The architecture we call Spanish Colonial Revival is a twentieth century expression of a style of building that extends back two thousand years. Since the turn of the century, wealthy patrons have built magnificent Spanish Colonial Revival houses throughout the country, but the style is particularly suited to hot, sunny areas like Arizona. The most prominent and beautiful example in Phoenix is the Wrigley Mansion (now the Mansion Club) adjacent to the Arizona Biltmore.
In order to fully understand the Spanish Colonial Revival, you must turn to the colonial architecture of Mexico and that of its cultural mother country, Spain. Although there are native influences and contextual considerations, the primary style derives from Spain, delayed slightly by the distance. As the Spanish style is a complicated blend, the history of the Iberian Peninsula must first be considered.
Roman culture forms the foundation on which the Spanish civilization was built. Excellent builders, the Romans contributed the use of arch-and-pier systems of construction, the use of cemented masonry walls, and many of the classical details and decorations. The work was of such a durability that many of those structures are still in use today.
From the fall of the Roman Empire to the early years of the eighth century, Iberian architecture evolved very little and little building was done. Then, with the conquest by the Moors, and the rise of the Moslem dynasties, architecture again began to change and develop under their intellectually liberal rule. By the twelfth century, Cordoba had become the greatest intellectual center of Europe. More decorators than engineers, Moorish buildings were structurally conservative, but profusely ornamented. The underlying structure was not emphasized. Decorations were lavishly applied to the interiors, but the exterior walls were left plain except immediately around the entrance and window openings. The use of stucco wall finishes was common with the Moors and they introduced arches and domes of Byzantine influence, with decorative motifs derived from Persia and Syria.
Architecture received a new impetus during and after the Reconquista, the Spanish expulsion of the Moors. Gothic structures with Moorish influences developed into the Gothic-Mooresque style, a fanciful and florid style with the structural balance of the High European Gothic. With the discovery of the New World and its wealth, Spain entered a period of ascendency in Europe that was to last for over one hundred years, encompassing the Renaissance. The Renaissance styles of Italy and Central Europe combined with the Gothic-Mooresque and evolved into the uniquely Spanish style called Plateresque. Plateresque, meaning “silversmith-like,” was characterized by broad surface decorations around doors and windows, elaborate pilasters, broken pediments and entablatures. The most prominent surviving examples of this style in Mexico are churches, and in Spain, both churches and various other buildings survive.
By the late sixteenth century, the Baroque style (actually a revival) dominated architecture. While some aspects of the Baroque were more restrained, more elaborate use of columns, free-standing and engaged, twisted and storied became common.
By the early eighteenth century, Spanish architecture again developed a unique character, growing from Baroque into a style seen nowhere else called Churrigueresque. Named for its originator, José Benito de Churriguera, the style explodes with decoration, with sculpture used as an integral part of the building. There are many surviving examples of this style in the Southwest, one of the finest being the Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson.
From this succession of styles that were transplanted to Mexico, a regional vernacular developed. Suited to the conditions of the New World, particularly the climate and the qualities of the materials and skilled labor available. The style, truly local, and rich in detail and decorated surfaces, displays strong contrasts between decoration and broad expanses of plain stucco. Since the decoration was, of necessity, done by local artisans, it did not necessarily meet European artistic standards, but it was far less formalistic, free from restraint. After Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, architecture continued to follow the general mode of Spanish and French practice, but in more Mexican way. Into the twentieth century, the United States grew quickly, and construction of all kinds flourished. In search of “style,” many period revivals emerged. Some, like Mission Revival, combined free adaptions of basically Spanish styles with English and Georgian elements, borrowing from Craftsman and Prairie style as well.
It was not until 1915, at the Panama-California Exposition, that the Spanish Colonial style began to receive wide attention. The grounds of the Exposition were designed by Bertram Goodhue, an authority on Spanish Colonial architecture, who sought to move beyond the then current mission interpretations. He emphasized the richness of the Spanish precedents throughout Latin America so well that soon, fashionable architects looked directly to Spain for source material.
The style reached its apex during the 1920's and was transplanted throughout the entire country. Naturally, Spanish Colonial Revival is most common in the states where Spanish builders once worked – California, Arizona, Florida and Texas. Landmark houses as well as entire communities were built in Florida and Southern California in the 1920's. Probably the most elaborate example ever built was William Hearst’s San Simeon on Central Coast of California.
Spanish Colonial Revival borrows from the entire history of Spanish architecture. The building is masonry with smooth stucco finish and the roofs are red clay tile. Doors are usually emphasized by adjacent spiral columns, pilasters or carved stonework. Arches over doors, windows and in arch-and-pier wall systems are common. Doors are heavy carved wood at entry and glass at the patio. Windows are often set in pairs and triplets and have small panes of glass. Other typical details include decorative ironwork, fountains, and arcaded walkways or patios.
Everything that ever gave the style its appeal applies today. The massed floorplans, with combinations of hipped and gabled roofs mimicking the form of a Spanish village, easily accommodate the many spatial needs of the modern homeowner. The orientation towards a central patio offers large, comfortable, outdoor areas which are accessible and useable. The materials, masonry with stucco, carved stone and red clay tile withstand hot sun and last virtually forever. Finally, with a long and colorful history in the region, the style possesses both a beauty that will last a lifetime and affinity for the place that a transplanted style never achieves.
William A. Clark
Paradise Valley, Arizona
McAlester, Virginia and Lee. A Field Guide To American Houses. Knopf, 1989, New York.
Foley, Mary Mix. The American House. Harper & Row, 1980, New York.
Langer, William. World History. Houghton-Mifflin, 1952, Boston.
Woodward, Arthur. The Missions of Northern Sonora. U of A Press, Tucson, 1993
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