Under State Street Part 4: At last! A speakeasy!

Down in the plush basement of the Balboa Building, all carpeting and wood panels, through the doors of Home Planet Productions, and into the storage unit where owner Tom Piozet keeps stacks of old video equipment, there’s a weird old alarm that he rings for new visitors.

It’s fun for him, but back in the 1960s, when this was the domain of Mission Research, that buzzer was serious business. It was one of several devices keeping top secret nuclear research under lock and key.

“The plumber and electricians in town would refer to this as the CIA building,” said Piozet, who is laid-back and talkative in that coastal town way. “Because to get downstairs you were supposed to have a secret clearance and then to get back here you were supposed to have top secret clearance.”

At one point three government-contracted agencies worked out of offices above or below State Street. This was back in the day when computers were the size of five refrigerators and operated by crew-cut men in white short sleeves and black ties holding punch cards.

GE Tempo, an arm of General Electric, had an office in the building next to the El Paseo. Next door in a space under the El Paseo was DASIAC (DASA Information Analysis Center; DASA stood for Defense Atomic Support Agency, making DASIAC an acronym within an acronym) Here, number crunchers crunched away on nuclear testing data. The underground space had a one-way door that allowed shredded documents to be taken up to the street.

In the nearby Balboa Building, Mission Research operated out of the basement. ATK Aerospace acquired the company in 2004 and moved out in 2005. In 2008, Home Planet moved in.

The offices now hum with computers, video decks, and hard drives, while the walls are decorated with posters, Tibetan flags and art from a documentary Piozet once produced and directed.

But the military folks left behind a large storage vault with rolling shelves that once contained top secret documents, which is now home to years of videotapes. A sign on the door lists the amount of man hours needed to break into the vault, as officially measured by the government.

Also left behind: a nearby room that looks normal from the inside, but is actually a metal room within a room. Called a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility), its thick walls were needed for both security and acted as a Faraday cage, stopping outside electronic waves from interfering with scientific measurements. Now it’s home to desks and stacks of vintage video equipment. All that remains of its former use is the “supercool, Dr. Strangelove-type” alarm on the door.

The last time the government was here was during the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, when Ann Romney taped a satellite interview in the space, Piozet said. The Secret Service scoped the place out, noting all escape routes.

“And there is an escape route that goes right past where the speakeasy was.”

Well, we’ve heard this one before. Could he show us?

“Yeah, we can go back to the speakeasy.”

Piozet led the way, past the wood paneling of the main basement and into the musty, white walled, fluorescent-lit service hallways of the Balboa. Behind a locked door was supposedly a speakeasy. Piozet had the key.

Inside, as if waiting for us, was Chris Deltner, the building’s maintenance man, sitting at the far end at a desk. He was, as he told us, a sixth generation Santa Barbaran, and knew for a fact that there once was a speakeasy right here, next to this room.

“They had one on every other block in Santa Barbara,” said Deltner as he got up to talk to us. “My grandfather used to run booze during Prohibition. Just like every old timer had a still in his house.”

We walked over to a wall of shelves, which Deltner slid to the left, revealing a secret room. No bar and no bottles inside–instead boxes and other storage. But the nearly foot-thick side of the sliding wall was still covered with leather, held in place by brass rivets, a decaying remnant of former taboo luxury.

The room was built when they made the building, he said, “because they built all this into the brick,” pointing to thick metal tracks for sliding the false wall.

Deltner recounted how the police would maintain a checkpoint on the county line at Rincon, searching cars for booze. So, his grandfather would take a bottle-laden boat up from Los Angeles, land at Goleta, “where nobody lived,” and drive down into Santa Barbara to distribute the booze.

This leather lined side of a sliding hidden door is all that’s left of the Balboa Building’s speakeasy, according to Deltner.

Another former speakeasy, he said, was located under what is now the cash register at Aaron Brothers, the art supply store on the corner of Cota and State Street. He can’t remember the other locations. We thanked Deltner and left. For him, the sliding door was no big thing, a curiosity in an old building from the 1920s.

But forget all the rumors and dusty basements, discovering this history was like opening King Tut’s tomb. A leather-sided, sliding wall was physical proof on an era in American history we continue to glamorize and fantasize about.

On street level, State Street is currently see-sawing between vacant storefronts and national retail chains. It’s a current story with an uncertain ending. It’s also boring. But underground, well, that’s where history and legend meet.

We have spelunked and debunked and touched the past in the form of old leather. Will the rumor mill continue to grind out urban legend flour? For sure. But for us, our curiosity is sated. We’ll be celebrating with some bathtub gin at our own secret underground location.

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Curious Coast is a project made possible by the supporters of KCRW and a grant from Antioch University Santa Barbara.