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Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theater


Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara

Source: Damian Gadal / License

Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theater has a rich history dating back to the 1870s. While the Theater as we know it today opened on May 22, 1931, the red-tiled building stands as a perfect example of the Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival styles so popular today in Santa Barbara.

READ: What Makes Montecito Spanish Colonial Revival Architecture Such a Sought-After Design?

Featuring a covered courtyard with a fountain and an old-fashioned free-standing ticket booth, the Arlington was originally built to make theatergoers feel like they were sitting outside in the plaza of a colonial Spanish town. You might say the Arlington evokes a Spanish village sensation complete with a canopy starry sky above. Whatever you call it, the theater is known by architectural enthusiasts as Santa Barbara’s heirloom of the grander days of theater palaces. Each wall features unique houses, staircases, and balconies. These are not painted on. They are actually built out. The ceilings of the lobbies are heavily beamed and painted, too. And the auditorium itself seats 2,018 on the main floor and balcony.

Designed by local architects William Edwards and Joseph Plunkett, the theater is the place where locals and visitors alike go for popular and critically acclaimed movies, comedy shows, live theater performances, and the annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. In fact, it is the largest movie theater and principal performing arts venue in all of Santa Barbara. But what some who visit might not know about is The Arlington’s fascinating and tragic history.

The Tragic History of The Arlington Hotels

The place where today’s Arlington Theater currently stands was originally the site of the luxury Arlington Hotel. The lavish 90-room hotel, located downtown on State Street, was the centerpiece of Santa Barbara’s elite in the 1870s. During its heyday, the property, located between Sola Street and Victoria Street, played host to presidents, kings, and queens.

READ: Santa Barbara: Oasis of Arts and Culture

But all that pomp and circumstance ended on a Sunday night in August of 1909, when a fire broke out. Luckily, most visitors were out to dinner at the time and no fatalities were reported. Still, the fire burned throughout the night, and by daybreak, the first-class Arlington Hotel was completely burnt to the ground. Only the Arlington’s chimneys were left standing.

In 1911, the Arlington Hotel was rebuilt; this time covering an entire city block. The new building, designed by Los Angeles architect Arthur B. Benton, was fashioned in the Mission Revival style with a stunning arrangement of bell towers around its five-story-high central structure. At a cost of $1.5 million, it was meant to honor and surpass its lavish predecessor. Benton determined that a fire would never destroy the Arlington again, and he incorporated state-of-the-art safety elements, such as concrete, brick, and steel, into the 250-room complex.

The Arlington Hotel after the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake. (Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.)

Even with the precautions, the second Arlington Hotel, like the first, was the victim of a natural disaster. The whole town was ravaged when on June 29, 1925, the residents of Santa Barbara woke up to a massive earthquake. The entire city rocked, due to the magnitude 6.8 earthquake. Though thirteen people died, it may have been far worse without the actions of three local heroes, who shut off the town’s gas and electricity preventing a catastrophic fire.

READ: A Brief Look at Santa Barbara History

While most homes survived the earthquake in relatively good condition, nearly every chimney in the city crumbled and most of the buildings in Santa Barbara’s downtown were completely destroyed. In the business district, an area of about 36 blocks back then, structures like The Arlington Hotel had to be demolished and rebuilt. Even the facade of the church of the Mission Santa Barbara received severe damage. The holy place lost many of its statues. Other important buildings were lost, including hotels, offices, and the Potter Theater. The courthouse, jail, library, schools, and churches all sustained serious damage in the fabled earthquake.

READ: Top Residential Architects in Montecito and Santa Barbara History

Since most of downtown Santa Barbara suffered irreparable damage, a large-scale construction effort followed. During 1925 and 1926, city and private resources were devoted to the process of removing and/or repairing damaged structures like the Arlington. The entire area was busy with new construction. This development completely altered the character of the city center. Before the earthquake, a considerable part of the center was built in the Moorish Revival style. After the earthquake, city officials decided to rebuild the American Rivera in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. This effort was undertaken by the Santa Barbara Community Arts Association, which was founded at the beginning of the 1920s. This important charity, which is still in business today, viewed the earthquake as an opportunity to rebuild the city center in a unified architectural style.

Spanish Colonial Revival-style Montecito home

Today’s Arlington Theater is just one of the beautiful architectural wonders of Santa Barbara built at that time. Many the homes in the county are also rich with history, like my amazing Don Nulty-Designed Spanish Masterpiece listing. This magnificent Spanish Colonial Revival-style Montecito property is considered to be truly superlative, featuring both outstanding design and construction. The very private estate, like many of my amazing listings, offers stunning ocean, island and mountain vistas. This is truly a property you must see to believe.

READ: Ocean View Homes are Good for Our Health

I’m always happy to take qualified buyers on a tour of this or any of my listings in the area. If you are considering moving here or moving within Santa Barbara County, please call me at +1 805.886.9378 or email me at We can discuss Santa Barbara’s rich history, including the Arlington Theater, and toast to your new home!


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