Lutah Who? The answer is quite intriguing and I enjoyed getting to know this little known architect in Santa Barbara at a recent screening of a new documentary “Lutah. A Passion For Architecture: A Life Of Design” launched by the Lutah Maria Riggs Society. As Santa Barbara’s first licensed female architect (1928) and the first female fellow of the AIA (American Institute Of Architecture) she defied all laws of convention and dared to write her own story!
This eccentric architect’s story begins in Ohio. She was born on Halloween in 1896. Her father was a doctor and abandoned his family when she was eight years old, moving to California to join a health cult after he fell ill. Her mother left to fend for herself, married and divorced several times. She moved to the west coast as a result of one of theses marriages. Lutah was devoted to her mother and took care of her as best she could.
In her teenage years, she enjoyed drawing and as a college student she thought that chemistry would be her major. She also had a deep interest in history. She found that with architecture she could fuse all three interests, the analytic and problem solving skills used in chemistry, knowledge of the history Santa Barbara and her ability to draw. Through architecture she was able express her incredible creative and design talent.
She also was tenacious. In order to earn a scholarship to UC Berkley to study architecture, she won a subscription contest for a local paper. It is said that she combed every neighborhood in the area asking for subscriptions. When she won, the newspaper said that the scholarship should go to a boy. Well, Lutah would not give up and a friend intervened and she got the scholarship!
She got her start in the real world with George Washington Smith who popularized the Spanish Colonial Revival Style after the earthquake in 1925, that we see in Santa Barbara today. She became close with the family. Smith took her under his wing in spite of the fact that at first his wife did not approve of a female being in the office. Her trips with the family to Mexico had a profound effect on her design aesthetic inspiring her exploration of light and water in her work. To quote Lutah, a home should be a “Shelter from the elements, a place of retreat and rest, a place of happiness, if possible, and enough beauty to provide a lift for the spirit.” She obsessed about the details and would not back down to any contractor. It is said that she carried a dental mirror to check the underside of the doors and the reveals to make sure that they were painted and finished properly! When Smith suddenly died in 1930, after eight and half years of collaboration, she struck out on her own and had fifty years of successful projects firmly planting her legacy as an influential architect who shaped the look of Santa Barbara today.
She had an interesting sense of style or lack thereof. Most of the time, she walked around in a dark coat and looked like a bag lady. She didn’t care what people thought about her and devoted herself entirely to architecture. She never married perhaps due to her early life experience. There are rumors that she may have had a relationship later in life with Miriam Davis but there is no solid evidence to say for sure. One can hope she experienced love in her life!
It was so much fun to discover this incredible woman and the legacy she has left behind.The Lutah Maria Riggs Society deserves enormous thanks for bringing this woman to the forefront of architectural history where she belongs.