215 A East Canon Perdido Street
Designation Status: Designated City Landmark
Assessor Parcel Number: 029-292-031
Historic Name: Little Theatre
The building has board and batten siding with a simple auditorium and raised stage. The space is generously lit by three large sash windows and transoms on the east elevation of the building, and French doors with corresponding transoms on the west elevation.
Architect: Soule, Murphy and Hastings
Architectural Style: Vernacular
Property Type: Theatre
The Alhecama Theatre was designated a City Landmark on September 25, 2018 by City Council unanimous vote.
The Alhecama Theatre was originally designed as an integral part of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts campus. The building played an important role for the Santa Barbara community since its construction in 1925, offering space for not only theatre, but adult education and other community events. Originally called the Little Theatre, the noted architecture firm, Soule, Murphy and Hastings, designed the building in 1925. It was among a cluster of eleven wood-sided frame structures of the campus. The school thrived from 1920 to the mid-1930s.
After the School of the Arts closed in 1938, Max and Alice Schott purchased the campus to save it from demolition. The Little Theatre was renovated in 1940, and Alice Schott renamed the theatre Alhecama, after the first two letters of each of her four daughters’ names: Alice, Helen, Catherine, and Mary Lou. In 1981 the California Department of Parks and Recreation purchased the property and it became part of El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park and home to the Ensemble Theatre Company. They used the space to engage audiences with entertaining and compelling theatrical productions until 2013. The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation then embarked on a restoration of the building to its original 1925 condition. The completed restoration of the Alhecama Theatre included the restoration of the mural on the interior. The restored community place now deserves to join the elite list of Santa Barbara City Landmarks.
The property was placed on the Potential Historic Resources List in 1978. The proposed boundary of the City Landmark designation includes just the building and no other buildings on the parcel. Because the building meets the City Landmark eligibility criteria for its historical significance, it is the opinion of the Historic Landmarks Commission Designation Subcommittee that the building is an excellent candidate for City Landmark designation. The Historic Resources Committee of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation voted on May 21, 2018 to support the City Landmark designation.
The Santa Barbara School of the Arts brought together artists, photographers, designers, composers, and writers. The school was deeply rooted in the community through lectures, exhibits, contests, and other programs, and was an important part of Santa Barbara’s cultural Renaissance in the 1920s. With only a population of 20,000 in 1920, the city was amazingly the most important art center between San Francisco and Los Angeles. With the establishment of this school, the region attained national recognition. The year after the school was founded, an article in The American Magazine of Art reported, “Here in this artist’s paradise have gathered a colony which includes the men and women famous in our world of Art in the United States today.”
As artists were flocking to Santa Barbara in the early 1900s, the city became home to an art colony of stunning talent. In 1920, at a public meeting, the community decided to establish a “Festival Arts Association.” This was the first step in forming the School of the Arts. By January of 1921 the group formally incorporated under the title: Santa Barbara School of the Arts Society. Noted artist Ferdinand Lungren was the first President of the School and served the longest tenure on the Board of Trustees. The broad school curriculum included poetry, drama, music, drawing, painting, photography, dance, sculpture, design, interior decoration, architecture, landscape architecture, and languages. Then in November 1922, the Carnegie Corporation of New York granted $25,000 for five years to the Community Arts Association, with which the school merged in 1923. The Community Arts Association was an important cultural institution with four branches: the School of the Arts; Music; Drama; and Plans and Planting. By the 1924 fall term, the school had 250 students. Testimony to the school’s success was the hiring of a full time Director, Frank Morley Fletcher, an artist-educator with an international reputation. Hiring Fletcher reflected the high aspirations of the school board. The architecture faculty included noted Santa Barbara architects Winsor Soule, John Frederick Murphy, and James Osborne Craig, all proponents of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Noted landscape architects Ralph Stevens, Charles Frederick Eaton, and Lockwood de Forest, Jr. taught landscape architecture. The school drew famous artists such as Carl Oscar Borg, who taught landscape painting. After the 1925 earthquake, the physical expansion of the school proceeded as a complex of buildings bound by Canon Perdido, Carrillo, Santa Barbara, and Garden Streets, designed by Soule, Murphy and Hastings architects. Only a few of the buildings were constructed, one of which was the Alhecama Theatre in 1925. By early 1927, the complex consisted of nine buildings with a sculpture studio added in 1928 due to an extension of the Carnegie grant and emergency grants. The school had its greatest success from 1926 through 1929. However, in 1930, with the Carnegie grant running out and with the onset of the Great Depression, prospective students entered the workplace to help their struggling families. As a result, the school was less able to offer financial aid and enrollment dropped. The school closed for good, declaring bankruptcy in 1938.
After the Community Arts Association and the School declared bankruptcy, Max and Alice Schott bought the property from a bank in 1939 to save it from demolition. The Schotts made their fortune in the mining and metals business. They moved to Santa Barbara in 1920, but maintained another home in New York City. They were very civic minded; Alice Schott was one of Santa Barbara’s most active community leaders for 50 years, being involved in issues from housing in Harlem, New York to women’s health in Santa Barbara. In the 1930s, the couple helped bring many German refugees fleeing Nazi oppression to the United States. Alice Schott raised the funds and secured the Rockwood site in Mission Canyon for the Woman’s Club. She had a lifelong love of the arts and bought the property of the School of the Arts in the hope of reviving the Community Arts Association. The Community Arts Association, Plans and Planting Committee continued working out of the offices at 914 Santa Barbara Street on the campus. However, the school never reopened. The Schotts renovated the theatre with an added masonry foyer, ticket booth, and a second-story projection room to the north end. To the south elevation, the school added a fly above the stage, a “stage left” area, and a small apartment. The school also raised the stage 9 inches and installed fixed, raised theatre seats. As previously noted, the theatre was renovated and renamed after the Schotts’ daughters as the Alhecama Theatre and continued to house both musical and theatrical productions.
In 1945, the School of the Arts complex was transferred to the Santa Barbara Unified School District. The district used the property to house the Junior College (now Santa Barbara City College), UCSB Extension, and the Adult Education headquarters. Collectively it was called the Community Institute. Alhecama Theatre served as adult education headquarters until it moved to 3010 West Padre Street in 1980. In 1981, the California Department of Parks and Recreation purchased the property and it became part of El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, and the Ensemble Theatre Company used this space until 2013. When the Ensemble Theatre moved to the renovated Victoria Theatre in 2015, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation decided to restore the original auditorium floor and stage, and rehabilitate the building to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The renovation included a new brick patio in front of the entrance that extends out to the lawn area. The rehabilitation returned the building to its original multi-purpose configuration and included the removal of non-historic elements, such as an extension of the stage and temporary wall partitions. The rehabilitation also removed the 1939 Douglas fir stage floor to expose the original pine floor. The removal of the fixed seats and the raised platform exposed a beautiful, two-inch red oak, tongue-in-groove original floor. The original wood sash windows and transoms facing the Riviera and the four sets of glass French doors facing the plaza were restored, as well as the interior finishes. Ross Dickenson, instructor at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts, painted the mural in the theatre in 1928. The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation recently finished the restoration of the mural. The newly restored theatre is now available for lectures, films, conferences, receptions, performances, and exhibits.
Soule, Murphy and Hastings
Architectural Firm of Soule, Murphy and Hastings (1921-1926) designed the theatre along with 8 other buildings on the Santa Barbara School of the Arts campus. The firm is one of the Santa Barbara region’s most noted architectural firms in the early twentieth century. Winsor Soule, who was in practice in California between 1917 and his death in 1954, headed a firm whose members included, at various times, Russell Ray, John Murphy, and Henry Hastings, all of whom became significant architects in their own right. Moreover, the firm played an important role in developing a regional architectural style for California inspired by the state’s colonial period missions and Spanish and Italian Mediterranean antecedents. Because the firm made such significant contributions to the architectural heritage of Santa Barbara, their legacy lies in the firm’s concerted effort to make Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial Revival the city’s dominant architectural styles at a time when these regional styles were achieving great popularity.
The City of Santa Barbara defines historic significance as outlined by the Municipal Code, Section 22.22.040. It is the opinion of the Historic Landmarks Commission Designations
Subcommittee that the Alhecama Theatre is an excellent candidate for City Landmark designation per the following five criteria:
Criterion A. Its character, interest, or value as a significant part of the heritage of the City, the State, or the Nation:
The Santa Barbara School of the Arts brought together artists, photographers, designers, composers, and writers. The school was deeply rooted in the community through lectures, exhibits, contests, and other programs. The school was an important part of Santa Barbara’s cultural Renaissance in the 1920s and the most important art center between San Francisco and Los Angeles. With the establishment of this school, the region attained national recognition. Thus, the Alhecama Theatre of the school is important to the heritage of the City.
Criterion C. Its identification with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the culture and development of the City, the State, or the Nation
The building is associated with Alice Schott, one of Santa Barbara’s most active community leaders for 50 years. Alice Schott bought the campus in 1938 and rehabilitated the theatre. The theatre was part of the campus of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts which had many important architects and artists as faculty. The architecture faculty included noted Santa Barbara architects Winsor Soule, John Frederick Murphy, and James Osborne Craig, all proponents of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Noted landscape architects Ralph Stevens, Charles Frederick Eaton, and Lockwood de Forest, Jr. taught landscape architecture. The school drew famous artists like Carl Oscar Borg, who taught landscape painting. Thus, the building is identified not only with Alice Schott who saved the building, but also architects and artists that contributed to the culture of the City and qualifies as a City Landmark under criterion C.
Criterion F. Its identification as the creation, design, or work of a person or persons whose effort has significantly influenced the heritage of the City, the State, or the Nation
The building is an example of the work of Soule, Murphy and Hastings, one of the leading interpreters of the Period Revival movement in the Santa Barbara region between 1921 and 1926. It was one of the few buildings designed for the campus that was actually constructed. Thus the building is identified as the creation of the noted architectural firm and qualifies as a City Landmark under criterion F.
Criterion G. Its embodiment of elements demonstrating outstanding attention to architectural design, detail, materials, and craftsmanship
The building’s composition, massing, and simplicity are exemplary elements of the design of this small Theatre. The French doors on the west façade with the wide transoms, the original double hung windows with six-over-six divided light sashes and ogee lugs on the bottom sash, and a divided light transom above on the east elevation demonstrate outstanding attention to materials. The 1928 mural on the interior demonstrates outstanding attention to detail. Thus, the building qualifies as a City Landmark under criterion G.
Criterion I. Its unique location or singular physical characteristic represents an established and familiar visual feature of a neighborhood;
The building is an established feature of the El Presidio neighborhood. As a theatre and community space since 1925, this is an established and familiar feature of the neighborhood and qualifies as a City Landmark under criterion I.
Integrity is the ability of a property to convey its original appearance. There are essential physical features that must be considered to evaluate the integrity of a significant building. Since 1925, the building’s location, setting, association, and feeling have not changed, as it is still on the original Santa Barbara School of the Arts campus. The original design, materials, and workmanship have been retained and restored to their original appearance so that the building conveys its original 1925 appearance and intent of the original architects. Thus, the building has retained a high level of historical integrity.
Staff and the HLC Designation Subcommittee recommend that the HLC adopt a resolution recommending that City Council designate the Alhecama Theatre as a City Landmark. Staff recommends the proposed boundary of the City Landmark designation be just the building as the parcel contains several other buildings.
Imwalle, Michael H. “Alhecama Theatre Rehabilitation Project: Resurrecting a Jewel.” La Campana. Fall, 2015.
Imwalle, Michael H. “Alhecama Theatre Rehabilitation” Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. November 26, 2014. Web May 30, 2018.
Redmon, Michael. “Alice Schott and the Alhecama Theatre” Santa Barbara Independent. April 26, 2016. Web: May 29, 2018.
Martin, Gloria Rexford. Redmon, Michael. “The Santa Barbara School of the Arts 1920-1938” Noticias. Volume XL. Nos 3. 4. Autumn and Winter 1994.
Milyavskiy, Naum. “One of the Last Living Professors from original SBCC Honored at age 95.” The Channels, The News of the Santa Barbara City College. May 9, 2018. Web. May 30, 2018.