Visiting Jeff Shelton’s Whimsical Buildings in Santa Barbara – the Fig District

Spend an hour wandering the downtown area of Santa Barbara, California, and you’re sure to notice many architectural wonders from local architect Jeff Shelton. When you think of Santa Barbara, you think of red tiled roofs and whitewashed buildings; amidst the endless Spanish-style structures that define the city Shelton’s whimsical designs really stand out. Eight of his most noteworthy designs are located in a 10-block area of the downtown core, referred to as “The Fig District.”

Sprinkled around town, Shelton’s work is a source of creativity and festive spirit. in this blog are some of his most well-known buildings that we had the chance to visit on this trip.

1. El Andaluz (531 Chapala Street)

“El Andaluz” is perhaps the pinnacle achievement in the amazing career Jeff Shelton. It is the winner of four Santa Barbara Beautiful awards for Architectural Feature, Commercial Building, Commercial Sign and Ornamental Gates.

Completed in 2009, this three story Moroccan influenced building is home to seven chic and sophisticated condos. El Andaluz features a hypostyle entry of colorful archways that recall the Great Mosque of Córdoba and swirling iron gates that lead to a courtyard engulfed in colorful tiles.

2. The Ablitt Tower (13 West Haley Street)

The Ablitt Tower occupies a 20’ x 20’ lot in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Shelton saw the beauty in the tiny lot, understanding that the limited options would simplify the design process. The home has captured national attention, written about in dozens of newspapers and magazines, and appeared on the HGTV network.

The extraordinary structure looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book given its narrow proportions and whimsical details, from the wavy lines to the asymmetrical windows that offer panoramic city view. This is where less is more!

3. El Jardin (819 Garden Street)

Jeff Shelton’s flair effortlessly captures Santa Barbara’s colonial history with a modern aesthetic. The Gaudí-esque textures, colorful tiles, and ironwork of the El Jardin on Garden Street perhaps best emulate this motif.

Preserving the human touch in his work is central to Shelton’s ethos as an architect. There’s an indelible warmth and playfulness imbued into El Jardin as a result, from every organic archway to each loopy staircase railing.

Like all of his projects, the colorful custom tiles, fluid ironwork and blown glass lamp shades provide eye candy at every turn. One element remains the same: on each project, Shelton adds a tiled plaque that lists the names of every worker involved in its creation. 

4. Vera Cruz (521 Santa Barbara Street)

Somewhat hidden along a residential Santa Barbara street is a house known as Vera Cruz. Inspired by a local landmark demolished in the 1970s, this lime green residence is adorned with tiled artwork designed and donated by local artists.

Vera Cruz is known as a “House of A Thousand Paintings.” Every single piece of artwork adorning Vera Cruz was donated by local artists; each piece follows the theme of an associated place, such as where the artist is from or somewhere they’ve visited. Altogether the house is a colorful mosaic of art.

5. El Zapato (522 Garden Street)

El Zapato is named so because its shape is reminiscent of a high-top sneaker, is a fanciful fusion of scallops, arches and bold colors.

Shelton’s architectural style is easy to identify in the design of El Zapato. Features include whitewashed stucco walls (typical of Santa Barbara), colorful painted tile in kitschy patterns, dramatic archways, asymmetrical windows, whimsical wrought iron balconies and light fixtures with blown glass shades.

6. Cota Street Studios (225 Cota Street)

This building possesses joy, color, texture, and originality, all a part of architect Jeff Shelton’s design. It’s a tranquil collection of seven residential live-work units, plus one commercial unit.

Featuring gorgeous Mexican tile and intricate metal work, all units face the sun and the resulting negative space creates the patios, which feature fountains and native plantings.

Final Words

Over the years, Santa Barbara has evolved from Shelton’s home into his architectural playground. Shelton has reinterpreted Santa Barbara’s Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style and made it his own. Traditional white stucco and red-tiled roofs that are representative of Santa Barbara’s architectural standards give way to curvy walls, sculptural metal balconies and staircases, fanciful tiles and bright hues. Shelton added fun and creativity to the regional architecture with his own twists of colors, patterns and textures.

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By inAra

Hi there! I’m May, a girl who loves to wander and wonder! I’m from Saigon, based in Los Angeles, but my current location is anywhere and everywhere. Travel, Photography, Tea Time, Picnic, Home Decor and Event Planning are a few of my favorite things.

inArabymay is a travel and lifestyle blog inspired by beautiful destinations, by color and nature, and by wonderful people that I’ve met on my journey.

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