Where Did California's "Spanish" Architecture Come From?


Mission San Carlos Boromeo, Monterey

Craig Chalquist, PhD


Plymouth Rock was a state of mind. So were the California Missions.
-- Charles Fletcher Lummis, writer and real estate booster


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:

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