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… And Santa Barbara

June 2024
1min read


On a hot day around 1910, Santa Barbarans have ridden the streetcar out to the northern end of the line to take in a band concert at the Plaza del Mar. Santa Barbara early became a center of California tourism, and the Potter Hotel, at the far left, offered palatial shelter to the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Philip Armour after it opened in 1903. The string of black dots along the roof line of the nearest building are paper lanterns, and they signal an attraction that was as much a fixture of the era as band concerts and streetcars: the Japanese tea garden.

The three-quarters of a century that stands between the pictures has seen sweeping changes overtake the shoreline, and they are eloquent not only about the wages of time but also of the difficulties of exactly pairing modern pictures with old ones.

The original photograph was taken from the top of a low building that bordered the plaza. In 1943 the plaza disappeared when Cabrillo Boulevard was extended through it, and the closest our photographer could get to his predecessor’s vantage point was a hillside beyond. The big municipal pool, seen at the right of the recent photograph, was completed in 1939. The Potter Hotel burned down in 1921. The site of the Japanese tea garden has been taken over by a motel, although the palm trees in front of it are still there, now grown much taller. And, of course, the spine of the Santa Ynez Mountains runs unchanged along the horizon. It remains a pleasant place—there are still band concerts, in Plaza del Mar Park on the inland side of Cabrillo Boulevard—and yet it is difficult not to regret the vanished plaza with its little iron fountain.

There is, however, one surprising survivor: the 2,100-foot ocean pier at the right in the background of both pictures. Built in 1872 and restored in 1981, and now housing restaurants, shops, and a seafood market, Stearns Wharf is flourishing as California’s oldest working pier.

The changes here are eloquent of the difficulties of matching modern photographs with old ones.

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