Ablitt House Stands Tall As a Towering Work of Art
(Originally published May 26, 2008)
The uniquely designed home in Santa Barbara has won over even those who once opposed the project.
Deep down, we all want to be able to tell the naysayers, “I told you so.”
In rare instances, the words don’t even need to be uttered for the general sentiment to hang in the air.
Such is the case with the Ablitt House, by many accounts the most fantastical home in Santa Barbara. With its 20-foot-by-20-foot footprint, four single-room floors, infinitely detailed interior design and 360-degree rooftop view of the city, mountains and ocean, the house is considered a bona fide work of art by even the most vocal of former naysayers.
The proud owner of this narrow tower of a home at 13 W. Haley St. is native Santa Barbaran Neil Ablitt, the retired founder of Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners & Launderers a few paces away. His daughter now manages the operation.
At 53 feet high, the not-so-humble downtown abode is among the tallest structures in town, yet is oddly difficult to spot by passers-by on State Street. The skinny house is tucked into an alley behind State Street’s Velvet Jones nightclub, with only its bell-towered top peaking above the buildings on the main drag. Now, even the hotel manager who once opposed the project and the planning commissioners who denied it admit the house is a gem.
For Ablitt, it has been a long journey.
Things started OK in 2002, with the Historic Landmarks Commission, but hit a snag in early 2004. Facing opposition from the Holiday Inn Express, the Ablitt House was narrowly rejected by the Planning Commission. Ablitt appealed to the City Council, which was charmed by the design and unanimously overturned the commission’s decision. In December 2004, architect Trevor Martinson made an 11th-hour attempt to derail the project. It failed.
In November 2005, construction crews broke ground. On Dec. 17, 2006, Ablitt and his wife, Sue, moved out of the boat they had been living in for 14 years and into the house. However, they had to sleep on floor mattresses for five months while their bed was custom-designed to fit in their bedroom.
Since its completion, the house already has won at least one national design award for the tile work.
To thank the community, Ablitt has been giving free tours of the structure, which, for earthquake safety, digs into the ground nearly as deep as it is high. In the 14 months since the house became inhabitable, about 1,500 visitors have toured the home, ascending the home’s 72 tile-decorated stairs in wide-eyed wonder.
“Around every corner, there’s a little adventure,” marveled Eva Kirkpatrick, who was taking a tour with a handful of others.
“It’s the most creative, most original house in Santa Barbara,” visitor Susan Billig said.
In the past few months, Ablitt has channeled his inner tour guide, peppering his spiel with good-natured barbs about the naysayers and revealing his own free-spirited temperament. “The only thing we told the contractor is that we like books, tile and wine,” he likes to say.
On the tour, Ablitt takes a modest tack, deferring all credit to architect Jeff Shelton and the handful of artists who worked on the home. “My only job has been to keep my mouth shut, sweep the alley and stay out of the way,” he says. “These guys are geniuses.”
Contractor Dan Upton said the job led to many sleepless nights, but he wouldn’t have wanted any other contractor to claim the burden. “My job is to give the house a soul,” he said. “This was an easy one, in a way, because so many good people worked on it.”
Of course, genius design and a soulful construction don’t come cheap. Initially, Ablitt estimated he could build the house for about $480,000. The actual bill was triple that amount, and it’s still climbing.
But to Ablitt, it has been worth every penny. “It’s a work of art, and a work of love,” he said.
From the beginning, the house has been a media darling. In addition to the play-by-play write-ups in local publications during the city hearings, the story caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times, which in 2004 ran a front-page story on the house. It was picked up by The Associated Press and ran in about 60 newspapers across the country. Shortly after, Ablitt got a call from the TV show Good Morning America, which wanted exclusive footage of the interior. The interior didn’t exist at the time, so the deal fell through.
Soon, the Ablitt House will be the focus of a half-hour production on HGTV (Home & Garden). Ablitt doesn’t own a television, “and I never will,” he says.
Ablitt purchased the small lot in 1984 for $6,400 – quite a deal in Santa Barbara, where land is so valuable that a small bungalow home can sell for upward of $1 million.
At the time, the lot seemed useless. For starters, it was too small. The city’s commercial-district zoning laws required that residential buildings in the downtown area be set back 10 feet from all neighboring property lines. Given that the size of Ablitt’s lot is 20 feet by 20 feet, that gave him zero room. “Technically, I couldn’t even put up a flagpole,” he says.
Plus, a severe drought had caused the city to issue a moratorium on new water connections. Without a water connection, a landowner could not obtain a building permit. But in 1987, the city held a lottery for water connections. Out of hundreds who applied, Ablitt was among about a dozen winners.
A decade passed and nothing was done. In the mid-1990s, Ablitt and his wife set sail for Mexico and didn’t return for seven years. When they came back in 2001, Ablitt went to his dry-cleaning business and was bedazzled by a new development next door. It was called the Zannon Building.
Ablitt walked around the premises and happened across two strangers: Shelton and Upton. He struck up a conversation with them, complimenting the building. He told them about his tiny lot. Shelton’s first response was terse: “I’m not taking any more work.”
But when Ablitt walked the men to the site, Shelton grew animated. A wave of inspiration had come over him. The next day, he approached Ablitt with a rough sketch design.
To get around the mandatory 10-foot setbacks, Shelton made a coy move. He stuck an office in the house, thus qualifying it for “mixed use” status, meaning it was no longer strictly residential. (The city later dropped the requirement for them.)
Shelton said he was expecting city staff members to disapprove. “To my surprise, they were not only not against it, they were sort of delighted,” he said.
Still, the architect knew the staff members weren’t the deciders. It would be up to the commission and the council. Before meetings, Shelton said, “I just kept telling Neil, ‘Don’t worry about it, just keep smiling and don’t complain.’ “
As it turned out, the Planning Commission was less amused by the design. Commissioner John Jostes said Ablitt was asking for too many special favors, which in the planning world are known as “modifications.” For instance, residential homes need a yard, but this home certainly wouldn’t have one.
Then-Commissioner Bill Mahan found it unfair that Ablitt intended to build his home right on the property lines of his commercial neighbors, none of whom had expanded their structures to the edge – yet.
Commissioner Harwood “Bendy” White thought the land could have been put to better use, maybe to build more high-density homes downtown, he said.
Now, all three say they love the finished product.
“It is extremely playful and interesting and unique,” Jostes said. “And being in the middle of the block, it’s not nearly as visible as I thought it would be.”
Mahan said it’s only a matter of time before the house becomes a local landmark. “There’s no question the architecture is a delightful thing,” he said.
Mahan, who earlier this year launched a ballot initiative to lower building-height limits to 40 feet in downtown Santa Barbara, also said he has no qualms with this particular 53-foot structure. “It’s really more like a tower – towers don’t bother me at all,” he said. “I think they bring a nice variance to the skyline.”
White echoed the praise. “It’s a remarkable piece of craftsmanship,” he said.
However, asked if he would vote for the project now, knowing what he knows, White and Jostes declined to speculate.
White added that Ablitt one day could face the bleak prospect of watching tall walls being built mere inches away from his windows. “If I were Neil, I would probably not be happy if people came in and built to the property line all around me. I would feel hemmed in,” he said. “So we’ll see how those things unfold over time. Maybe it will never happen.”