Pushing the city's limits

Times Staff Writer

FOR nearly a century, the heart of this city has maintained one cohesive look, and not by accident. Architectural guidelines stipulate that buildings downtown should be of the "Hispanic Mediterranean" tradition, specifically Andalusian. Walls should be thick, smooth stucco (white or ivory, please). Trim should be dark ("Santa Barbara blue" is traditional, hint, hint). The roof? It should be low, pitched and made of red tile, specifically the two-piece barrel variety.

Classic Santa Barbara, the guidelines say, looks historic and restrained.

So what's this rambling new complex on Cota Street? Could those polka dots on the facade possibly be ceramic dishes? That curved spire -- the one that splits into two -- is that really a chimney? What about all those iron handrails that twist and turn and loop the loop, or the gigantic purple door that looks like a portal to another world, or the Seussical whozits and whatzits at every turn? Is this Santa Barbara?

For Jeff Shelton, the Who behind this Whoville, the answer is yes.

Though many top-name architects have all but written off building in the city's historic core, Shelton is constructing a portfolio of playful residential projects that exhibit a whimsical sense of humor and push the limits of what's considered the Santa Barbara tradition.

Call it Storybook Spanish Revival.

At Shelton's recently completed Cota Street Studios, a cluster of seven live-work condos, an ankle-high water faucet sits outside the front gate -- a drinking fountain for four-legged passers-by. Enter the first courtyard, and curvaceous 10-foot-tall steel-framed glass doors pop in purple and blue. Balcony railings zigzag like a wicked rollercoaster track turned on edge, and stairway handrails wrap around potted aloes and geraniums like some tentacled creature from "Little Shop of Horrors."

In many ways the design bucks convention, but Philip Suding, chairman of the Historic Landmarks Commission governing central Santa Barbara, says Shelton has succeeded because he has paid homage to Mediterranean architecture while executing his own distinctive vision. "He interprets it in a playful way, which some people appreciate and some people don't," Suding says. "But ultimately Jeff's designs are good. That's what's key."

Shelton says his work is rooted in the basics of good architecture and the classic look of the Mediterranean. "It's not intended to just be a Disneyland version of Spain," says Shelton, 48, who has been in private practice here for 12 years after working for L.A.-based Levin & Associates, where he was project manager for the team renovating the historic Bradbury Building downtown.

He sited Cota Street Studios to preserve views of the mountains. He laid out the courtyards to create a sense of mystery. Interiors are open and airy, full of thoughtful detailing. Local craftspeople provided artistic embellishments, so the complex looks like "this was built by hands, not a machine," he says.

Those hands included those of Shelton's brother David, who fabricated the giant sliding glass doors, iron handrails and lanterns. Sculptor Andy Johnson's animal heads grace entrances, and Santa Barbara sail maker Bill Paxton's pergola canopies, balcony awnings and courtyard table umbrellas incorporate the same sun-resistant woven acrylic that he uses for sail covers. Local ceramicist Linda Godlis was commissioned to make hand-painted porcelain dishes that Shelton used as exterior accents, inset in the plaster.

"At first he asked me to make 100 dinner plates. I thought he was kidding," says Godlis, who collaborated with Alvaro Suman to eventually turn out 130 plates and platters, as well as ceramic tiles for staircases, benches and fountains. Godlis, who lives near Shelton in the foothills above town, says the unique touches give the buildings soul.

"Up where I live, a lot of buildings are these huge mansions that have no personality. They're huge blotches," says Godlis, who discovered that she and Shelton find inspiration in the work of Spanish legend Antoni Gaudi. "I think Jeff's buildings have some Gaudi-ness to them." Not enough people are taking these kinds of risks, she says.

Architects can't take chances, not in this city, says UCLA architecture professor Barton Myers.

"I had students ask, 'Can you do good contemporary architecture in Santa Barbara?' The answer is yes. The bylaws are fine," Myers says. The problem lies in city officials who interpret architectural guidelines too narrowly, he says. The result? "What's produced is very mediocre work," Myers says, adding that he's unfamiliar with Shelton but does know that top architectural firms such as Thom Mayne's Morphosis are building homes in Montecito or on county land, where they have more freedom to innovate. Myers chose to build his own home -- a series of steel and glass pavilions -- outside Santa Barbara city limits.

"It's a huge issue," Myers says. "In many ways, Santa Barbara is great and it looks wonderful: everything white, with red roofs. The easy visual order is tremendously appealing. But it also can be oppressive. The last thing you want to do is turn it into Williamsburg or Santa Fe or a Disney stage set."

Edward Cella, an architectural historian and past member of the Historic Landmarks Commission, says Santa Barbarans have been guarding the character of their architecture for close to 100 years, with advisory committees that predate the 1925 earthquake that damaged much of the town.

"Santa Barbara is one of five or six [U.S.] communities that has such a long-term vision of what it could be -- different from any other place," he says. Though Shelton's aesthetic may appear quite modern, Cella says, ultimately the architect works within local tradition.

"Jeff has a respect and love of the language of Spanish architecture," says Cella. "Like a composer, he just finds new ways of putting the notes together.

"We live in a Home Depot world, where everything is standardized. Windows, doors -- we have come to expect buildings to look a specific way. Jeff is saying, 'I'm going to insert art and craft and hand -- the hand of the artisan.' "

That kind of originality is key, especially in a pricey locale like Santa Barbara. The four unsold residences at Cota Street Studios are on the market for $1.6 million to $2.4 million. Ask Shelton about Santa Barbara's guidelines, though, and he just shrugs.

"A lot of architects complain about the Spanish Revival criteria. They complain it stifles creativity," Shelton says. "I think the rules make it easier. They force you to be creative. They make you get to the point faster."

His website, www.jeffsheltonarchitect.com, showcases his other homes around town: the Zannon house, with its tile mosaics shaped like rugs draped over a balcony wall; the Little Cow House, whose life-size bovine statue on the roof pays homage to the cow atop a 1930s dairy down the street ("like the baby's looking back at his mama," Shelton says with a grin); or the Ablitt Tower House now under construction, a four-story, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe home built on a lot that's only 20 feet square. Such challenges inspire Shelton to think differently.

"I like tradition," he says. "I'm just trying to move it forward."

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