Spanish Architecture

Mission revival is inspired by the ornate and stately style of churches built by Colonial Spanish missionaries.

Mediterranean L-Shaped Home

By: Dinah Eng

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Spanish settlers in North America combined their architectural traditions with other European and Native American influences to create a variety of styles, from mission to Spanish Colonial to Mediterranean.

In this article, we'll focus on mission revival architecture, which is inspired by the ornate and stately style of churches built by Colonial Spanish missionaries and emerged in California and the Southwest at the turn of the 20th century.

While no two missions were identical, the founding priests built sanctuaries that infused their interiors with natural light and reflected Spanish, Native American and Mexican influences. Mission-style homes, which were most popular between 1895 and 1910, mimicked the plain, rustic feel of the churches with thick walls and modest window sizes, plaster interiors and exposed wood beam ceilings.

The style’s popularity can be traced to two cultural events of the time. First came the success of the 1884 novel Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson, which romanticized the story of a young Indian girl in Southern California in the early 19th century, creating an image of Southern California as a Mediterranean paradise, says Ken Breisch, director of graduate programs in historic preservation for the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California.

“The second influence was the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, where each of the states designed buildings to exhibit products from their states,” Breisch says. “A. Page Brown, architect of the California pavilion, designed a building using different elements of California missions, and the style spread across the country.”

The railroads incorporated elements of the mission style in railroad stations on the Santa Fe line between New Mexico and California, using it as corporate branding in hopes that it would attract tourists and writers to the Southwest, Breisch adds.

He notes that during the early 20th century, people were building homes reflecting many different kinds of styles, so it was a time of great eclecticism. While the mission style spread eastward, most of the homes were located in the Southwest. By the 1920s, architects were combining mission elements with features from Arts and Crafts, prairie or pueblo homes.

Key Features

  • Clay tile roofs. Meant to emulate the missions, roofs are low pitched with broad projecting eaves extending outward over the walls to create protection from the elements. Clay, a Mediterranean building element, came from Spain through Mexico to California.
  • Arcaded porches and corridors with arches. These elements mimic the cloisters, with stucco walls of broad flat surfaces that emulate the quality of adobe construction.
  • Large square pillars and bell towers. Houses often have asymmetrical massing with a prominent corner tower, like the California missions.
  • Quatrefoil windows. Round windows composed of four equal lobes that resemble a four-petaled flower, or windows with a curved top, are common in these homes. Windows in elaborate homes are often surrounded by a geometric ornament that is echoed in the roof parapets.

Famous Examples

  • The Powers House. The Alvarado Terrace Historic District in Los Angeles, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, boasts six homes designated as cultural historic monuments by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, including this mission-style house built in 1903 for Pomeroy Wells Powers and his wife, Ida. Powers, then president of the Los Angeles City Council, was one of the original developers of the neighborhood. The stucco house, designed by Arthur L. Haley, has an arcaded veranda that supports a second-floor balcony and features a large corner tower.
  • The Canfield-Wright House. Originally built by Charles A. Canfield in 1910, this Del Mar, Calif., home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as being noted for its mission/Spanish revival architecture.
  • Santa Barbara Mission Neighborhood. A half dozen or so mission-style homes can be found in the area around the Santa Barbara Mission.

Practically Speaking: Hassles and Headaches

Care of these historic homes starts with maintaining the exterior walls and roofs.

“Problems with water leakage or deterioration of the stucco are common,” Breisch says. “A tile roof might be subject to leakage where different elements of the roof come together. Stucco deteriorates because of the weather and tends to crack with age. Inside, homes of this era might need new plumbing and electrical wiring.”

Homes reflected the fine craftsmanship and woodwork of the era, with decorative balustrades and hardwood floors, which may need to have finishes stripped and replaced to eliminate blemishes.

“There weren’t that many mission style homes constructed to begin with because they were competing with a lot of other styles,” Breisch says. “A lot were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and they’ve disappeared over time.”

All the more reason to take extra good care of those that remain.

Next Up

Mediterranean Architecture

Known for tiled roofs and stucco finishes, Mediterranean-style homes are frequently found in states with warm climates and Spanish histories.

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