Lummis’s dream to resurrect California’s mythical Spanish past was aided by a number of events and circumstances that swirled around him. In 1881 a writer and journalist from the East Coast, Helen Hunt Jackson, after touring the Spanish missions and ranches of California, wrote the novel Ramona, about a beautiful half-Indian, half-Mexican girl brought up on a hacienda near Los Angeles. The novel painted California’s Spanish-Mexican past in the most idyllic way and, as one observer has written, gave Southern California “a myth by which to know itself.” Ramona was one of the biggest-selling novels of its time, and it generated a new nostalgia and excitement about California’s “Spanish” past, a past that, in one observer’s words, “was more Spanish than Spain itself” — far more romantic in memory than it had been in reality. Communities named themselves after “Ramona” — we have one in San Diego County.
But California now had the possibility of an identity, grounded in a mystical, romantic past, and the boom of the 1880s and 1890s was as good a time as any to begin the search for some sort of Mediterranean tradition, particularly when it might also serve the function of enhancing real estate and business interests who were investing heavily in the growth of Southern California. Thus, when architect A. Page Brown designed the much-heralded Spanish-style California Building for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, many began speaking of a new form of architecture: California Mission Revival. It had four elements: an adobe look, missionlike parapets, bell tower, and arcades. As Mission Revival began to catch on in the 1890s, Charles Lummis continued his criticism of its competitors — wooden houses transplanted from the Midwest to Southern California.
Mission Revival fed off the “mission myth” that had been given impetus by Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. The mission myth portrayed California’s Spanish past as graceful, romantic, and idyllic, a land of friars and missions and well-fed ranchers. It made no mention of the larger reality of California’s Spanish-Mexican past: the brutality of forced Indian labor, racial tensions between Mexicans and Indians and, later, Anglos, or the record of lynchings and hostility toward the Mexicans during the 1850–1880 period of early Anglo immigration into the region. Not until as late as 1946 would any writer challenge that characterization with a crisp reconstruction of events that actually took place.
Mission Revival Versus Spanish Colonial Revival in San Diego
Thus was born Mission Revival architecture, which flourished in San Diego from 1891 to 1915 and was largely an ornamental style used for houses, railroad stations, museums, city halls, and schools. Roundly criticized for being merely decorative, early Mission Revival buildings often seemed trivial and out of context, and some critics have looked back on these buildings and found them repetitive and boring. One observer believed that “Mission Revival failed because it proved impossible to adapt the primitive architecture of a religious order to the commercial and worldly society of the late 19th Century.”
In 1915, the Panama-California Exposition was held in San Diego to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal (on which construction had begun in 1904) and the new connection between North and South America. San Diego, on the border with Mexico, was a logical place to hold such a fair. For architecture, this would prove to be an interesting moment in Southern California. Mission Revival architecture was on the wane, but the organizers of the Panama-California Exposition decided they wanted to design the Balboa Park setting for the exposition in a Spanish/Mediterranean flavor. Just as Mission Revival had gotten its impetus from A. Page Brown’s California Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, so would a new architectural style — Spanish Colonial Revival — get its first push from the designs of the principal architect for the Panama-California Exposition — Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Goodhue had designed buildings in Panama and Cuba and had written about Mexican architecture.
Many were surprised at Goodhue’s selection over Irving Gill, whose modern interpretations of Mission Revival had already seen the light of day in Southern California. Grosvenor Goodhue was committed to a much more European interpretation of “Spanish” architecture, and his buildings in Balboa Park reflected this “Spanish Colonial” theme. The highlight of the exposition design was the California Building (now the Museum of Man), a cathedral with stucco walls, arches, ironwork balconies, and ornate portals, thought to embody most of the elements of the so-called Churrigueresque school well represented in churches and government buildings in colonial Spain and Mexico.
Spanish Colonial Revival regenerated the continued search for a Spanish past in San Diego’s built landscape. Although for consumers Mission Revival had lost some of its mystique and attractiveness, developers, investors, and boosters had not lost their enthusiasm for the romanticism of a mythical Spanish-Mexican past. After 1915, all pretense of the connection with Mexico was cast aside, and the “fantasy” element was brought center stage. The idea was no longer to re-create the feeling of the missions that had come from Mexico, and that had actually been in California, but rather, the idea was to seek a Mediterranean, European, and, as many would come to call it, Andalusian (a region of southern Spain strongly influenced by the Moors) flavor in building styles. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s highly ornate, Churrigueresque buildings started the ball rolling. While the Panama-California Exposition had originally been planned as a temporary exhibit, the San Diego public became so attached to the buildings that funds were raised to convert many to a permanent status. So it is today that Balboa Park is a built landscape of Andalusian and Spanish Colonial structures.
San Diego was not the only place touched by the second wave of Spanish-style architecture in Southern California. Indeed, many towns became so attached to Spanish-style architecture in the second and third decades of the 20th Century that they put into place zoning legislation that prohibited all forms of building design other than Spanish-Mediterranean. The best-known examples are the communities of Santa Barbara, Ojai, Palos Verdes, San Clemente, and Rancho Santa Fe. The typical attitude of residents and builders is captured in the statement by the builders of San Clemente, who claimed to envision “happiness and prosperity in Spanish homes on the shores of the sundown sea.”