Spanish-Colonial Architecture in the United States

Spanish-Colonial Architecture in the United States

by Rexford Newcomb

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A classic work by a distinguished architectural historian, tracing Spanish architectural influence in Florida, the Gulf Coast, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California in text illustrated by 195 photographs and 50 measured drawings. Among the sites explored: St. Augustine, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Tucson, San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano, and Carmel.


A classic work by a distinguished architectural historian, tracing Spanish architectural influence in Florida, the Gulf Coast, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California in text illustrated by 195 photographs and 50 measured drawings. Among the sites explored: St. Augustine, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Tucson, San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano, and Carmel.

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Spanish-Colonial Architecture in the United States


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1990 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15739-9


Historical Note

Of colonial architecture the territory now comprising the United States had two sorts, the English Colonial of the Atlantic Coast and the Spanish Colonial of the Gulf States and Southwest. Volumes have been written concerning our interesting and beautiful English-Colonial architecture but comparatively little has been said of that other, and just as important, architectural expression which grew up in that vast territory, now within the United States, that was once ruled by the proud monarchs of Old Spain.

This territory may be said to have extended from the present Mexican boundary northward including that part of the present California south of Sonoma, all of Arizona and New Mexico, most of Florida and Texas, and portions of the Gulf States. Indeed we should remember that at one time the Spanish domain in what is now the United States was conceived as embracing all that trackless area west of the Mississipi, and that the intrepid Coronado, as early as 1541, penetrated this region to a point nearly as far north as the present southern boundary of Nebraska. However, the geographical extent of actual Spanish occupation is embraced by the American states already named.

Spanish conquest of North America began with the subjugation of Mexico in 1519 at which time the great Aztec chieftain, Montezuma, and his followers were defeated by Cortez. No sooner were Spanish arms victorious in New Spain than the subjugation of the heathen for Christ and the Cross was begun. In fact missionary efforts in the New World date from the Bull of May 3, 1493, when Alexander VI directed their Catholic majesties to send to America "worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled, and experienced men in order to instruct the inhabitants in the Catholic faith."

Even before Cortez' conquest of Mexico we hear of the arrival in Hispañla of a band of Dominicans (1510). Soon also the Franciscans reached Mexico and by 1535, the records contain the names of over one hundred friars of these orders. The documents of the time, many of which are preserved, indicate the wide part which these friars took in the exploration as well as the Christianization of New Spain.

Up to 1590 the Franciscans and the Dominicans were the principal missionary agents, but during that year the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), founded in 1539, entered the Mexican missionary field. Within ten years this zealous band had not only made a place for itself in the religious endeavors of the New World but had established eight mission churches in northern Mexico, which number was, by 1644, increased to some thirty-five establishments, principally in Sinaloa and Sonora.

In 1681 Padre Eusebio Francisco) Kino came to Mexico as royal cosmographer. Soon, however, his Jesuitic zeal manifested itself in a desire to take the field as a missionary and he was allowed to take up work in northern Mexico and southern Arizona where he labored along the Pima Indians. It was he who established the Pius Fund of the Californias, a fund which, contributed to by wealthy Spaniards and Mexicans, made possible the support of the mission padres who later went to Baja California (the peninsula), and to Alta California (the present American state). Kino was the actual founder of the missions of Baja California, establishing the first church in the peninsula at Loreto in October, 1697. His zeal later carried him to Arizona where he established Mission San Xavier del Bac in May, 1700.

The Jesuits labored diligently in Baja California and by 1735 the mission system in this Sterile peninsula was upon a firm financial basis. Dissatisfaction with the Jesuits in Mexico and indeed throughout all Spanish domain was gathering, however, and in 1767, the storm broke with the result that all members of this order were expelled from Spanish territory,

It was just at this time that the viceroys of Mexico were interested in the occupation of what is now our American California. Thus, the Jesuit missions in Baja California were first turned over to the administration of the Franciscans, who by this time were doing excellent missionary duty in northern Mexico and Texas. The Franciscans took charge of the peninsular churches in July, 1768, but since this order proposed also to take up the Christianization of Alta California the crown ordered a division of labors. The result was that the Franciscans were given a free rein in all of California north of San Diego Bay, while the old Jesuit missions of the peninsula to the south were turned over to the Dominicans (April, 1770).

Thus in July, 1769, Padre Junípero Serra began the establishment of that chain of mission churches that, until secularization in 1834-35, was to be the backbone of Spanish-Mexican civilization in California and the principal colonizing agency for most of that time. This chain which embraced at first the territory between San Diego and Monterey was extended to San Francisco Bay by 1776, and to Sonoma by 1823.

As a result of Jesuit expulsion, the establishments in Arizona, of which there were several, amongst them San Gabriel de Guevavi (1692), San José de Tumacácori (1697), San Cayetano de Calabasas (1694), Santa Gertrudes de Tubac and San Xavier del Bac (1700), were also transferred to the care of the Franciscans. So fervent was the Franciscan zeal that, by 1776, the friars of that order had in hand a virile missionary movement in what is now Arizona, the chief missionary centres of which were the old Jesuit posts of Guevavi, now renamed Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi, and San Xavier del Bac. The great church of San Xavier, so much admired, was not erected until 1797 and is thus of Franciscan rather than Jesuitic design.

In addition to these establishments in southern Arizona, which may be considered as the most northernly of a chain reaching up through Sonora, there were early Jesuit missions among the Zuñis of northern Arizona. Nothing of architectural interest attaches to these latter, however, and for our purpose they are negligible.

The Franciscan fathers were in New Mexico very early, establishing a post near San Juan de los Caballeros, thirty-one miles north of Santa Fé, in 1598 or fully one hundred and seventy years before the first establishment in California. No remnant of this early church remains although it was replaced by the mission in the Pueblo of San Juan. Other churches were established in rapid succession, an early one at Santa Fé in 1607. This was the old church of San Miguel, still in use, for which the earlier date of 1541, is often claimed. We are told that Padre Alonzo de Benavides began a church at Santa Fé in 1626 (this was probably the church of San Francisco now replaced by the cathedral) and that, by the end of the century, the town boasted two others, Out Lady of Guadalupe (1640) and the Capilla Rosario (Chapel of the Rotary (1692), The Church of Our Lady of Light was not erected until 1785.

Many of the mission churches in New Mexico have fallen into ruin but excellent work is being done by public-spirited organizations working for the preservation of these interesting and worthy remainders of Spanish occupation. That New Mexico was under the banner of Old Spain longer (nearly three centuries) than she has been enrolled among the company of American states, should serve to emphasize the importance of preserving for future generation this long and colorful past.

Because of the influence of the primitive structural forms, developed by the pueblo (town-dwelling) Indians, long before the appearance of the Spaniards, the Spanish-Colonial architecture of New Mexico was of a very different character from that developed in other states. It may be said to be almost equably Indian and Spanish, Spanish in plan, form and idea; Indian in methods of construction and detail As a result it has a quint, barbaric interest not to be matched elsewhere, This original and distinctive local variant, now often called the Santa Fé School, is being utilized to the full in the construction of modern buildings in this unique and interesting capital,

In Texas the Franciscans were also laboring. By 1621 they appear to have established a post on Matagorda Bay, known as Our Lady of Loreto. But Franciscan activity in Texas dates principally from the early eighteenth century, the first third of which saw the establishment of something like a dozen missions, five of which, San Antonio de Valero (Alamo), San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, San Francisco de la Espada, and San Juan de Capistrano were in the vicinity of the present city of San Antonio.

From the facts set forth above it will be seen that the architectural expression connected with the mission movement was almost completely due to Franciscan religious zeal and managerial ability.

The Franciscan scheme of Christianization looked forward to making of the Indian a true child of the Church, a loyal subject of the King of Spain, and a God-fearing, self-respecting and self-supporting citizen. The mission program was administered to bring about these results. Such a program called for the following structures conveniently arranged, readily administrable, and easily defended: a church, a house for the padres, shops for the various crafts and trades taught to the Indians, store houses, a kitchen, a dining-room, a guard room for the small military escort, a cemetery, a hospital, quarters for young women, young men, and domestics, barns, corrals and other farm structures, and a village for the Indian families. In some of the desert sections, to be sure, agriculture was not so widely practiced as in California, thus the building program varied somewhat.

As a usual thing the buildings were arranged around a courtyard (patio) flanked by arcaded, cloister-like walks which thus afforded communication between the buildings. The church and cemetery were usually at the side of the patio and thus a little removed from the busy centre of communal activity.

Two padres were usually appointed to each mission, one in charge of spiritual matters, the other in charge of temporal affairs. They taught the Indians Christian doctrine, the Scriptures, some Spanish, singing (to the more alert) and one or another of the simple crafts or trades such as carpentry, shoemaking, basketry, pottery, stock raising, butchering, fruit growing, and the various branches of agriculture. Often a soldier of the guard could assist in the teaching and in some cases was compensated by the government for his trouble. By a judicious administration of the great landed estates which they preëmpted and a careful husbanding of their resources, often large temporal fortunes were built up by the missions.

The daily routine of course varied somewhat with the different localities, but was about as follows. The day opened with the Angelus at sunrise which called the Indians to assemble in the chapel where they were required to attend morning prayers and mass, and where they received religious instruction. After mass, breakfast was served, following which each went to his work. At eleven o'clock dinner was eaten and this was followed by a siesta which lasted until 2 P. M. Work was then resumed and continued until an hour before sunset, when the Angelus recalled all to worship in the church. After prayers and rosary, supper was eaten and the time from then on until nine o'clock was devoted to recreation.

The young men and young women lived at the mission proper, the young women being under the care of a trusted Indian matron who was responsible for their welfare and their training in the crafts. The dormitory which they occupied was known asmonjeria or convento. Here the girl lived until she had been wooed and won by an Indian youth and they had indicated their intention of marriage. After marriage the couple settled down in a hut in the Indian village near by. Courtship took place through the barred windows of the convento after the fashion of courtships in Mexico and Spain. While temporal activities varied with the districts, many of the missions made substantial progress with agriculture and fruit growing and devised irrigation works, water-supply systems and, in some cases, grist and saw mills.


The Spanish Architectural Tradition

The Spanish-Colonial architecture of the Southwest, while it was thoroughly expressive of the pioneer life and setting which gave it birth, was nevertheless the result of a long heredity which influenced it and colored its expression. That heredity is traceable back through Mexico to the mother country, Spain.

But Spanish architecture itself had had a vari-colored heredity. Spain was originally inhabited by the Iberians who were doubtless a division of a great early Mediterranean race. Into Spain eventually came the Romans who, when their power waned, were succeeded by the Visi-goths. In the early eighth century the Visi-goths were conquered by the Moors and the Moors were eventually driven out, after seven hundred years of occupation, as the result of an expansive movement of the successors of these very Visi-goths whom they had driven northward into the Pyrenees in 711.

Thus we may see that Spanish blood, Spanish institutions and consequently Spanish architecture was of necessity cosmopolitan. But the primitive Iberians were not great architects; therefore the real beginnings of architecture in Spain may be said to date from the period of Roman domination. The Moors contributed a certain oriental quality, many effects of which are to be detected in the provincial expressions of Texas, Arizona and California.

Whereas Spanish art after the success of Christian arms was affected by all the vogues that swept western Europe, the impress of the Romanesque and Gothic, as such, is not to be sensed in any large measure in Spanish-Colonial architecture. However that repoussé-like quality of the decoration of the Plateresque period, which indeed was predicated upon the intricacies of Spanish Gothic decoration, was the forerunner of the unrestrained and over decorative Churrigueresque style, that fanciful and unstructural mood of the Renaissance in Spain, the influence of which is most surely felt in much of the architecture of the Spanish colonies. In this sense the influence of the Spanish Gothic was passed on to Mexico and our own Southwest. In Mexico, as in Spain, the flying buttress expressed in classic dress is often seen and indeed in the buttresses of Mission San Xavier de Bac (Arizona) we note a reminiscence of the Gothic of Old Spain as surely as in the pointed arches of Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo near San Antonio (Texas) or in the vaulted baptistry of Mission San Carlos Borromeo (Carmel), California.

But we must recall that the early Plateresque of Spain (1500—1556), with its Gothic-Moresque intricacies of detail, was followed by a classic reaction led by Herrera, who exemplified in such structures as the Escorial, his creed of the classic. The belated reflection of this classic reaction which lasted in Spain up to 1650 is to be seen in the sober Doric details of many a Spanish-Colonial church of New Spain, as at the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) Montererey, and Mission Santa Barbara, California.

The Churrigueresque, that most decorative and unarchitectural of all Renaissance styles—the Baroque of Spain—was in vogue when much of the Spanish-Colonial architecture of Mexico was being erected. However, a second return to classic purity which dominated Spanish architecture during the latter half of the eighteenth century, accounts for the chastened character of many a provincial church in the Spanish colonies.

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they began, naturally, to build in the fashion of their home land. Prescott tells us that after the ancient Aztec city of Montezuma had been razed, a new city was built upon the site. The Spaniards appropriated few, if any, of the ancient Aztec forms although, through the employment of native labor, a certain barbaric splendor eventually made itself felt in Mexican architecture. And indeed a measure of this filtered through to the outlying provincial churches of our own Southwest.

The priests, who were in most cases the builders, had not received the necessary professional training to make them good architects and in attempting to raise to the Glory of God houses of worship in the wilderness they fell into many difficulties, difficulties which we should criticize with the utmost charity. The Texan and Arizonan churches, being in lands more or less accessible from Mexico, were built in a style closely resembling the great churches of Mexico where professional architects, some of them sent from Spain, executed the work. In these two Colonial expressions we find the same attempt at magnificance and grandeur, the same over-decorated facades, the same bare walls. The Texan and Arizonan churches have a certain oriental atmosphere due to the use of domes, and a visit to San Xavier del Bac is like a voyage to some enchanged land of the Moslems, so oriental is its architecture. The churches of these states are more elaborate, both in outline and in decoration, than those of either New Mexico or California. But we have to remember that in the case of San José y San Miguel de Aguayo near San Antonio, a sculptor was sent from Mexico to execute the carving.


Excerpted from Spanish-Colonial Architecture in the United States by REXFORD NEWCOMB. Copyright © 1990 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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