A playful expression of Santa Barbara’s early history
Every year, thousands of visitors flock to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse to admire the elaborate Spanish/Moorish Colonial Revival architecture and enjoy the expansive city views from the tower of this historic building. Not only is the Santa Barbara Courthouse considered one of the most beautiful courthouses in the country, but it’s also listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Despite the draw of lush gardens and interesting architecture, the interior of the building houses one of its most fascinating attractions, what is known as the “Mural Room.” Here, enormous paintings depicting Santa Barbara’s early history adorn the walls, painted by California artist Daniel Groesbeck (1879-1950) in 1929, the same year the courthouse was completed.
Groesbeck started his career as an illustrator for the Los Angeles Morning Herald. Although his formal art training seems to be minimal and he was largely self-taught, Groesbeck had a talent for visualizing dramatic situations and settings. By 1905, he had a growing career in Chicago as an illustrator, creating images of romance, history and adventure for books and magazines. After serving a brief stint in Russia in the Canadian army, he returned to California following World War I and established himself as a renowned painter and printmaker.
In 1924, Groesbeck settled in Santa Barbara, where the local County National Bank commissioned him to paint a scene of Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s expedition to California in 1542. The 9×12-foot Landing of Cabrillo, which now hangs outside the mural room, gained Groesbeck national recognition and was no doubt instrumental in his commission to paint the Santa Barbara Courthouse Mural Room.
Designed to serve as the Board of Supervisors’ assembly room, for which it was used for 30 years, the mural room is now primarily used “for ceremonial purposes, graduations and weddings,” explains Linda Rosso, executive director of Courthouse Legacy Foundation. “The original drapes, chandeliers and custom furniture still remain, along with Groesbeck’s historical depictions,” which cover 4,200 square feet on all four walls.
Although the murals illustrate historical events, these highly romanticized scenes are not entirely accurate. Groesbeck took tremendous artistic license by adding whimsical details and incorporating characters like Peter Pan and known Hollywood actors. According to documentation, Groesbeck was known for his embellishments both on and off the canvas.
Chronologically, the murals begin on the left wall when entering the room. The scene portrayed involves the Canalino Tribe, also known as the Chumash Indians, watching the arrival of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at the California coast, carrying the flag of Spain.
Next, we see the expedition of Sebastian Vizcaino, a Spanish explorer and mapmaker. His expedition anchored in the channel on December 4, 1602, known as the feast day of Saint Barbara, for which the channel was then named. “You’ll notice the ships are illustrated at full sail with anchors up, although they are technically supposed to be anchored,” points out Rosso—yet another example of Groesbeck romanticizing the scene.
The wall through which you enter represents the construction of the present-day Santa Barbara Mission, founded by Fr. Presidente Fermin Lasuen and the Spanish Franciscans in 1786. Across the room, a composite of the Mexican period is depicted on the far wall, which began in 1822, after Mexico gained independence from Spain. Next to this, Groesbeck portrayed Captain John C. Fremont descending San Marcos Pass in 1846 to claim Santa Barbara for the United States. Shown in the sky is an eagle, symbolizing the beginning of the American period. The wall on the right side of the room includes early industries such as mining, ranching and agriculture, representative of the industries that helped establish California’s economy.
The murals, which were painted on muslin and glued to the walls, took four months to complete with the help of two assistants—for which Groesbeck was paid $9,000. After completing the murals, Groesbeck immediately set sail for England without signing his work, so the murals contain a forged signature.
Smoke caused by an electrical fire in 2010 damaged much of the murals, which have since been restored thanks to fundraising efforts by Courthouse Legacy Foundation. Explains Rosso, “Almost $600,000 was raised to remove the smoke damage and enhance the lighting in 2015,” which proved to be quite a restoration, as evident from the remaining square patch of smoke-damaged mural left to show the difference.
Groesbeck’s talent for making dramatic scenes come to life captured the attention of director Cecil B. DeMille, best known for his spectacular movie epics. DeMille first hired Groesbeck to paint sets for his film The Ten Commandments (1923). By 1926, DeMille used Groesbeck as his go-to artist, collaborating on sets, costumes and characters for DeMille’s romantic, Biblical and historical films such as The King of Kings, The Buccaneer and Samson and Delilah.
Daniel Groesbeck enjoyed a career for more than 20 years as a Hollywood studio artist, but his larger-than-life historical scenes at Santa Barbara County Courthouse are certainly some of his most impressive and admired works.
Santa Barbara Courthouse is located at 1100 Anacapa St. with free tours daily at 2 p.m. and Mon.–Fri. at 10:30 a.m. For more information about Santa Barbara Courthouse Legacy Foundation, visit courthouselegacyfoundation.org.
This story was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.