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By Nathan Welton
South Coast Beacon


Nathan Welton photosThere’s something poetic about Santa Barbara’s stone.

More than its permanence and rich history, local stone is expressive. Its long, languid shadows crawl across curvaceous canyons. It howls when it catches the wind. It oxidizes, slowly, and tans. Unlike anything else in nature, sandstone comes in unique shapes and textures, from the smoothest water-worn pebbles to the weathered, coarse and crumbling monoliths that gaze through La Cumbre Peak’s clouds.

It’s no surprise, then, that the craftsmen who erected the buildings of the South Coast used stone as their construction material of choice. It was abundant, unique and it helped to shape Santa Barbara’s personality. Its popularity, however, is now waning, and some say stonemasonry is a dying art, the victim of a poor economy, an increase of artificial materials and shifting social values.

“People are into instant gratification, and along with their lifestyles, they want it now and they ask, ‘What’s taking so long?’” said Julio Veyna, a local landscape architect who has overseen the installation of many rock walls. “They don’t have time for (masonry) and so they spend their money on toys that won’t have the great beauty of stone.”

Things were different back when the Chumash, arguably the first local stonemasons, harvested rocks from Mission Canyon. They used their rudimentary skills to erect some of the most enduring works in Santa Barbara, including parts of the Mission and the surrounding historic sites. These projects were far more time-consuming than the predominantly artificial stonework of today, and they were infrequent.

It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that an influx of Europeans kick-started what would become an era of artistry. First came the Brits and Scots, then the Italians and finally the Mexicans. Each group honed its skills abroad and let them loose along the South Coast, constructing walls and buildings the likes of which few communities can boast.

With this stonemasonry surge, Santa Barbara earned an identity as solid as rock.

Ugo Arnoldi, a stoneworker and son of one of the area’s most prominent early masons, explained that many of the old-timers originated from around glacial Lake Como in the Italian Alps. These laborers, including his father, frequently worked on manors in Switzerland, which, like Santa Barbara, was rich in both stone and money.

“Many of the artisans that came from the old country had developed stonemasonry from early on as youth,” said Veyna. “If you have nothing but stone to work with, that’s what you work with — and you adapt to that and begin to understand its sophistication.”

After a few masons serendipitously arrived in Santa Barbara, they realized the area was similar to Switzerland — and that the trade was in demand — so they sent home to bring over their skilled families.

“The Italians coming here was a fluke (to begin with),” said Ilya Magid, a Lithuanian fireplace builder who owns Magid Masonry. “The stone didn’t bring them, but whenever there’s a need for something, people will show up — and this town had the money and will to have things done nicely.”

He explained that every time construction teams dug into Santa Barbara’s soil, they’d hit rock — and it was often more economical to turn it into walls than to cart it away. What’s more, he explained, quality stone filled the region’s scattered quarries.

So as the first half of the century passed, the giant, lengthy buttress along Mission Ridge Road sprouted up, as did walls around Montecito’s estates, the pillars near St. Anthony’s Seminary and the bridges and arches crossing regional creeks. And whenever earthquakes toppled the area’s historical treasures, the county needed more and more skilled masons to rebuild.

The most notable early workers came from Italy, but later they came from other lands. Magid, for example, learned the fundamentals of his trade in his own backyard in the former Soviet Union.

“We didn’t have toys when we were growing up — we used imagination and our own hands — because after World War II we were lucky to have food on the table,” he said, explaining that homegrown construction projects were a major part of his boyhood. As time passed, Magid picked up masonry while working to restore Eastern European castles — and enjoyed the process so much he volunteered for restoration work during his vacations.

“It’s painstaking, but fun, because you feel like you’re participating in history,” he explained. “It was like summer camp, too: we’d work during the day and have fun at night.”

Another mason, Crisoforo Calles, has worked on and off for the past 20 years in Santa Barbara. He hails from the dusty town of Corral Falzo, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, and learned his craft some 50 years ago at the age of 22.

“At first I made furniture, woven hats, broom and chairs,” he said. “I always tended to see a lot of art in my craft.”

Due to the precision necessary for sewing and weaving, he made the switch to the macroscale world of stone — an easy switch, he said, “because the artistry was still there.”

These masons all learned their craft in the old school, where hand chisels and elbow grease were paramount to pneumatic drills and faux-stone. The construction was overwhelming, and each wall or bridge was akin to a major work of art.

“Old Dad did a thing on East Valley Road behind Summerland, it was mortarless, and you couldn’t even fit a paper between the joints,” said Arnoldi.

“They laid three stones a day, which shows you how meticulous it was and how slowly it went.”

Meticulous may even be an understatement, according to Veyna, explaining the amount of concentration required in traditional stonework.

“On extensive masonry projects, radios were not even permitted because they threw the rhythm of the masons off beat,” he explained. “Stone talks to you, it tells you how you should treat each piece of rock. When the mason is working with his hands, he sees where the grain is going and (knows how to hit the rock properly).”

But this line of work is on the decline, said the masons, in part because artificial rock has become so much more affordable than real stone.

“They don’t use as much natural stone as they used to,” said Arnoldi. “The formations in Chase Palm Park, they’re fake, cast stone. A regular mason would be there forever making pillars that thick, but by the same token, who knows if they’ll still be there in 15 or 20 years.”

After a quick peek at the work there, his questions make sense: the rocks in the park’s pillars and drinking fountains are starting to crack and chip, after only several years.

Still, it’s a lot cheaper than using real stone, and Magid noted that back in the heyday, the low cost of living and the lack of labor laws enabled original contractors to pay immigrants relatively low wages.

Not so now. Insurance, permits, materials, wages — it all adds up.

“Stonework is expensive, and today I don’t think somebody could afford to make things like the Mission or the Courthouse,” said Magid, explaining that masons now have to charge enough money to be able to live in the South Coast.

It’s tough to be a modern mason, said Arnoldi, noting that alternative technologies, coupled with the decrease in luxury spending, have conspired to cause the downfall of the art.

But worse, “the old-timers are going and going and going — and then they'll all be gone,” he lamented. “All the history is disappearing.”

Not quite.

They’ll leave behind a legacy that’s going nowhere.