El Presidio de Santa Barbara: A Successful Partnership

El Presidio

What do you get when you combine a committed local historic preservation group with California State Parks? If conditions are right, you may get something as valuable as El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. It is a fine example of what is meant by the State Parks 150th anniversary tagline, “ a gift from the people to the people.”

The Santa Barbara Presidio, founded in 1782, was the last of four Spanish presidios (combined military and governmental centers) built in Alta California. Local Chumash Indians constructed it, working under the supervision of Spanish soldiers. Gradually, a town grew up around the presidio, the beginnings of the city of Santa Barbara.

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. The presidio was active until 1826, when the Alta California governor ordered establishment of the first Mexican town council in Santa Barbara instead of the military government. The presidio buildings were then occupied for non-military, non-governmental uses. They continued to be the heart of Santa Barbara, and the town continued to grow around them.

By 1848 Santa Barbara was in American hands. Santa Barbara’s first city map, drawn in 1853, set up an American grid system of streets that were not in line with the presidio and its surrounding Spanish and Mexican-era buildings. Two buildings within the presidio remained occupied into the twentieth century, but the remaining parts of the presidio were eventually destroyed as the city downtown filled in on the American grid pattern. Most of the surrounding buildings met the same fate.

A group of Santa Barbara residents dedicated to preserving Santa Barbara’s historic sites founded the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (SBTHP) in 1963. Determined to preserve what was left of the Santa Barbara Presidio, they approached California State Parks with a proposal to work in partnership. State Parks accepted. SBTHP acquired the first building on the presidio property in 1965 and gifted it to the state. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park was established in 1966.

El Presidio

SBTHP and State Parks have been working cooperatively for almost 50 years now. A large section of the original presidio quadrangle is now part of the state park, as well as some adjacent buildings. The two original presidio structures have been restored and other sections reconstructed, including the chapel. The partners have also cooperated on archaeological and historical studies, and completed a General Plan and Interpretation Master Plan. Besides these major projects, SBTHP staffs and maintains the park on a daily basis under an operating agreement. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park stands as a stellar example of what can be accomplished when California State Parks works with a dedicated group of people.