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The Old Franciscan Missions Of California By George Wharton James Characters: 6355

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The question is often asked: Is there a Mission architecture? It is not my intention here to discuss this question in extenso, but merely to answer it by asking another and then making an affirmation. What is it that constitutes a style in architecture? It cannot be that every separate style must show different and distinct features from every other style. It is not enough that in each style there are specific features that, when combined, form an appropriate and harmonious relationship that distinguishes it from every other combination.

As a rule, the Missions were built in the form of a hollow square: the church representing the fachada, with the priests' quarters and the houses for the Indians forming the wings. These quarters were generally colonnaded or cloistered, with a series of semicircular arches, and roofed with red tiles. In the interior was the patio or court, which often contained a fountain and a garden. Upon this patio opened all the apartments: those of the fathers and of the majordomo, and the guest-rooms, as well as the workshops, schoolrooms and storehouses.

One of the strongest features of this style, and one that has had a wide influence upon our modern architecture, is the stepped and curved sides of the pediment.

This is found at San Luis Rey, San Gabriel, San Antonio de Padua, Santa Inés, and at other places. At San Luis Rey, it is the dominant feature of the extension wall to the right of the fachada of the main building.

On this San Luis pediment occurs a lantern which architects regard as misplaced. Yet the fathers' motive for its presence is clear: that is, the uplifting of the Sign whereby the Indians could alone find salvation.

Another means of uplifting the cross was found in the domes--practically all of which were terraced--on the summits of which the lantern and cross were placed.

The careful observer may note another distinctive feature which was seldom absent from the Mission domes. This is the series of steps at each "corner" of the half-dome. Several eminent architects have told me that the purpose of these steps is unknown, but to my simple lay mind it is evident that they were placed there purposely by the clerical architects to afford easy access to the surmounting cross; so that any accident to this sacred symbol could be speedily remedied. It must be remembered that the fathers were skilled in reading some phases of the Indian mind. The knew that an accident to the Cross might work a complete revolution in the minds of the superstitious Indians whose conversion they sought. Hence common, practical sense demanded speedy and easy access to the cross in case such emergency arose.

It will also be noticed that throughout the whole chain of Missions the walls, piers and buttresses are exceedingly solid and massive, reaching even to six, eight, ten and more feet in thickness. This was undoubtedly for the purpose of counteracting the shaking of the earthquakes, and the effectiveness of this method of building is evidenced by the fact that these old adobe structures still remain (even though some are in a shattered condition, owing to their long want of care) while

later and more pretentious buildings have fallen.

From these details, therefore, it is apparent that the chief features of the Mission style of architecture are found to be as follows:

1. Solid and massive walls, piers and buttresses.

2. Arched corridors.

3. Curved pedimented gables.

4. Terraced towers, surmounted by a lantern.

5. Pierced Campanile, either in tower or wall.

6. Broad, unbroken, mural masses.

7. Wide, overhanging eaves.

8. Long, low, sloping roofs covered with red clay tiles.

9. Patio, or inner court.

In studying carefully the whole chain of Missions in California I found that the only building that contains all these elements in harmonious combination is that of San Luis Rey. Hence it alone is to be regarded as the typical Mission structure, all the others failing in one or more essentials. Santa Barbara is spoiled as a pure piece of Mission architecture by the introduction of the Greek engaged columns in the fachada. San Juan Capistrano undoubtedly was a pure "type" structure, but in its present dilapidated condition it is almost impossible to determine its exact appearance.

San Antonio de Padua lacks the terraced towers and the pierced campanile. San Gabriel and Santa Inés also have no towers, though both have the pierced campanile. And so, on analysis, will all the Missions be found to be defective in one or more points and therefore not entitled to rank as "type" structures.

As an offshoot from the Mission style has come the now world-famed and popular California bungalow style, which appropriates to itself every architectural style and no-style known.

But California has also utilized to a remarkable degree in greater or lesser purity the distinctive features of the Mission style, as I have above enumerated them, in modern churches, hospitals, school-houses, railway depots, warehouses, private residences, court-houses, libraries, etc.


In modern Mission architecture.



Of greater importance, however, than the development of what I regard as a distinct style of architecture, is the development of the Mission spirit in architecture. Copying of past styles is never a proof of originality or power. The same spirit that led to the creation of the Mission Style,--the creative impulse, the originality, the vision, the free, imaginative power, the virility that desires expression and demands objective manifestation,--this was fostered by the Franciscan architects. This spirit is in the California atmosphere. A considerable number of architects have caught it. Without slavish adherence to any style, without copying anything, they are creating, expressing, even as did the Franciscan padres, beautiful thoughts in stone, brick, wood and reinforced concrete. In my magnum opus on Mission Architecture, which has long been in preparation, I hope clearly to present not only the full details of what the padres accomplished, but what these later creative artists, impelled by the same spirit, have given to the world.

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