When Ann Kale moved her lighting design business to her hometown of Santa Barbara, CA, in 2003, she knew she’d have to carve out a market where none existed. Her broad experience across residential and commercial applications – particularly historic renovations – would serve her well in a city that is determined to keep its identity. “Santa Barbara has some of the strictest building design codes anywhere in the United States,” Kale said. “We said, We’re from New York; we know difficult. Well, New York is a piece of cake compared to Santa Barbara – in terms of what you have to go through to get approved.”

Santa Barbara claims to be one of the first communities in the US to integrate historic preservation into city planning. The Andalusian (southern Spanish) vernacular is everywhere, centered around the twin bell towers of Mission Santa Barbara (est. 1786), for which the city is named. City beautification efforts in the early twentieth century – led by activist Pearl Chase – received a new impetus from the massive earthquake of 1925. An architectural review board was formed to ensure the city’s Spanish Colonial architectural heritage was preserved during rebuilding.

El Pueblo Viejo (The Old City) was established by a 1960 ordinance to protect historic adobe buildings and pedestrian paseos downtown, and to enforce compatible architecture in new buildings. Today El Pueblo Viejo stretches from the mission down to the waterfront, then east to the zoo. The Historic Landmarks Commission sets strict guidelines and reviews projects within the district. “There’s a ton of rules you have to go through and approvals to get any kind of renovation, restoration, and lighting,” said Kale.

al Room showcases the work of Dan Sayre Groesbeck on all four walls and a spectacular ceiling by John B. Smeraldi  - Photographer Ciro Coelho

Santa Barbara County Courthouse – Mural Room

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse by architect William Mooser III, with credit to J. Wilmer Hershey, was completed in 1929 and is the most significant achievement of the city’s post-earthquake rebuilding. The Moorish influence of southern Spain is evident in the arches, decorative tiles and wrought iron details. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2005.

“What is the absolute jewel in the crown of the courthouse is the Mural Room,” said Kale. The Mural Room showcases the work of Dan Sayre Groesbeck all four walls and a spectacular ceiling by John B. Smeraldi. The murals and ceiling underwent a $575,000 restoration, completed in 2015.

“When you’re doing a historic restoration, you’re starting with an important structure. People are restoring it because it has value to its community or owner,” explained Kale. “As a lighting designer, your job is to make sure it’s even better than it was before.” Her mission is to balance that desire to duplicate the original ambiance against the introduction of new lighting technologies.

“You can do a historic restoration where you are truly trying to honor the pure history of that space – and it can be very tempting for architects and owners to want to just re-create what was there,” she said. “On every historic restoration I’ve worked on, the client, and oftentimes the architect, have started with just that approach.”

She explained that while a pastiche of historic architecture and new technologies is more common in Europe, in America we like to keep things very traditional in old buildings. Her goal is to “tread lightly” and discuss how modern lighting strategies can make an important structure even better. “You maintain a tremendous amount of respect for what was there, what was the historic precedent.”

The Santa Barbara Courthouse Legacy Foundation organized and funded the mural and ceiling restoration by Evergreene Architectural Arts. The client understood that new lighting was required, but was initially resistant to lighting the ceiling. “They were very protective; lovingly protective of this room,” Kale said. “I finally convinced them by saying, If you don’t like it we can always turn it off. And without enthusiasm they said, OK.”

After 80 years, the brilliant detail on the Smeraldi ceiling is revealed.

For 80 years two chandeliers and the west-facing windows were the only sources of light in the Mural Room. Except in the late afternoon when glare was tremendous, light levels hovered around 1 to 5 fc, according to Kale. She mocked up strategies to light the murals from the existing chandeliers and moldings, but glare and veiling reflections were problematic.

Today, runs of track 6 ft from the walls wash the murals with almost zero direct or reflected glare. The track and petite fixtures, at 20 ft up, are barely visible in the photographs. The track rests on the beams, so there are no penetrations into the plaster ceiling. Wiring comes in through the wall at the top of the beams, and 3000K LED strips along the beams provide uplighting.

“People are coming back to the Mural Room – and this a room they’ve been to many times – and they’re seeing details on the murals. They’re actually seeing characters in the murals that they had never seen before,” Kale said. Using a photosensor, the lights along the window wall ramp up in the afternoon, and the other walls dim, to balance brightnesses. UV filters were added to the windows.

“No one knew how absolutely gorgeous that ceiling was because it was always left in darkness.” She added that some of the docents will put on bit of a show by bringing tours into the room with only the chandeliers switched on. “They start to talk about [the room] and they say, By the way, this is what it looked like for 80 years. Then they hit the switch: And this is what is looks like now. Tourists applaud sometimes.”

Lobero Theatre exterior - photographer Steeven Petitteville

Lobero Theatre

In 1873 Jose Lobero opened the only opera house south of San Francisco, which makes the Lobero the oldest, continuously operating theater in California. The current 1924 theatre by Santa Barbara’s most significant architect, George Washington Smith, was one of the few structures to survive the earthquake relatively unscathed. It became a center for jazz in the 1950s and has always served as a community theater and forum. The Lobero Theatre Foundation raised $7 million for the renovation, which was completed in 2013; improvements are ongoing.

Ann Kale Associates was brought in for both interior and exterior relighting. The existing exterior lighting comprised a few historic wall sconces and a tall-mast glare bomb located a half block away. The inclined entry plaza served as the gathering space for intermission – given the fine Southern California weather – and the front doors were by far the darkest part of the façade.

“The Historic Landmark Commission was extremely protective of this project, and extremely leery of bringing in any kind of new lighting. Their fear was that I would want to make it way too Hollywood or Las Vegas or New York,” Kale said. They initially resisted her proposal for in-ground uplights along the colonnade. “You’re sitting in front of a commission of five architects, and they all have different ideas on how to do this. You have to try and explain to them why their ideas won’t work. Finally I said, Let us give you a mock-up, and you can comment. If you hate it, I’ll never bring it up again.”

At the mock-up they were completely sold, she said, and insisted on uplighting the colonade. Since that experience, the Historic Landmark Commission has much more faith in Kale’s proposals and processes. “I’m in front of the Historic Landmark Commission a lot. And now when we come in they say, Oh great. What do you want to do? Thank you. Perfect.”

The decorative historic fixtures were refurbished – “We have really terrific Spanish ironworkers here in town.” – and Kale custom-designed a pendant and custom pole light for the restyled plaza. Landscape lighting brightens the paseo to the parking garage. When the theater is dark (no performance), the well lights are off, giving management the street presence they were looking for.

Lobero Theatre interior - photographer Steeven Petitteville

She describes the previous interior lighting as dim with candelabra sconces on the columns and one historic chandelier. Today, small up-down lights are concealed behind a shield added to the sconces. “Oftentimes think in historic restoration keeping it simple is a good place to start,” she said. The hidden sources elongate the columns and spill onto the ceiling. LED uplights installed in the chandelier illuminate the center of the ceiling; additional ceiling lighting hangs from the theatrical booms that flank the proscenium. “Instead of having 2 fc at the seats, we were able to get up to 5, which is a comfortable light level,” she said. “The transformation is tremendous.”

Originally, Kale had the idea to add downlighting to the ante-pro stage lighting positions above the coffered ceiling. “We did a mockup: it was awful,” she said. “When you do these mockups, you learn very quickly what feels right, because oftentimes what seems like a good idea on paper is completely wrong when you put in the space. And what feels right in historic restoration is wildly important.” The project won a 2015 Light & Architecture Design Award from Architectural Lighting magazine.

» VIDEO: Kale continues to make her mark on historic Santa Barbara, including the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center and the Cabrillo Pavilion Arts Center on the beach. MOXI opens February 25. (Video courtesy MOXI)

Kale has a several projects currently under construction in her home town, including major projects in El Pueblo Viejo. MOXI, The Museum of Exploration + Innovation is opening in early 2017. “Little by little we are definitely leaving our mark on the town,” she said. Even outside the historic district, the Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review and the Single Family Design Board can take a year or two, up to 5 years, to approve a project. “It’s one of the reasons why Santa Barbara is so beautiful. It’s one of the important reasons why it’s a great place to live.”

Lois I. Hutchinson

About Lois I. Hutchinson

Lois I. Hutchinson is a freelance writer specializing in lighting and energy issues. She is also the content marketing mastermind behind Inverse Square LLC, a Los Angeles–based consultancy. Contact her via [email protected] with your comments and any article ideas that concern the lighting community here in the Southwest.

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