By Nathan Welton
South Coast Beacon
Nathan Welton photosThere’s
something poetic about Santa Barbara’s
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
“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).”
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
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
They’ll leave behind a legacy that’s going nowhere.