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Just as the mission system had reached its zenith early in the 19th Century, the course of history would take a series of turns that would, within a span of merely 50 years or so, diminish more than two centuries of Spanish/Mexican influence on the landscape of the U.S. Southwest. In the 1820s, the nations of Spanish America finally achieved their independence from Spain. It happened in Mexico in 1821, some three centuries after Cortés had conquered the region for mother Spain. Only 25 years later, the northern provinces of Mexico, including the territory of Upper California, were lost to the United States following the war and subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The U.S.-Mexico boundary was drawn, and thousands of Mexicans living in what had become the United States were forced to change their citizenship. Waves of Anglo settlers flocked into the Southwest — cattlers, miners, farmers, bankers, newspapermen, speculators, and drifters. As they flowed across the deserts and settled into the most promising places, they would come into direct contact and confrontation with the Mexican settlers who had occupied these lands, however sparsely, for centuries. The “Californios,” as the Mexican settlers would be called, soon saw their land taken away, their wealth lost in a newly forming Anglo economy, and their political power decline, as their numbers were weakened by a growing majority of new Anglo voters. The decline of the Californio population of the mid-1800s is one of the least told stories of the changing cultural landscape of the 19th Century in California. As the Californios lapsed into economic and social isolation, the architectural legacies of their era — the missions and the adobe presidio towns — would also fall into decay.

The Myth of Spanish-Mexican Heritage

  • The missions are worth more money, are a greater asset to Southern California, than our oil, our oranges, or even our climate.
  • — Charles Fletcher Lummis

To speak of architecture in San Diego and the southwestern United States in the late 19th Century is to recognize that this was still a relatively remote frontier, no longer the northern outpost of one nation but now the western outpost of another. New technologies were rapidly arriving and changing the nature of places: railroads, irrigation systems, and mining infrastructure. The scale of settlement was still small, by East Coast standards. But gradually, Anglo populations were overshadowing Mexican ones in most of the important settlement areas. By the 1870s and 1880s, in California, what had once been a territory of small Indian communities and Spanish mission settlements along the coast was gradually being transformed into a booming region of farms, cattle ranches, small industry, ports, and trade.

The memory of Spain and Mexico was rapidly fading. The demise of the Californios unfolded in only a few decades. The Californios had set the tone for culture in California — music, art, language, and architecture were all infused with a good deal of Spanish influence. The Californios lived either on rural ranchos built of solid adobe, styled after the Spanish colonial homes and haciendas of Mexico, or in adobe mansions in the towns created by the missionaries along California’s coast. But the arrival of Anglos in the middle of the 19th Century meant not only that new economies — railroading, commercial farming, mining, shipping — would populate the southwestern landscape but also that new forms of building would alter it.

The Anglo population brought its “East Coast” ideas about architecture and building to the southwestern desert territories, including California. In the late 19th Century, a great deal of building was done with wood. Except for ceiling beams and door and window treatments, neither the indigenous populations of the Southwest nor the Spanish colonial and Mexican populations built extensively with wood. So when Anglos began to populate the towns of California and other southwestern regions after 1850, wood-slat commercial and residential buildings began to dominate the new townscapes, and not always with favorable results. In desert cities from El Centro to Phoenix, in the 1880s, the poorest immigrants from Sonora, Mexico, were living in modest adobe structures that stayed relatively cool in the hot desert heat. Meanwhile, the wealthier new arrivals, just off the train from the East Coast, built giant wooden Queen Anne mansions with high ceilings, towers with cupolas and turrets, and wraparound porches. The rich even tried building double roofs to counteract the summer heat, but the wooden houses remained uncomfortable during the summers.

While the Anglo-European immigrants from the eastern United States began building their wooden cities, the remnants of Spanish colonial building were falling into disarray. Missions had been abandoned and within a few decades were overrun with wild vegetation, while the doors and windows, and even some adobe walls, were all decaying. It is said that Anglos occasionally used the missions for nostalgic picnics, a social event on the ruins of some unknown past.

Anglos arriving in California in the 1890s viewed the adobe structures they associated with Mexicans as not very practical. The structures had been built with a technology (mud and straw bricks dried in the sun) they considered primitive. This was the 1890s, after all, a time of prosperity and new industrial machinery, milled lumber, nails, and glass. The early Americans looked at the old missions and saw them as primitive and not worthy of imitation. A U.S. architecture historian once wrote: “For all of their religious significance and romantic connotations, the Franciscan missions are of only limited importance to a social history of California architecture.”

The 1880s marked the beginning of a period of rapid economic growth in California. There was a land boom on, and everywhere there was new railroad construction, new towns, land speculation, and growth. Many speculators, investors, promoters, and wheeler-dealers came from the East Coast and Midwest to join in the boom. What was needed was a bit of “myth making and literary invention.” Thus would be born the “mission myth.”

Charles Fletcher Lummis would carry the flag of the mission myth during its early phase. Born in Ohio, Lummis moved to Los Angeles in 1884 to begin working as an editor at the Los Angeles Times. In a few short years, he became enamored of the Spanish past and its architecture. He formed the Association for Preservation of the Missions in 1892 and the Landmark Club in 1895. He believed that the mission legacy was fundamental to the growth and future well-being of California. Meanwhile, all around him Anglo wooden housing, particularly Queen Anne and Craftsman styles, was leading the way as boomtowns were constructed.

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