Architect Jeff Shelton’s magical interpretations of Spanish Revival designs are reshaping Santa Barbara’s traditional landscape.
By Rebecca L. Rhoades
Jeff Shelton sits at a desk in his studio, a small “shed” as he calls it, hidden away on Fig Avenue, a single short block just steps from Santa Barbara’s main thoroughfare, State Street. The unassuming space, originally an 1880 carriage house with a tin roof and carved wood facade, is chock-full of reminders of his work. Every corner and surface are covered with sketches, models, books and tools. Mounds of colorful tiles are stacked on the floor and tabletops. Elevation drawings cover a wooden workbench and metal filing cabinets. Stone carvings peek out from corners and behind table legs. An angled shelf filled with dozens of miniature buildings perches precariously above a small sofa covered in brightly patterned textiles. Layers of illustrations and photographs envelop the walls.
As he speaks, he fidgets. His hands are restless. He fiddles with pens, erasers and tiny scraps of paper. He sketches small drawings to illustrate his talking points. His energy is palpable; it’s a playful creativity that is expressed in his surroundings and his designs.
Arguably one of Santa Barbara’s most celebrated architects, Shelton is renowned for his fantastical, colorful buildings that are breathing fun and fantasy into the city’s strictly regulated Spanish Revival design landscape. His aesthetic has been compared with those of Dr. Seuss, M.C. Escher and Antoni Gaudí, although he insists that the look is not intentional. Traditional white stucco and red-tiled roofs that are representative of the town’s architectural standards give way to curvy walls, sculptural metal balconies and staircases, fanciful tiles and bright hues. “There is a language that we’re required to play with—one of tile, ironwork, plaster and simplicity of design. I just like to play a little bit more,” he says with a smile.
Born and raised in the coastal California town, Shelton and his three brothers grew up near the bohemian enclave of Mountain Drive. Many homes in the area, built from mud, bottles and other found materials, were designed by architect Frank Robinson, one of the community’s original settlers. “As a kid, I used to love running around those little nests,” says Shelton. “I really liked the way Frank lived his life.” The offbeat houses, as well as a cluster of institutional structures at a nearby college—“The worst buildings ever,” exclaims Shelton—sparked his interest in architecture. “That was when I realized that people had to design these things.
“No one ever said, ‘Be an architect,’” he continues. “It just seemed like a very interesting life to get into.” Shelton received his degree from the University of Arizona in Tucson. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles, where he spent 10 years designing commercial buildings. After returning to Santa Barbara to raise his family, Shelton was hired by contractor Dan Upton to work on a Spanish-influenced house. “I never thought much about the look of these homes, but after doing some research, I was taken with how raw and sculptural the old buildings are—the use of mud, rocks and plaster. A lightbulb kind of switched on, and I realized that I could do a lot with these traditional materials.”
Upton and Shelton have remained close friends, with the former building most of the latter’s designs ever since. “My kids were little when Jeff and I started working together. I put their tiny footprints in the cement on our first project,” says Upton, looking back at the pair’s 20-plus-year partnership. “It’s still exciting to figure out how to build the stuff that Jeff draws.”
In a corner of Shelton’s office, a large model sits on a spinning platform. The tall, narrow structure looks like a child’s fantasy dollhouse. Yet just down the road, tucked into an alley behind a nightclub, is the actual construction, known as Ablitt Tower. Situated on a 20-foot-square lot, the skinny four-story residence offers about 1,000 square feet of living space. Each floor is a single room: garage on the first, bedroom on the second, kitchen on the third and living room on the fourth. They’re connected by 72 tile-covered stairs. A rooftop terrace with 360-degree views offers an ideal spot for enjoying a morning coffee or relaxing with friends on a warm summer night.
“I didn’t think we were going to get this project approved,” Shelton recalls. Numerous plans were rejected due to property size, lack of a yard and even the use of the building as a private residence. But the architect persisted. “Getting turned down isn’t an issue for me,” he says. “You have to learn how to lose and fight.”
Constructed of poured concrete and rising 53 feet in the air—one of the tallest buildings in the city—the home is anchored into the ground with nine 40-foot-long caissons to protect it from earthquakes. More than 50 windows capture the mountains to the north and ocean to the south.
“It’s not really a house, it’s a work of art,” owner Neil Ablitt told a local newspaper shortly after the home was completed in 2006. Since then, it has become one of the city’s most popular landmarks.
Carla Lejade became enamored with Shelton’s work after renting Ablitt Tower. “I loved living there. It’s such a happy place,” she says. “I decided to read up on the architect and learned that his office was only a block away. So I went down to meet him, and we became friends.” The following year, Carla had “the bad idea to ask him to build me a house,” she notes with a laugh. “I say bad only because it’s such a long and complicated process.”
Located about four blocks northeast of Shelton’s office and Ablitt Tower, El Zapato, named so because its shape is reminiscent of a high-top sneaker, is a fanciful fusion of scallops, arches and bold colors. Kelly green window frames pop against the bright white stucco.
A large horseshoe archway, tiled in cheery stripes of red and yellow, leads to garage doors. Iron railings, coated in a vivid shade of violet, loop along the vamp of the shoe like laces encircling a rooftop patio. More purple ironwork is found on Juliet balconies and serpentine stair railings.
“It’s really whimsical. Everywhere you look are little touches that make you smile,” says Carla. “You’d be hard put to feel depressed in this house.”
As he does for all of his projects, Shelton designed the custom tiles that decorate the house inside and out. In the kitchen, images of passionflowers in shades of blue and red cover the walls, while a bathroom, complete with a custom carved-stone sink and vanity, is patterned with cartoon-esque hands grabbing for a red ball. But the home’s most quirky and defining detail is the tilework that surrounds the exterior doors and windows. On first glance, the red, yellow and white motif that complements the solid stripes surrounding the arched drive appears to be flowers. Closer inspection reveals imaginative lobsters, an homage to Carla’s permanent residence in Maine. A narrow plant bed runs the length of the front elevation. Filled with quirky native greenery, including Hercules aloes, ponytail palms and totem pole cacti, it adds to the home’s Seussian appeal.
“The construction industry is so boring and blasé,” says mason Anders Johnson, who designs stone elements, such as sculptures, sinks, gargoyles, doorknobs and more, for Shelton’s homes. “But everything Jeff does is about fun. None of his buildings are square; they rarely have straight lines or square corners. His work is all about how a building can dance throughout the day and night thanks to the shadows playing on the architectural features. He brings life into a static world. You can’t pass one of his designs without getting a big smile on your face.”
For Shelton, the crux of his work is found in the details. “When you walk by our buildings, you might think it’s just another house. But then you start noticing the attributes we put into it—the lamps, the tile, the sculptures. It gives pedestrian-oriented life to the street, and I think that’s what the city is supposed to have,” he explains. Elaborate gates invite glimpses into colorful courtyards. Tiled panels are suspended from windows in flowing shapes that evoke images of exotic carpets hanging to dry. Iron parapets, their designs inspired by lacy Spanish flamenco dresses, appear to melt off of balconies. “The metal is usually a dark eggplant,” Shelton says, noting that the pieces are hand-crafted by his brother David, whose workshop is next door to the architect’s studio. “On a sunny day, it looks like licorice. It’s a very heavy material, but it’s really luscious.”
Not all of Shelton’s projects are Spanish-influenced, though. One block west of El Zapato is Vera Cruz, an homage to Sanford Darling’s now-demolished House of a Thousand Paintings. The bright green dwelling, surrounded by a sea of neutral-colored businesses, is covered in dozens of paintings, ranging from landscapes and animals to vehicles, buildings and floral designs. Shelton commissioned local artists to create works based on where they were from or places they’d visited. “There are pieces by 6-year-olds and established plein air artists, from people who had never painted before to professionals,” he says. Each artwork is an individual cement panel. After the structure was built, Shelton gathered all the artists together and spent one day adhering the panels to the walls. “This home shows that you can have fun with all these regulations,” he notes.
Whether it’s a compact private dwelling or a multifamily complex, such as the Adalusian- and Moorish-influenced El Andaluz, which features a hypostyle entry of colorful archways that recall the Great Mosque of Córdoba and swirling iron gates that lead to a resplendent courtyard engulfed in colorful tiles, one element remains the same: On each project, Shelton adds a tiled plaque that lists the names of every worker involved in its creation.
“It’s an investment in the people of this community,” he says. “Many of the workers were born here, and they have a lot of pride in their work. Now their kids can come and see the names on the plaques and say ‘My dad was part of this cool project.’”
For Upton, Shelton’s work is about more than just designing buildings. “Jeff’s creating a legacy,” he says. “To be able to leave something that’s going to remain for a long time is really special.”
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