This bohemian architect can’t seem to stop sketching, and that’s a good thing for Santa Barbara. His pioneering spirit and whimsical approach to design have expanded the local definition of Spanish revival style. “I sketch every night,” Shelton says. “It sweeps out the brain, and ideas for my buildings flow from my drawings.” His departure from tradition incorporates playfully sagging rooflines, swaying stucco, swooping arches, embedded with bright ceramic tiles and a keen sense of humor that brings his projects to life.
Along with such animated details, what also characterizes his work are his sense of community and his economical approach to space—more likely to be defined by the city’s building codes and planning department than by his aesthetics. Yet he embraces such practicalities: “I think we have to come up with smarter designs when we limit ourselves.”
In his downtown studio, the lower half of a turn-of-the-century carriage house, Shelton is busy honing in on the details of several new projects. He’s outfitted by casually but true to his art: Both his T-shirt and baseball cap pay tribute to the “baby cow” sculpture that sits atop his Small Cow House on East Cota Street—an homage to the nearby “mama cow” atop the old McConnell’s Dairy, now Garrett’s restaurant. Elsewhere around town, this third-generation Santa Barbaran’s dozen or so one-of-kind gems adds prominence to an otherwise unremarkable city block or enhance a sloping, unused lot. Along with Small Cow House, completed in 2005, other Shelton creations include Cota Street Studios, Laguna Vieja, Zannon (a 1,400-square-foot residential/commercial space that landed him the George Washington Smith Award in 2003) and one of his latest undertakings, Ablitt Tower House.
“My inspiration is life itself,” says Shelton. “How do you separate life and what you do? I can’t.” Art and architecture are natural extensions of his childhood. The son of a jazz musician and homemaker, he grew up on Oakleigh, 12 largely undeveloped acres in Montecito. He and his three older brothers ran wild on the family compound, where art was revered and the days unstructured. The free-spirited upbringing likely influenced their later paths: Today, brother Ron is a screenwriter and director with credits such as Bull Durham and Tin Cup; David, a furniture and architectural fixtures designer, still lives on Oakleigh, as does Steve, a singer/songwriter and teacher at Santa Barbara Junior High School.
After graduating from Santa Barbara High in 1976 and earning a degree in architecture from the University of Arizona in 1983, Shelton practiced at Levin & Associates Architects in Los Angeles. The well-received Laguna Vieja, his initial attempt at