Lutah Maria Riggs, FAIA
She lived and defined the Santa Barbara lifestyle, incorporating it into her architecture. Her works showcase her admiration of simplicity and majesty of site and beauty without ostentation.
Lutah Maria Riggs (1896-1984), was the first licensed female architect in Santa Barbara, and the second woman named as Fellow in the American Institute of Architecture (after Louise Bethune in 1889).
Lutah Maria Riggs’s family was from Ohio. Her physician father passed away when she was young. Her mother became dependent upon extended family for help, possibly influencing Riggs to prepare to earn a living at a time when most women stayed home. After her father’s death, Riggs’s mother re-married and husbands work brought them to Santa Barbara in 1914.
Riggs attended a state-sponsored teachers’ school, The Santa Barbara Normal School. She worked part-time as bookkeeper at Woolworth’s, where she won a contest to attend U.C. Berkeley by selling the most subscriptions to Santa Barbara Daily News. She became a thoroughly competent drafts-person and won the Alumni Prize that essentially funded her second year at Berkeley. Riggs soon became one of the top students in her class. There was a handful of female students who enjoyed social and educational equality, and she graduated in 1919, along with three other women.
Riggs was hired as a draftsperson by architect Ralph D. Taylor in prosperous Susanville, CA. There she worked on a bathhouse, a county garage, a hospital addition, a mountain lodge, a public library and a bank.
Returning to the Bay Area after about eight months in Susanville, she was turned down by many potential employers. Despite bleak job prospects, by summer’s end in 1921, she was determined to return to Santa Barbara or Los Angeles in search of drafting work. While in Susanville, she’d seen an illustration in Architectural Record for George Washington Smith’s own home that impressed her with its romanticism tinged with an abstract rendering of historic forms, and she intended to seek work in his office. He was impressed with her, but deferred making a decision, so she proceeded to Los Angeles. Shortly after, however, Smith hired her, although she also balanced a part-time job teaching a class of ten students at Casitas Pass rural school.
In short period, she became chief designer for Smith and made partner in his office by 1924. Some of the more notable projects she worked on include the Lobero Theatre remodel, the Vendanta Temple in Hollywood, and for design elements of the historic El Paseo complex and Casa del Herrero. Smith financed her second commission, her own home called Clavelitos in Montecito. She obtained her architecture license in 1928—the first female in Santa Barbara to do so—just before the stock market crash and Smith’s premature death in 1930.
Riggs formed a partnership with Harold Edmonson to continue Smith’s practice, but it was unsuccessful, due to the Great Depression and the nature of their combined personalities. The time had come for her own practice.
In Palos Verdes, Peninsula developer Frank Vanderlip continued phase two of his project for a planned community, despite the economy, hiring Riggs to work on golf course outbuildings and to lay out housing and a plaza. She was sent to study Catalina Island and found it beautiful but “mercenary in its development.” This hinted at her future interest in historical preservation. She was passionate in her belief that our superb stretch of coastline was the equal to Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Her designs continued to reflect a preoccupation with restful calm and a sense of retreat.
One of her most important commission of the 30’s was Baron Maximilian von Romberg’s palatial villa and estate in Montecito. She also designed gardens in Los Angeles; the Wayside Drinking Fountain in Sycamore Canyon; and everything from English Regency to crenellated castles, Art Deco Moderne and Italian country houses. She did not solicit commissions, but instead let clients find her, working from a home office. In many ways, she followed an unusual lifestyle for her time, one that we recognize and embrace today.
American architecture programs of the day were modeled after the French École des Beaux Arts, but in the casual American West, international classical design met regional influences. This coexistence of tradition and Modernism found expression in her commissions. Riggs is known for her post-and-beam grid entrances and panels of louvers within walls, and also for Mediterranean classical details in tile, iron, stone and door frames. She was responsible, in fact, for much of George Washington Smith’s iconic design.
Riggs executed 18 designs in 1939, including one for Greta Garbo in Los Angeles. It was a small Colonial ranch house with privacy built into the site and reinforced by garden elements. The Swedish star’s famous declaration “I want to be alone” found some possibility at last.
During the lean postwar forties, when Riggs could not obtain draftsmen or structural engineers, she moved to Los Angeles to design film sets, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Back in Santa Barbara by the 1950s, Riggs’s legacy of California design features uncluttered space that is livable and beautiful in an understated way. Prominent outdoor space features porches and terraces, with gardens and glass integrated into the play between interior and exterior.
We see tranquility at the Riggs-designed Vedanta Temple in Montecito, where Frank Lloyd Wright advised her on garden layout. The first such temple to welcome female disciples, it features wood sheathing and exposed wooden structure similar to traditional houses of Japan.
This multi-task approach to design in many fields may be the very thing that has obscured Riggs’s reputation as an architect mere decades after her death in 1984. While Santa Barbara architectural cognoscenti know of and celebrate Lutah Maria Riggs, her legacy of years of service to organizations in her field and to planning commissions and preservation societies have all faded. Certainly, she was responsible for a great many elements of George Washington Smith’s designs, but it is his signature that history remembers more frequently.
She lived and defined the Santa Barbara lifestyle. A number of her buildings still exist in Montecito and Santa Barbara, showcasing her admiration of simplicity and majesty of site and beauty without ostentation, another Santa Barbara specialty. In her final years, Riggs joined Pearl Chase to institute the General Plan for the city of Santa Barbara and maintaining a hand in Architectural Review. She was named Los Angeles Times’ Woman of the Year in 1967.
Lapin, Claduia. “Lutah Maria Riggs: Local Legend of Architecture” 29 Aug. Santa Barbara Seasons. Accessed 05 Dec. 2013. <http://sbseasons.com/blog/lutah-maria-riggs-local-legend-of-architecture/>
Tomasko, Felicia M. “The Vendanta Society of Santa Barbara: A Serene Retreat.” 22 Nov. 2011 LA Yoga. Accessed 05 Dec 2013. <http://layoga.com/inspiration/the-vedanta-society-of-santa-barbara-a-serene-retreat/>