Santa Barbara Sandstone
by Billy Goodnick
One of the reasons I became a landscape architect is Santa Barbara's ubiquitous golden sandstone. I'd love to say that its natural beauty inspired me to seek artistic ways to express sandstone's vast potential, but I'd be lying.
Actually, it was the torture of swinging a pick into that unforgiving sedimentary rock that drove me back to school at the ripe old age of 32. I clearly remember the seemingly endless day up on Cold Springs Road. Midsummer heat; flies setting up housekeeping in my ears.
Our mission was simple: plant fifty one-gallon size containers of ceanothus to bring a little color and erosion protection to a client's steep hillside. And there was me and a crew of laborers, breaking rocks in the hot sun (I feel a blues tune coming on). By lunchtime--hands cramped, arms limp from exhaustion--we had ten meager holes to show for our troubles.
I knew, then and there, that I should be holding a drafting pen, not a shovel.
The sandstone that indirectly launched my new career is the signature building material of our region, and well it should be. In the days before you could drive to a building materials yard and load up a truck with exotic flagstone and polished granite from thousands of miles away, people built with what was readily available. Out of necessity, they used wood harvested from nearby forests, bricks made from the soil under their feet, tar gathered from local seeps and quarried sandstone for aqueducts and walls.
These days we call it relocalization of material, but whatever you call it, it's smart design, as long as we don't overexploit and do harm to the natural world.
Whether left in its natural form as boulders and cobbles or hewn into orderly blocks, sandstone is the signature building material of Santa Barbara. I can't imagine the magnificent County Courthouse without its welcoming archway, carved with fine detail and glowing in the warm rays of sunset.
The recently released book, Stone Architecture in Santa Barbara by the Santa Barbara Conservancy, explores the role of our local stone. It's beautifully illustrated with modern and historic photos.
I thought it would be interesting to share a few of my photos with you.
In its natural state, sandstone can display a wide range of surface textures, depending on how long it's been exposed to weathering or eroded by natural forces. This craggy specimen was just lovingly placed at Santa Barbara's newest open space, the Bohnett Park expansion at San Andres St.
I have to assume that the earliest use of sandstone started when a local inhabitant decided they needed to keep something away from something else. Impressed? I minored in archaeology. This simple, but powerful wall is like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece sorted and placed for maximum stability.
Keeping the stones in their natural form displays how water and gravity shape them. These stones were roughly shaped to create enough flat surfaces to lock them into their neighbors. What I enjoy about this image is the deep recesses that create shadows, lending interest and contrast. You can also see how the amount of oxide in the stone influences the coloration-looks sort of like a sunburned baby's bum.
It takes a strong arm and heavy chisel blows to form these angles. But the real craftsmanship shows in the tight fit and narrow joints. I've seen a few such walls where you can't even fit a playing card between the stone - no mortar needed. Check out how the curves fit together at the bottom-left.
Humans seem to need a bit of order and lots of right angles. Walls like this one abound throughout our community, with a vast collection along the upper eastside around the mission. Although I appreciate the work that goes into building these, it's harder to get excited.
Little details, like these convex mortar joints, add personality to an otherwise standard use of sandstone blocks.
Not that I want to be smacking a hammer and chisel all day, but compared to a lot of other types of stone, ours is rather workable. This entry pillar shows what a patient, brawny artisan can produce. Notice the fine striation surrounding the edges of the capstone.
This is what I call a class act. From the slight overhanging lip of the capstone to the smooth curving cornice detail, the combination of surface treatments makes this an example of stonemasonry at its highest expression.
My all-time favorite wall in our fair city is this mash-up of stone and brick at East Mission and Anacapa streets. The obvious contrast of the two materials is playful and striking. But my eye goes to the subtle variation of rectangular hewn blocks and the roughly shaped, naturalistic rocks scattered within the wall. Someone had a lot of fun coming up with this one.
Little known fact: Despite its heavy appearance, sandstone is remarkably lightweight.
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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
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