By Cheryl Crabtree
Photographs By Jim Bartsch
One of Santa Barbara’s most exceptional examples of public art occupies a sliver of land in a back alley off Haley Street, just west of the busy pub and restaurant district on lower State.
The story of its construction is a fascinating tale that begins in 1984, when Neil Ablitt (rhymes with tablet) founded Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners & Launderers on a piece of family property. He also bought a tiny lot in the middle of the same block, not to build on, but so he could use its Haley Street address to possibly run for a position on the planning commission.
When Neil semi-retired from the laundry business in 1993, he and his wife Sue lived on a boat in Mexico, not giving much thought to the tiny parcel until they visited Santa Barbara in 2000 and were enamored with the whimsical design of the Zannon Building, a mixed-use project under construction next to the laundry facility. Neil spoke to the architect, Jeff Shelton, about developing a home on the tiny parcel, which occupied just 20 feet by 20 feet of commercial space in a downtown alley rimmed by restaurants, hotels and shops.
“We wanted to live downtown, where we could walk to work and the store,” explains Neil. He and Sue were accustomed to the confines of their 37-foot sailboat, so the thought of living in a smallish abode appealed to them. Shelton thought the task was “impossible,” but the challenge of such a project appealed to him. The Ablitts hired him in 2002 to present design possibilities to the city’s strict planning commission and city council.
It took four years of hammering out design logistics to get city approval, which was ultimately won in 2006. “We got the impossible,” says Neil. Unlike most homeowners who come to the drawing table with, at minimum, a small list of requests, the Ablitts gave Shelton free rein to design their home. He, in turn, enlisted the efforts of a number of local artists and artisans, who were also given creative license. The result of their efforts rose in the form of an amazing 53-foot-high structure—a one-of-a-kind living exhibit of local art forms.
“Jeff is a genius,” says Neil. “He and his crew had complete design control, carte blanche to do as they wished. We knew we were getting a work of art.” Neil admits that Shelton did ask a few questions about their lifestyle. “He asked my wife what she liked the most. She said ‘books, tile and wine.’” From then on, “my job was to keep my mouth shut, sweep the alley and stay out of the way,” laughs Neil.
The end result is what the Ablitts call “a happy house” with whimsical artistic elements throughout. The four stories encompass just 699 square feet of living space, not counting the roof patio. Fifty-seven windows pepper the concrete walls, allowing soft natural light to bathe the interior. Exceptional artistic attention to detail is evident from the moment you walk through the home’s entrance, where custom tiles adorn the stucco arches and entryway. Curved tiles are somehow affixed to the square-shaped pillars. “They took crazy-shaped tiles and put a right angle behind them,” explains Neil. “It was really painstaking work.”
A tour of Ablitt House begins on the ground floor, with a garage required by the city. Stairs (no elevator here) connect the upper three floors—a bedroom, kitchen and multi-use living room, plus a rooftop patio. Local woodworker David Moseley crafted a 108-foot black walnut handrail that follows the entire stairwell’s 61 Italian marble steps to the top. Moseley coordinated with Jeff Shelton’s brother David, who created intricate wrought-iron supports.
The cozy blue-and-white bedroom reflects nautical elements, including a porthole opening, that connect the Ablitts with their love of the boating life. The custom-made modular bed has drawers for storage, while built-in shelves hold the books that were on Sue’s short list of things she loved. Black walnut and alder bedroom doors provide privacy from the hallway and adjacent bathroom.
Although various artists contributed to the decor, their works complement one another amazingly well. The Mary Main custom quilt covering the bed matches the flower pattern in the floor tiles, and Karin Shelton’s (Jeff’s wife) paintings also feature leaves, flowers and other design elements from the floor and wall tiles. Local sculptor Andy Johnson carved knobs, gargoyle faces and other works from limestone, accenting corners and alcoves throughout the home.
The next floor, a gourmet kitchen, features 10-foot ceilings that give the room a sense of soaring spaciousness relative to the 8-foot ceilings below. Wine bottles are tucked into French drains reminiscent of portholes, each lined with custom tiles. “This is where we gave our only input—we chose the color of the stove,” says Neil. “They chose a blue stove,” states Shelton, “then I developed the colors…I chose cool colors on the wall so it could have warm lamps, colorful tablecloths.”
The luxury kitchen was a surprise for the Ablitts, who spent years cooking on a propane stove with little storage for perishables. Neil chuckles that they’re still getting used to the Viking stove, Miele dishwasher, Sub-Zero wine cooler and two freezers. “We were used to living on a boat and buying fresh stuff all the time, so we don’t know what to put in there.”
From the kitchen, the stairs lead to the home’s hub: a space that serves as living room, guest quarters, lounge, party venue and media center. Two stairwells on opposite sides (built to meet city requirements) provided an opportunity to add a crawl space for guests to sleep on blow-up mattresses, as well as a sink and second bath. The bottom portion of the translucent window is opaque, shutting out the view of commercial buildings below and letting in vistas of trees, ocean, islands and mountains through the upper level.
A serpent’s head at the end of the 108-foot handrail points to the next level: a rooftop patio with stunning views. “On a clear day, you can see Anacapa and two-thirds of Santa Cruz Island, plus TV Hill…and the Santa Ynez range,” says Neil, who clearly takes pride in his unusual home and overcoming the challenges of the project. “Jeff loves making lemons out of lemonade,” he says. “When there’s a problem, he just figures out ways to make it happen.”
Shelton says he always approaches projects with an open mind and is careful not to approach them with preconceived ideas. “I always start with ‘what do we have’ and ‘what are the rules,” he explains. “I don’t dream, I just get it done within the parameters. What is possible given the limitations?” Shelton gives much credit for the home’s successful construction to builder Dan Upton. “The key to anything is Dan Upton. He makes it possible for me to draw…and he allows us to incorporate other artists, et cetera, into the job.”
“It was a miracle to get [the Ablitt House] in there. My job was to solve the problem and make it a delightful building,” says Shelton. And in the eyes of the Ablitts, and nearly all who visit this remarkable work of art, Shelton and crew produced a masterpiece of delight.
Dan Upton Construction, Inc.
Interior Doors & Handrail
David Moseley Construction
Santa Barbara Art Glass by Saul Alcaraz
Cement Floor Tiles
Original Mission Tiles of San Luis Potosi, Mexico
Jeff Shelton collection
Custom Ceramic Tile
California Pottery and Tile Works
Claire, Ellen and Alice Upton
Elena and Mattie Shelton
Gabrielle Shelton, Shelton Studios