In a prolific career that ran from the 1920s all the way through the 1970s, Lutah Maria Riggs (1896–1984) melded modernist and Spanish Colonial Revival styles to create an early form of California modern architecture. Today, she is known primarily for her design of several houses in the Santa Barbara area, notable for their close integration with their sites and for their extraordinary details. A pioneer who headed her own office at a time when women-led firms were still extremely rare, Riggs was among the first women to be elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
Early Life and Education
Lutah Riggs was born on October 31, 1896, in Toledo, Ohio. Her father, a doctor, joined an esoteric cult in southern California before her second birthday, leaving Riggs and her mother in straitened financial circumstances. Her mother eventually remarried, and in 1914 the family moved to Santa Barbara, where Riggs completed high school.
Riggs’s education was shaped by her family’s limited means and by early-twentieth-century constraints on women’s professional training. After briefly enrolling in a teacher-training program at the Santa Barbara Normal School, Riggs won a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley in a contest by selling the most copies of the Santa Barbara Daily News. She entered Berkeley’s architecture program, which was then headed by John Galen Howard and heavily influenced by the École des Beaux-Arts. Riggs would later fondly recall studying architecture at the “Ark,” as the building housing the architecture department was known. She was one of only four women to earn a bachelor of arts degree in architecture in 1919. Riggs began her graduate studies, but before completing her master’s degree, she left school to begin working as an architect.
After a short stint as a draftswoman and designer in the office of Ralph D. Taylor in Susanville, California, Riggs began working in 1921 for George Washington Smith, a Santa Barbara architect known for his elegant Spanish Colonial Revival houses. She became virtually a member of Smith’s family, traveling with the architect and his wife to Mexico and later to Europe. Riggs and Smith contemplated producing a book on Mexican architecture, to be illustrated with her sketches and drawings. Riggs played a significant role in many of Smith’s major projects in Santa Barbara, such as the 1922–23 renovation of part of the El Paseo shopping complex and the 1924 renovation of the Lobero Theater.
Riggs expressed her personal and artistic independence from an early age. One of her first major purchases after finding employment was a Chevrolet roadster. In 1926, she designed and oversaw construction of her own home, an Andalusian-style farmhouse that she named Clavelitos. Riggs, who never married, lived in the house until the end of her life. The small residence, which was widely published, gives the impression of a setting for an ideal of relaxed, artistic living. Riggs offset two white-plastered, tile-roofed blocks—containing the main house and a separate garage—to create a semi-enclosed forecourt and inner courtyard. Both in and outside the house, she assembled textures and objects to create a bohemian, Spanish farmhouse atmosphere. The inner courtyard contained a white-painted fountain, a brick patio, a blue table adorned with a white Mexican umbrella, and four tangerine trees.11Lutah Maria Riggs, notes on the back of a photo of “Clavelitos,” 1930; in Lutah Maria Riggs Papers, Photographs 1930–1933, box 104, folder 1361. Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California Santa Barbara. The interior included a small kitchen in a Spanish-Mexican style, exposed pine beams, a steep spiral stair made of solid wood blocks, a red tile floor, and textiles collected from Europe and Mexico. Photographs of Riggs lounging in the courtyard and occasionally dressing in Spanish costume for Santa Barbara’s annual Fiesta suggest that she regarded architecture as a kind of mise-en-scène, a stage set for dwelling. Rigg’s adoption of Spanish Colonial motifs in both her costume and architecture reflected Southern Californian Anglos’ widespread appropriation and romanticization of the Spanish Colonial period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.22Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
Smith died in 1930, and Riggs and another colleague closed the practice. Following a short-lived partnership with William Horning, Riggs established her own firm in 1931. The timing was not auspicious: during the Depression years, she survived primarily by getting hired to make alterations to former Smith projects. In 1937, however, she received her first major commission, a house for the scion of a German noble family, Baron Maximilian von Romberg, and his wealthy American wife, Emily (née Hall). In working with the clients to develop a scheme, Riggs produced some twenty variations, ranging in style from Italianate to medieval to Art Deco. The final design brought together a modernist massing of white flat-roofed volumes with Italian-Spanish features, such as a walled courtyard bordered by a loggia on one side. The house’s most dramatic interior space was a central curved stair enclosed by stark white walls and illuminated from above. Max von Romberg died in a plane crash in 1938 before the house was completed. Emily von Romberg (later Emily Tremaine), who had hired the Art Deco decorator Paul Frankl to design the interiors, would go on to commission designs from Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx. In 1947, Riggs served as the local architect on one of these projects, an unrealized house by Niemeyer and Burle Marx.33On Riggs’s architectural work for the von Rombergs and the latter’s possible affiliations with National Socialism, see Volker Welter, Tremaine Houses: One Family’s Patronage of Domestic Architecture in Midcentury America (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2019), 29-62.
Throughout the late 1930s, she worked on numerous house designs in the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles areas, many of them as consulting architect at Rolling Hills, a suburban development just south of Los Angeles. In 1939 alone, Riggs designed eighteen projects at Rolling Hills, of which eight were built—including a house for actress Greta Garbo. Along with other architects who worked at Rolling Hills, such as Paul R. Williams and James R. Friend, she explored a typology of one-story houses with porches and terraces for outdoor living—Spanish Colonial Revival variations on the California ranch house.44David Gebhard, Lutah Maria Riggs: A Woman in Architecture 1921–1980 (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1992), 20–21.
With the onset of the Second World War, Riggs’s commissions waned. Between 1942 and 1945, she worked as a set designer for MGM and later Warner Brothers. Her designs included Regency-inspired sets for the movies The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).
After the war, Riggs took on a younger partner, Arvin B. Shaw III, who had a modernist bent. Shaw had studied at Yale and worked at Harrison and Abramovitz in New York before moving to Pasadena. Riggs and Shaw collaborated from 1945 to 1950, producing numerous houses with typical features of the new West Coast modern house, including an intimate integration of house and site, fluid transitions between indoor and outdoor spaces, and the extensive use of glass and exposed natural materials. The firm’s best-known project was the Alice Erving House (1949–51), which was published in Time, House and Garden, and House Beautiful. In plan, the small house featured two lower rectangular blocks flanking a high triangular glass-enclosed living space with a sculptural, rock-clad fireplace. The house was sensitively set in a lush landscape designed by Thomas D. Church that included a gravel garden, oak trees, a terraced patio, and a view of the mountains beyond, together with a pond and bridge by Richard Wendell Gilbert.
The Gross Beach House (1949), like the Erving house, was notable for its sensitive siting and close integration of interior and exterior spaces. Here, Riggs and Shaw married a simple two-story modernist volume with a beach setting, incorporating a large wooden deck with appendices extending toward the beach on one side, a beach pavilion made of grape stakes and plastic on another, and a stand of Monterey cypresses on yet another. The house appeared on the cover of Sunset magazine in 1950. The magazine’s editors praised the architects’ deference to their clients’ lifestyles: The house “provid[es] for beach living as its owners want it. . . . Nowhere have the architects attempted to inhabit the house. They realized that no house is finished until the owners move in, bringing their personalities with them.”55Sunset magazine, May 1950, 36–37.
Throughout her career, Riggs paired a respect for her clients’ desires with an extraordinary attention to the nature of materials, conditions of siting, and the details of dwelling—down to the precise angle of light striking a table at dinnertime and the arrangement of rocks in a garden. In the Kiler House, which she designed in 1955–56 for a landscape architect, E. Leslie Kiler, and his wife, Chrysella, Riggs oriented the window wall of the living room to avoid the glare of the afternoon sun (“just when you have dinner guests”) and later recalled that the stones in the fireplace wall were selected by Kiler himself from the site, “with care to keep the lichens undisturbed.”66Lutah Maria Riggs, typed notes; Lutah Maria Riggs Papers, box 104, folder 1337.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Riggs completed several commissions for larger houses, including the C. Pardee Erdman House (1957–59) and two residences for art collector Wright Ludington (Hesperides in 1957–59 and October Hill in 1973), as well as an extensive formal garden for Daniel J. Donohue in Los Angeles (1956–67). As architecture historian David Gebhard observed, many of these projects blended abstract and traditional elements. Hesperides, for example, combined a language of stark whitewashed volumes with modified classical details, such as a pronounced cornice, attenuated columns, and symmetrically and axially arranged openings.
Most of Riggs’s built works were private houses for wealthy and upper-middle-class clients, but she also completed several public buildings, including the Blaksley Library and Herbarium building at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (1942), and renovated the El Paseo complex and façade of the Suski building in downtown Santa Barbara (1963–65). By far her best-known non-residential commission was the Vedanta Temple in Santa Barbara (1954–56), a retreat built for the Vedanta Society of Southern California, a spiritual society established in Los Angeles in 1930, based on beliefs originating in India. The design of the building draws loosely on Chinese, Japanese, and South Indian motifs.77Gebhard, Lutah Maria Riggs, 39. Set against the Santa Ynez Mountains with dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean, the small temple is elevated on a platform, accessed via stairs that extend the width of the building. A hipped, tiled roof with deep eaves supported by brackets rests on several fir log posts that contrast with the building’s plain, plastered and louvered white walls. The overall effect of the exterior is of a large Japanese house. The dark, wood-lined, barrel-vaulted interior presents a striking contrast to the hot and bright exterior environment.88Lutah Riggs, Notes for Santa Barbara Museum House tour, 1960, Lutah Maria Riggs Papers, box 63, folder 340. In a 1979 essay, architecture historian and critic Esther McCoy described the building as “intensely calm and poetic,” and compared its effect to that of a “preliminary altar.”99Esther McCoy, “A Walk with Lutah Riggs,” L.A. Architect 5, no. 7 (July 1979).
During the 1950s and ’60s, Riggs became increasingly involved in civic, preservationist, and professional associations. Besides participating in the local landmarks advisory committee, she served twice as president of the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and was a member of the National AIA Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings. In 1960, she was named a fellow of the AIA—only the fifth woman to achieve this distinction—and in 1961, she became the first woman appointed to the California State Board of Architectural Examiners. The Los Angeles Times named Riggs one of its Women of the Year in 1966. Often cited as a path-breaking woman designer in the 1970s, she rejected being identified as such, preferring to be recognized simply as an architect.
Speaking with a reporter in the 1950s, Riggs acknowledged her affiliation with the modernist Spanish Revival that had become something of a local vernacular in Santa Barbara, explaining “I do think you can put the personality of your region into a house . . . [H]ere we want and need the sun. The open loggia may remind you of other places where the sun is also sought—that was one reason for the Mediterranean run here.” Yet she also maintained a stylistic agnosticism, best seen in the numerous schemes she created for the von Romberg house. “I don’t like to say a house is any style,” she is quoted as saying. “It’s just a house—the best solution I could think of to a given problem.”1010Quoted in Verne Linderman, “Lutah Riggs, Santa Barbara’s Only Licensed Woman Architect, Helped Create the Golden Era—the Era of Spanish Revival,” Santa Barbara News-Press, September 9, 1951. In place of style, she substituted other criteria, seeking to craft buildings that offered “shelter from the elements, a place of retreat and rest, a place for happiness, if possible, and enough beauty to lift the spirit.”1111Quoted in Kim Blair, “Lutah Riggs—A Designing Woman,” Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1966, C1. In her emphasis on both beauty and adaptation to domestic needs—venustas and utilitas—there are echoes of her classical architectural training. Among her clients and fellow architects, and within the local community, she was known as an intensely committed and detail-oriented designer with exacting standards. One employee later recalled how Riggs would use a dental mirror to check that the bottoms of doors were painted.1212Deming Isaacson, interviewed in Lutah: A Passion for Architecture, A Life in Design, DVD, directed by Kum-Kum Bhavnani (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Lutah Maria Riggs Society, 2014). As she told a reporter for the L.A. Times, “I dedicated myself to architecture . . . It comes first, I come last.”1313Quoted in Blair, “Lutah Riggs—A Designing Woman,” C1. Riggs devoted herself to her work late into life, closing her office around 1980. She died in 1984 at the age of 87.