Owed to Spain

Exploring the substantial imprint of another colonial culture on American building

By R. Brooks Jeffery

Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo: Spanish Architecture and Urbanism in the United States

By James Early

Southern Methodist University Press, $29.95

Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo: Spanish Architecture and Urbanism in the United States

In 1883, on the 333rd anniversary celebration of the founding of Santa Fe, N.M., Walt Whitman wrote in a letter to its organizers,

We [Americans] tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion'd from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake. … As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate [its] splendor and sterling value.

This letter's underlying message of unrecognized influence runs like a thread through James Early's long-overdue compendium on Spanish colonial architecture and planning in the United States. An extension of Early's previous publication, The Colonial Architecture of Mexico, the book concentrates on the built environment in the most northern reaches of New Spain—including the current states of Florida, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—from the 16th to the 19th centuries. There, distance from the administrative center of Mexico City and the unique qualities of the native societies shaped architecture and urban development through three frontier institutions—mission, presidio, and pueblo—that were manifestations of the colonial goals of conversion, protection, and civilization.

Missions, often the first and most provocative building type of this colonial presence, are also the most enduring. Although the religious typology of mission architecture varied but slightly from Florida to California, the building materials, construction methods, and stylistic vocabulary changed greatly from place to place, adapting to local climate, materials, and expertise. This contrast is seen even between New Mexico, with hall churches constructed of adobe walls and wood-beamed roofs, and neighboring Arizona, whose San Xavier del Bac has a cruciform plan, fired brick walls, and a shallow, domed brick roof. One lasting legacy of the missions, starting in the late 19th century, was a revival of Spanish colonial architecture in these (and other) regions by the successor Anglo-Americans. Especially popular was the mission style, which—to match the expectations of tourists and new residents—translated the vocabulary of religious references into an architectural palette that romanticized the past. (These revival styles, of course, are now treasured as historic themselves.)

Presidios were garrisons that protected ports and the interior edges of New Spain's expansion against foreign and native incursions. There were two types: massive stone coastal fortifications in places like St. Augustine, New Orleans, San Diego, and San Francisco, and inland posts scattered through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. So vast was the territory claimed, from the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest, that the system of inland presidios had to be moved southward, beginning in 1781, to concentrate defense in areas actually settled by Spanish citizens. Set at approximately 120-mile intervals, these later inland examples, in contrast to earlier, less permanent (and less successful) presidios, were built of adobe bricks and anchored with corner bastions; they matched their coastal counterparts as true fortifications.

Pueblo, or "town," refers to the Spanish town-planning model based on a 1573 set of royal ordinances, commonly referred to as the Laws of the Indies, that governed the settlement of the Spanish dominions. These principles reflected the Roman model of an urban grid and defined the major features of a town: the plaza at the center, public and religious buildings surrounding it, and streets with private residences radiating from there. Although not so complete as in some towns of Latin America, those urban elements can still be seen in U.S. cities from Los Angeles and Tucson to Santa Fe and St. Augustine.

Early introduces those colonial institutions—as well as their social, cultural, political, and economic context—succinctly in the first chapter. This provides a historical setting for subsequent chapters devoted to each of the six states, in which he consolidates the existing English-language literature on their churches, fortifications, plazas, civic buildings, and private dwellings. Early is not a professional architectural historian, so scholars in the field may be annoyed by some deficiencies, including the omission of Tucson's Barrio Historico district of Spanish colonial urban building types, and inaccuracies, such as translating Camino Real as "highway" instead of the more literal and fitting "royal road" between Mexico City and the north. Even the most general reader will be disappointed by the lack of an overall map as a guide to locating the buildings and comprehending the geochronological development of Spanish colonialism. Early does, however, synthesize a broad range of material in a way that is both thorough and readable.

He also provides a corrective—in effect an amen and follow-up to Whitman's reproach. For too many years, when one spoke of "colonial" architecture in the United States, it was assumed that the reference was to the 13 colonies and the English building traditions planted there. With Early's book, our lens is now enlarged to encompass the Spanish brands of architecture and city building—a colonial imprint on the South and West that has had a profound influence on their history and on the way we look at those regions today.

R. Brooks Jeffery is coordinator of preservation studies at the University of Arizona and coauthor of A Guide to Tucson Architecture.