Where Did California's "Spanish" Architecture Come From?
Craig Chalquist, PhD
Plymouth Rock was a state of mind. So were the California Missions.
-- Charles Fletcher Lummis
If you've been to Southern California, you've seen it done, from state prisons to strip malls: white stucco walls, red roof tiles, curvilinear gables, arched windows, sometimes barred, and maybe a balcony or a bell tower. The plainer version of this building style is called Mission Revival; the more ornate, and more recent, Spanish Colonial.
According to state mythology, this style--call it Mission style--comes down to us from the rancho manors of the Californio period. They were owned by families of Mexican ethnicity who sold hides, rode horses, and flourished between 1834, when the Missions (Spanish conversion centers for the Indians) were secularized and eventually closed, and 1848, when the Americans took California away from Mexico and began helping themselves to the vast Californio land grants. The mythology pictures these tracts of land occupied by sprawling, white-walled, tile-roofed ranch houses fitted with spacious verandas and polished wood floors.
The Californios did own vast estates which they lost to squatters and settlers, and they did sell hides and ride horses, but their "manors" were actually one-story adobes with tarred roofs and dirt floors. The Missions were made of adobe as well: clay mixed with hay and whatever else came to hand, timber having been hard to come by south of San Luis Obispo County. Walls of adobe were dark unless whitewashed or faced with limestone and prone to erosion by rain and groundwater. No manors there.
Like these early structures, the Mission style was actually a bricolage whitewashed by fantasy and cemented by the hard realities of real estate salesmanship and conservative politicking in early California. Here are some of the components:
Real estate developer Thomas Larkin of Monterey built the first house able to keep its adobe intact in 1837. He did this by employing the New England frame method of architecture used in the colonies on the East Coast. Larkin had arrived in 1833 and was one of the most successful American spies of all time. The Californios respected his tact and were impressed by the business he brought to Monterey, at that time the capital of Alta California. His construction style did not become popular for a long while, but it did influence architect Bertram Goodhue, whom we will meet in a moment.
- Charles Fletcher Lummis was a writer and editor, not an architect, but, having joined forces with Harrison Gray Otis and the oligarchs of the ambitious Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, he began to interest himself in the Missions and the rancho days. A lover of green corduroy suits and "Spanish"-style sombreros, the pistol-toting Lummis pitched for the preservation of the Missions (1888) and what he thought of as California's Spanish heritage. Among the first in California to realize that glorifying the past could be profitable as well as useful (a Fiesta he organized distracted Angelenos from striking Pullman workers), he helped form the Land Marks Club and called for the establishment of a regional architectural style. He is therefore the intellectual father of the Mission style as well as the planner of his home Al Alisal, built, he said, to last a thousand years.
- Not "Spanish," however--the Missions and most of the Californio adobes had long since crumbled--but Romanesque, Victorian, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and especially Greek Revival and modified Yankee frame housing dominated the rapidly agglomerating Californian urban landscape until 1884, when Arthur Page Brown was hired to design homes for wealthy families in Santa Barbara. He then introduced his version of Mission Revival--a cement-surfaced bricolage of Beaux-Arts, Japanese, Spanish-Moorish, and Chamber of Commerce--via his California Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
- Helen Hunt Jackson's sappy romance Ramona was published the year Brown came to Santa Barbara, and readers like Lummis immediately realized the value of its romanticized past, including its kindly Spanish padres and exotic Missions, for rootless Californians hungry for a history of their own. Suddenly everyone was talking about the glorious days of old, and architecture soon followed suit. As Harold Kirker points out in his California's Architectural Frontier, few acknowledged that many of the "Spanish" homes that provided the pattern--such as that of Rancho Guajome, where Jackson did some of her research--had been designed by American architects long after the rancho era. It would not be long before even the Missions were made over into something pleasant but essentially fabricated.
- John Knapp decided to adapt the Mission style to mass housing, and in 1899 he advertised the first model of it: a stucco bungalow whose ancestor was the military tent of English colonials in Bengali, whose contemporaries dotted the New England countryside, and whose suburban descendants stand in carefully measured rows ten feet apart all over coastal California.
- Bertram Goodhue didn't like Mission Revival, however. Too bland; too austere; too unannounced. For the Panama Exposition of 1915, Goodhue filled San Diego's Balboa Park with the rococo ornamentation now known as Spanish Colonial, and cities up and down California and all over the southwest have boosted it ever since.as a style indigenous to the arid region conquered by the Spanish Cross and Sword: the first newcomers to demonstrate out here how often image outruns imagination, especially when Golden Ages shake hands with the Golden Rule and the Rule of Gold.
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