Santa Barbara’s first female architect played a large part in redesigning Santa Barbara after the 1925 earthquake, but is surprisingly obscure today despite the large wealth of photographs and materials about her life stored in the ADC. The first FAIA architect in California—and second in the country—Riggs is now getting some due publicity in the upcoming Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where the recently formed Lutah Maria Riggs Society is premiering a documentary about her life and work.
Born in Ohio in 1896, Lutah moved with her mother to Santa Barbara in 1914 where soon after she won a scholarship to study for her architecture degree at Berkeley, graduating in 1919 and beginning her Masters soon afterward. Her graduate studies were cut short by her mother’s failing health, whereupon she returned to Santa Barbara to find work. Eventually she found work with the notable George Washington Smith, the year before the infamous 1925 earthquake.
Lutah soon earned a lead design position in Smith’s firm and received her architectural license in 1928. George Washington Smith and his wife took Lutah on their tours to Europe and Mexico to study historical styles for later design influences. There are several folders of photos in the collection of architectural elements such as stairs, courtyards, and porches that directly influenced buildings lining the streets of Santa Barbara. Lutah helped design several of these, mainly elements of historic El Paseo and the columns of the Lobero Theater (which has just recently been renovated in time for the Film Festival), as well as parts of the Casa del Herrero. They all recall the nostalgic ‘Old Spanish’ days of close-knit communities and siestas in the covered courtyards, where indoor life merged more completely with nature.
George Washington Smith passed away in 1930 and Lutah left soon after to create her own firm, eventually settling on a solo practice when partner arrangements went awry. Lutah went on to design many houses in Santa Barbara and Montecito. Perhaps most famous was the Baron von Romberg mansion in Montecito; built like an army compound and full of secret passageways, but still utilizing the signature Spanish style that blended indoors and outdoors with colonnades and gardens. Many of her designs reinforce Santa Barbara as the quaint and peaceful Riviera of California, they offer clients seclusion and privacy without compromising the views and exposure to the landscape. Her designs are often intimate reactions to the natural landscape, exhibiting historical influences blended with the quiet sense of personal relaxation and communion with nature.
-Lydia Kaestner, ADC Intern