California Spanish Mission

Between 1769 and 1833, Franciscans missionaries, led by Friar Junípero Serra, established 21 settlements along the coastline of Alta California to spread the Catholic faith among the native people.

Spanish missionaries who moved into Alta California in the 18th century brought elements of their architecture with them. The influence of Spanish Baroque and Moorish architecture combined with native Pueblo/adobe construction methods. The resulting style was conducive to the climate while also supported by available local raw materials, resources and labor.

The lengthy building process had to be coordinated with required daily prayer, education, and tasks, such as tending to agriculture and livestock, required to sustain the settlement. A large central quadrangle with a fountain at its center would typically be surrounded by the living quarters, grain storage and thick adobe-brick wall. The church would sit at one end where religious conversion of the native people was the priority. Raising crops and livestock was also necessary for these self-sustaining communities.

California Mission style architecture then further developed between 1880 and 1930 when homes and public buildings were built as a tribute to the Spanish heritage of California. The style complemented the historic California missions built from San Diego to Sonoma along what became Highway 101.

Similar to Spanish Colonial (though simpler, less ornate) several Spanish Mission architectural elements characterize this style:

  • Tall, prominent bell towers (belfry)
  • Moorish revival cupola domes
  • Scalloped parapet facades
  • Rounded archways
  • Recessed windows and doors with wrought ironwork details
  • Church wall niches
  • Low roof lines of clay barrel tiles
  • Wide overhanging eaves that create archades, or covered walkways, surrounded by wood posts or thick plastered columns
  • Exposed dark wood construction elements—heavy ceiling beams with corbeled ends protruding through the walls and under the eaves; post-and-beam archades; and recessed headers over doors and windows
  • Original dirt floors were covered in the following materials, in order of their durability—adobe/clay, Roman cement, wood planks, clay tiles or stone

Plastered adobe (mud/straw mixture) and brick structures were ultimately built with low-pitched barrel-tile roofs. These curved clay tiles covered the original reed roofs and made the missions less vulnerable to attack and deterioration from wet weather. Clay for the barrel tiles was dried over logs, then laid in alternating directions so that water could drain off the roof, through the channels.

Photo examples from four of the 21 historic missions from South to North:

Mission San Juan Capistrano

  • Established November 1, 1776
  • By Fr. Junípero Serra
  • 7th of 21 California Missions
  • Natives: Acjachemen Nation

Mission San Luis Obispo

  • Established September 1, 1772
  • By Fr. José Cavaller
  • 5th of 21 California Missions
  • Natives: Chumash tribes

Mission Carmel

  • Established June 3, 1770
  • By Fr. Junípero Serra
  • 2nd of 21 California Missions
  • Natives: Ohlone-Esselen Nation

Mission Sonoma

  • Established June 3, 1770
  • By Fr. José Altimira
  • 21st (and last) of 21 California Missions
  • Natives: Coast Miwok, Pomo, Suisunes, Wappo and Patwin tribes

Leave a Reply