Dec 12

The Secret of the Santa Barbara Courthouse Clock Tower

The Sunken Gardens of the Santa Barbara Courthouse

The Sunken Gardens of the Santa Barbara Courthouse

One of my favorite sights to show visitors in Santa Barbara is, oddly enough, the Courthouse. Not because it’s a place I spend much of my time (I have–miraculously–never been arrested, thank you very much) but because it is a beautiful and historic site that epitomizes the Spanish style architecture that defines Santa Barbara. The Courthouse website itself declares, “For almost 160 years this site has been the home of local government and a place of civic pride and celebration” and I, too, am a testament to that claim as I proudly march my guests up its intricately tiled steps and in through the grandiose doorways.

Hallway of Santa Barbara Courthouse
Stairs of Santa Barbara Courthouse

So when I recently found myself hosting a Couchsurfer from England and showing him around town, we inevitably strolled down the sunny street a few blocks from downtown and made our way to the Courthouse. While courtroom doors are locked with a sign announcing “In Session”, the building itself is open to the public and tourists can casually meander through the dimly lit hallways and up the winding stairwells.

Santa Barbara Courthouse
























Door in Santa Barbara Courthouse

The top of the several-stories high building has a viewing tower with magnificent panoramic views of the ocean to the south, the mountains to the north, and the orange tiled rooftops of Santa Barbara that lie between. As we climbed the stairs to the tower, we came across a locked door to the side of the staircase labeled “Clock Room”, and through the window we could spy a giant contraption of whirring, spinning, undulating mechanical parts.

Suddenly, a man appeared behind us with a set of keys and a mischievous glint in his eye, and asked if we’d like to have a look inside the “Clock Room”. Despite the potential serial killer scenario that could have transpired, we shrugged and followed him inside.

We must have stepped through the doors right at the top of the hour, for almost immediately the mechanical contraption sprang to life; it clicked and hummed while tiny metal chains whizzed around in circles, and a giant pendulum swung back and forth as weights methodically lifted several feet in the air and dropped back down. Above us, hammers struck four enormous bells and the deep BONG bellowed out to signify the hour. I was mesmerized.

Santa Barbara Courthouse Clock






















Bells of Santa Barbara Courthouse Clock Tower

The Clock Man began enthusiastically describing how everything worked within the contraption to keep the time accurate down to the millisecond. He explained that things like temperature and barometric pressure affect its accuracy because they cause metals to expand or contract and  then he demonstrated how to change the tiny weights to accommodate the changes and keep the clock on track.

Santa Barbara Courthouse Clock Tower Room

He pointed out the mural that wrapped around the walls and told us that it simultaneously depicted the development of Santa Barbara on the same timeline as the evolution of keeping time.

As he identified different points of interest throughout the mural, he casually pointed to a concealed door on the wall and mentioned, “And that’s where the speakers are”.

I frowned in confusion. “Speakers for what? Can you make announcements from here?” I envisioned sneaking into this closet and making all kinds of ridiculous announcements for the entire city to hear.

“For the bells,” he shrugged. He pointed at the bells above us and asked slyly, “What do you think those are made of?”

Wondering to myself what bells are usually made of, I guessed, “I dunno, brass? Some kind of heavy metal?”

He laughed, and winked. “They’re styrofoam! They’re fake! Actually, they were just recently installed, along with those hammers, to simulate the ringing of bells; really, though, it’s just a very powerful speaker playing the sound of bells you hear everyday.”

He seemed unaware of my jaw dropped in disbelief, and continued on.

“The clock here is all very real, and after being restored is one of the few tower clocks around to be in mint condition. It keeps the time and is hooked up to that electronical station below and signals the stereo when it’s time to play the bell sounds. It’s a mix of 19th century mechanisms with modern technology. Pretty neat, huh?”

I smiled and nodded, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit betrayed. The bell sound is fake! I don’t know why it suddenly mattered so much to me that it be real, but I was surprised to find myself so disappointed. I suppose it’s because it seemed the charm of the bell tower’s antiquity had somehow been stolen from me. These days, when every little thing is being taken over by technology, we have a tendency to romanticize those things that emerge untouched by modernity and stand as a symbol of the past. Maybe I’m just being melodramatic, but it seemed bizarre and counterintuitive to put all that work into maintaining an elaborate clock–only for it to set off electronic chimes.

Regardless, it was a unique and interesting experience which I think more people should explore. The clock itself is fascinating and much funding and work has gone into its refurbishment and maintenance. The clock tower room is not open to the public for now, but if you pay a visit to the courthouse, try climbing the stairs; maybe you’ll get lucky like I did and stumble across the Clock Man, eager to share the secret of his mechanical lair…

Santa Barbara Courthouse





















What do you think of the fake bells? Am I just being silly? 

  • Sarah

    Beautifully written piece, Kaleena, and I totally sympathize with your sentiments.

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Thanks Sarah! Glad I’m not the only one who views it this way! 😉

      • Bryan Mumford

        As the guy who made the bells ring in the clock tower, I’m a little disappointed to hear that you (and others) are disappointed that they’re “electronic”, or that making them ring is “like pushing a button”. It was not as simple as that.

        The bell sounds are played through speakers, but they’re not “electronic” sounds. They are high fidelity recordings of the carillon bells at UCSB. They were transferred to electronic circuits in the tower to be reproduced when the clock strikes. And the sounds aren’t generated by some push button or electronic timer. The individual bell recordings are triggered by the levers of the actual clock as it pulls the bell hammers.

        To us this has been a significant improvement over the previous electronic device that played synthesized bell sounds on an electric timer. It is OUR clock that is triggering each bell strike, and the bell sounds you hear are digital recordings of the real bells at UCSB. This is about as good as can be done given that there never were any bells in the Courthouse, and there never can be.

        Perhaps you can view the Courthouse bells as “prosthetic”. They give our grand old clock a voice that it would otherwise not have. To me, it is a very positive part of the clock restoration, and nothing to be disappointed about.

        More information about the bells can be found here:


        • KaleenasKaleidoscope

          Hello there! I’m so glad to have input on this article from you and Mr. Ooley– straight from the sources, themselves. 🙂

          I like your idea of calling them “prosthetic”, haha. I didn’t know that they were recordings from the bells at UCSB, that is quite interesting.

          I want to assure you that just because I described some disappointment at finding out there weren’t “real bells” doesn’t mean I am not respectful of and amazed by the working clock mechanisms and all of the intricate technologies that go into playing the chiming noises. I pointed out and hope I made clear in describing my experience that the clock itself is fascinating, and something more people should check out. Please read my response to Mr. Ooley for more clarification.

          I am very appreciative of people like you who work in an innovative fashion to better our Santa Barbara community. Cheers.

          • Bryan Mumford

            Those of us that know the story of the clock, and worked to make it a showplace, have been very happy with the bells because there never were any before. We now have a representation of what the bells would have been like that is so good visually and aurally that you can be in the room when they strike and not even know they’re “faux”. The full clock mechanism can now be seen to function as it was made to for the first time since it was delivered in 1929. Watching the clock strike without the bells and without the sounds would be a poor substitute.

            But, I understand that for people who are not familiar with the project, the background, or the implications of ringing real bells around people, learning that they are facsimiles might be a disappointment. Life is full of compromises we make with what we might want and what we can have.

  • Jess

    I am super bummed out! WTF?! I feel betrayed.

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Right?!?! It’s just ridiculous. I didn’t mention it in this article but the guy did let me pull a lever that rang the bell–I was so excited and it made me feel so powerful, until I found out it was like the same as pushing a button. :p

      • Jess

        LOL that just adds insult to injury!

  • Hi, I’m that “clock man.” If one knows their history of the Santa Barbara Courthouse Clock–it never did ring real bells because they were never installed. If they had you would not be able to enjoy that fantastic view from the observation level above the clock room. Also, if it had not been for the generous contributions of two families in Santa Barbara you would not even get an opportunity to see a fully functional mechanical tower clock. Fake bells or no bells—the true story is in the fact that the 19th Century Mechanical Clock is controlling the sound of electronic bells–the bell sounds are not fake–nor is the fact that the clock is ringing those bells. The clock is fully functional–pulling hammers, ticking the minutes faithfully and whirling and clanking as it does. We are also happy to share the secret places of the Santa Barbara Courthouse.

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Oh my goodness, hello “Clock Man”! I’m sorry I never got your name so had to refer to you as such, although “Clock Man” is a fun and mysterious alias, I think.

      First off, I want to thank you for giving us the impromptu tour of the clock room; as I mentioned, it was a truly fascinating and unique experience. I hope I haven’t offended you by discussing my take on the “fake bells”… I sincerely think the working clock is amazing and I’m appreciative of people like you and the generous donors who work to provide the Santa Barbara community with such a unique point of interest.

      I understand that if bells had been installed then we couldn’t have that viewing level, and I think we can all agree that the view is far more desirable than a couple of bells. Like I said before, I was surprised by my own reaction to learning about the bells, but my disappointment does not detract from my awe or appreciation for the clock and the tower room, themselves. Please accept my apology if this article conveys otherwise, and please keep doing all that you do to benefit my beloved Santa Barbara. 🙂

  • Just for future reference: the word is “bizarre,” not “bazaar.”

    • KaleenasKaleidoscope

      Yes, thank you, I’ve edited it. Definitely wasn’t referencing a Middle Eastern market… 😉