outbuildings for agricultural and husbandry activities and, in 1798–1807, the construction of an “Indian village,” home to more than 1,700 baptized Indians or neophytes. After an 1812 earthquake destroyed the church, the current stone building was completed in 1820; it, too, sustained damage during a 1925 earthquake but was subsequently repaired. By the 1820s, Santa Barbara had become one of the most developed missions with a blacksmith shop, soap factory, weaving rooms, tannery, and pottery kiln.
An extensive system of reservoirs, aqueducts, and cisterns, begun in 1806, supplied both the daily water needs of the residents and the processing and manufacturing activities of the mission’s light industry. The Mission Creek dam, located about 1.5 miles north of Mission Canyon, is built of sandstone and lime mortar and stretches 100 feet across Pedregoso (Mission) Creek. The dam supplied water to the mission via an aqueduct system, and is still preserved in what is now the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Today, the extensive water treatment system includes the aqueducts, two reservoirs, a filter house, and a hydro-powered gristmill. The larger reservoir provided the city its water until the 1990s. One of the best-known surviving elements of this hydraulic system is the two-tiered fountain and adjoining rectangular basin or lavendaría (1808) near the mission entrance.
The orchards and fields were largely abandoned following secularization by the Mexican government in 1833 and the subsequent dispersal of the Native Americans who had provided the labor to sustain them. After becoming a U.S. territory (1848) and then a state (1850), claims regarding the mission lands entered an extended court battle, and they were eventually restored to the Catholic Church in 1865. The Franciscans and the Diocese embarked on a number of initiatives to develop the impoverished Santa Barbara site. In 1872, as part of the renovations for a Colegio Franciscano, Father José Maria Romo, who had recently traveled from the Mediterranean, created a garden in the central quadrangle. Resembling a monastic cloister garden, Romo added a fountain to the central pool and planted geometric beds with intersecting walks. The garden was widely depicted in photographs and paintings and the mission became a popular tourist destination. In addition, ornamental plants and paths were added to the cemetery north of the church, and plantings were included along the front of the quadrangle.
Despite its late-nineteenth-century date, Romo’s garden became a model for the construction of Spanish Colonial Revival or Mission Revival gardens created at other missions throughout the twentieth century, such as at Mission San Fernando and Mission La Purisima. In 1908, a circle of palms was planted around the central fountain, and the design of the central patio garden was simplified in the 1930s, when many of the beds were replaced with lawn. In 2015 much of the lawn was returned to beds to reduce water consumption.
South of the convento is La Huerta (“the orchard”), a historic garden established in 2001 to propagate and preserve native plant species.
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