High-end shoppers in Los Angeles likely took note of the new Bottega Veneta store that opened in Southern California earlier this summer. It’s hard to miss when an outpost of the famous luxury brand opens, and the prestigious Rodeo Drive address certainly helped raise its profile.
But another key aspect of the store was its sympathetic, Southern California style, particularly the cues taken from the Spanish Colonial style that was popularized in the region. The store’s white walls and arched openings call to mind many of the grand homes and mansions in the California countryside, which themselves recall the farmhouses and vernacular architecture imported by Spanish colonists centuries ago.
One of the prime innovators of this style, George Washington Smith, name-checked by the store’s architects, designed homes for the types of upper class clients that likely would have shopped at the posh clothing store. Smith, an East Coast artist who initially made money in the bond market, may seem like an unlikely candidate to promote Spanish-style architecture, especially considering that designing homes was sort of a second career. But his unique experiences and keen artistic vision allowed him to make a lasting impact on the housing of his adopted home, creating stunning white-walled homes that played with light, shadow, and form.
Son of an engineer who designed roadbeds and bridges for the Southern Pacific Railroad, Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1876 and quickly developed an artistic bent. After attending a fine arts high school, he initially pursued an architecture degree at Harvard before his father’s financial issues pushed him to drop out and pick up a job at a small Philadelphia architecture firm to help support his family. Frustrated with his initially small paycheck, Smith quickly changed careers and became a bond trader, eventually finding enough success to retire relatively early and pursue painting full time.
In 1912, Smith, change gears again, setting sail for Europe with his wife, Mary, destined to make his mark as an artist. After traveling on the RMS Carpathia (which picked up survivors of the Titanic during its Atlantic crossing), Smith made his way to Paris, where he studied at the prestigious Academie Julien. Painting was his passions, and like many expat artists, Smith took full advantage of what would become a roughly three-year stay in Europe, traveling across the continent and seeing extraordinary buildings and artworks in person.
In 1915, after returning to the United States, Smith and his wife set out for the Panama Pacific Exposition in California, where a handful of his works were on display. During their trip to the West Coast, they fell in love with Santa Barbara and decided to settle there, wait out the war, and then return to Europe. Smith pursued his painting career, including a brief return to New York in 1915, but ultimately decided to settle more permanently in California.
The decision would set his second career in motion. In 1917, Smith picked up a small property in neighboring Montecito and set to work designing a small family home. Drawing upon his travels in Spain, he recreated the style and layout of the Andalusian farmhouses he had admired during his travels.
Smith was far from the only 20th century architect or designer who applied Spanish colonial styles to Southern California: many Mission Revival structures were constructed around the turn of the century, and architects such as Bertram Goodhue were working in the idiom, including creating work at the Panama Pacific Exposition. But his initial home, known as Casa Dracaena (also El Hogar and Heberton House), offered an exemplary exploration of the style. Created with an asymmetrical design, the plain, stuccoed facade riffed off the style of 12th century Andalusian farmhouses. The home was perfect for the Mediterranean climate, and boasted many of the features—thick white walls, Moorish-inspired grillwork, and glazed tile floors—that would become signatures in his later work. Smith’s background in painting, and love of the abstract work of Cézanne, informed his simple, powerful forms.
More importantly, his modest home soon became a huge hit: In a 1920 issue of Architectural Forum, critic William Winthorp Kent said the home "speaks so eloquently of picturesqueness," and contained a "germ of hope for future California architecture." Tile and cement companies even used photos of the building in their ad campaigns.
From that point on, Smith figured he would have more luck selling homes than paintings, and became a "gentleman architect," a self-made designer who, by dint of his fortune, artistic knowledge, and social connections, would be able to speak to his client on an equal footing.
The Santa Barbara area, already known for its arts colony and growing population of wealthy snowbirds, offered the refined architect plenty of potential clients, who loved the way his homes offered excellent connections between the indoors and outdoors. From then on, until he passed away in 1930, Smith would design more than 100 projects, roughly half of which were residential commissions in the Santa Barbara area, such as Hope Ranch and Florestal.
According to Harry Kolb, a local real estate agent who specializes in the work of Smith and other historic area homes, the architect’s work contained numerous artistic touches and detailing meant to give the new construction a lived-in look. Varied iron work, non-working chimneys, raised fireplaces, and rooms only accessible via indoor-outdoor walkways surprised homeowners and guests. French doors opened to expansive, landscaped gardens, while loggias doubled as sleeping porches.
In addition to local civic landmarks, such as the Montecito Country Club Building and the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, Smith created scores of high-end homes, including the famed Casa Del Herrero (House of the Blacksmith) for industrialist and engineer George Fox Steedman. A National Landmark, the 11-acre estate, completed in 1925, exemplifies the element of mystery often associated with Andalusian architecture. Entering the property via an S-shaped drive, visitors arrive at the two-story Spanish home, with a facade, skirted with a colorful blue-and-green tile pattern, broken into irregular bays lined with private balconies. Behind a heavy wooden door, capped by a hand-painted tile featuring a centaur blacksmith, the interior blends numerous styles, such as a Gothic pine ceiling and three-pointed Tunisian staircase. It’s widely considered one of his more sophisticated works.
Along with his contemporaries, Smith helped popularize Spanish Colonial architecture at a time when Georgian and Colonial buildings were in favor. His work also helped provide a template for Santa Barbara, which was hit by a massive earthquake in 1925 that, while tragic, offered the city a chance to rebuild. The adoption of Spanish Revival designs in the late ‘20s helped the region develop its own unique style.
Smith homes still pop up on the real estate market; while the closets and living quarters he designed can be a bit tiny for modern living styles, and maid’s quarter often require redesign, there’s no doubting the beauty of Smith’s interiors, and the way his work artfully connects with nature. While not everyone appreciates Smith’s work—Steve Jobs notably pushed to demolish the Jackling House, a Smith property the tech visionary owned at the end of his life, over the protests of historians and preservationists—the architect is considered a key player in the adoption and expansion of this key regional style.