A potpourri of influences from Spain, Italy, Portugal and other countries around the Mediterranean region of the world can be found in the architectural style that today bears the same name.
Mediterranean architecture in North America, which was extremely popular from 1918 to 1940, echoed the haciendas in the Spanish New World with their red tile roofs, arches and plaster made rough to resemble plastered adobe. Many homes in California and Florida, states which have Spanish histories, were built in this style.
Over time, flourishes from other European countries (France, Italy, Greece and the Balkans), could be found in the houses. Asian inspirations from Turkey, Cypress and Lebanon joined North African countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria in the mix.
Today, many ornate homes that combine elements from any of those countries are called Mediterranean (or Neo-Mediterranean) because of the composite of cultural influences from that region. Houses may feature terraces or courtyards, stucco finishes, porticos, balconies or any number of elements inspired by houses on the Mediterranean.
“Some of the earliest Mediterranean is Churrigueresque,” says Merry Ovnick, associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge, explaining that the Spanish Baroque styles in grand buildings stemmed from Mexico and Peru. “In the 1920s, people didn’t want to talk about copying Mexican things, so they called it Spanish revival. Houses with classical columns around the driveway picked up from northern Italy. The greater formality came from Italy or North Africa.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood movies featured romantic Mediterranean sets, and celebrity magazines showed stars living in Spanish Colonial, Tudor or small castle-like houses, creating the peak period for construction of Mediterranean homes, says Ovnick, author of Los Angeles: The End of the Rainbow (1994, Balcony Press), a book documenting architecture as a Southern California phenomenon.
The Depression put a damper on home building, and after World War II, the emphasis moved to simple stucco tract housing. But in the 1960s, Mediterranean homes began gaining in popularity again. While they can be found across the United States, most are in California, Florida and Southern states, all of which have Mediterranean-like climates.
- Red tiled roof. These roofs copied those of Spanish and Mexican missions, which were made out of clay pots and bricks, shaped like half a tube to shed water easily. The air pocket in the tunnel of the half-tube helped to keep air cool; the tiles were fireproof.
- Stucco walls. A stucco finish protects exterior wall surfaces from rain, sunlight and hot temperatures, common in Mediterranean climates.
- Arches. This feature goes back to Roman times, and is a self-supporting element that allows building of lighter weight and sturdier walls. Each of the stones next to the keystone in the arch atop the side columns distributes weight to the sides and downward.
- Ornamental detail. Houses usually feature flourishes ranging from large, heavy wooden doors with ornate carvings to the use of multicolored tiles for the risers of staircases.
- Smith-Heberton House. Nicknamed “El Hogar” (Spanish for “hearth”), this 1916 Mediterranean home in Montecito, Calif., was designed by architect George Washington Smith, a well-known proponent of the style in the early 20th century.
- Frances Marion and Fred Thomson House. This Beverly Hills, Calif., house was built by Wallace Neff, a prominent architect of Mediterranean homes, for screenwriter Frances Marion and her movie star husband, Fred Thomson, in 1925.
- Fred C. Aiken House. Architect Addison Mizner launched a “Florida renaissance” in Boca Raton, Fla., turning the small, unincorporated town into a luxurious Mediterranean resort community with houses that featured Moorish columns and spiral staircases suspended in mid-air. This 1926 house, on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, was owned by Aiken, who served as Boca Raton’s mayor from 1929 to 1938.
Practically Speaking: Hassles and Headaches
Spanish clay roof tiles are designed for warm, dry climates. Mediterranean houses in cool, damp climates like the Pacific Northwest or snowy areas will need to have the tiles coated for moisture and the cold. These roof tiles, heavier than regular shingles, can last for a century or more, and are usually low-maintenance.
Kitchen walls in Mediterranean homes are often plastered with lime to allow the walls to breathe. If this is the case in your home, the walls may need to be renewed every year with a fresh coating.
Flooring is often made of terra-cotta tiles, though granite and marble are also common, keeping feet cool on a hot day. Care should be taken to use proper cleaning solutions for each.