Backstage Stories

The Tall Tale Behind Santa Barbara’s Only Skyscraper

March 6, 2024

The Tall Tale Behind Santa Barbara’s Only Skyscraper

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Today the world’s tallest skyscraper soars 163 stories into the air. But in 1924, The Granada Theatre caused a stir in Santa Barbara when plans were unveiled for an eight-story structure.

One hundred years ago, this revolutionary building changed the landscape of State Street and the city. Skyscrapers didn’t even come to California until 1903, so finding a contractor schooled in building this new type of structure proved challenging.

The architect, A.B. Rosenthal out of Los Angeles ended up turning to a local contractor, Charles M. Urton, to construct the Spanish-Moorish-influenced skyscraper they envisioned.

The only problem was that Urton had never built a skyscraper. But he was well-known as “the builder to the stars,” constructing homes for the new film stars and executives in Hollywood, Pasadena, and Santa Barbara.

“He had a good reputation as an honest contractor,” said his granddaughter Marcia Urton Martyn. “He sent away for books on how to build a high-rise and studied them.”


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It’s hard to imagine today that this iconic Santa Barbara building was constructed by a man who read a how-to guide and was flying by the seat of his pants.

Using the best steel and concrete available, Urton and his crew built the imposing building.  The Granada Theatre opened on April 9, 1924.

The ultimate testament to how well Urton had studied and learned to build a skyscraper came just a year later on June 29, 1925, when Santa Barbara was rocked by a massive earthquake. The downtown area was destroyed, all but The Granada Theatre.

Urton and his family visited The Granada Theatre the morning after the quake to see what happened to the theater. Urton went up to the sixth floor while his family stayed downstairs.

A policeman saw Urton and urged him to leave but he called down to the police “Come and get me”. While he was in the building, another significant aftershock hit the city. Although The Granada Theatre building swayed, it remained standing tall.

The Granada didn’t have so much as a major crack in its edifice. Days after the quake, Urton, ever the smart businessman, hung a large sign on The Granada Theatre advertising his company as the builder.

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Urton after The Granada

After The Granada Theatre, the town of Santa Barbara decreed that no building could ever be taller. While this hurt what could have been a burgeoning career for Urton constructing skyscrapers, he continued building residential mansions in Montecito and many of the schools in the area.

His son, Kenneth, ultimately joined him in the business.

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Charlie with Kenneth


“When my Dad (Kenneth) graduated from Berkeley, he called up his dad and told him that he had a calling from God and was going into the ministry,” said Marcia Martyn. “My grandfather told him ‘God got the wrong number, you’re coming into business with me.’ And my dad ended up loving the construction business.”

During The Granada Theatre’s extensive renovation in the 2000s Urton’s great-granddaughter Laurie Pfeiffer, an archeologist was assigned to do the archeological survey needed during the renovation project.

“During the survey, I went below the basement and I got to see the steel pylons and rich concrete my great-grandfather used. It was easy to see how The Granada withstood the quake,” said Pfeiffer. “Down there it was like looking at my own family history. It was a magical moment for me to see the strength of that building.”


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Charles Urton Grandchildren – The Magnificent Seven


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Charles Urton and Ida Wedding Day 1909