Architecture: Spanish Borderlands

views updated

Architecture: Spanish Borderlands

Spanish architecture within the boundaries of the early-twenty-first-century United States began as early as 1526 with the settlement of San Miguel de Guadalupe on the coast of Georgia, and Hispanic methods of construction continued after the American capture of New Mexico and California from Mexico in 1846. Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Antonio and St. Augustine retained their Hispanic appearances into the 1860s.

In the Spanish borderlands the earliest constructions were frameworks of poles interwoven with horizontal and vertical sticks, vines, and twigs plastered with clayey mud and roofed with woven thatch. In moist, wooded areas, framed buildings covered with planks came next. In dry areas construction with sun-dried adobe bricks was normal. Ultimately, many buildings of fired brick and stone were erected, vaulted in the most ambitious churches and fortifications.

Spanish Florida, after the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565, extended through Georgia and

South Carolina and even further north into Virginia. It was the area of North America where Spain expended the greatest effort, resources, and people. But there is only archaeological or written evidence for the existence of 128 sites where missionary activity took place. In Florida the use of concrete for roofs began early, and stone was used in the construction, beginning in 1671, of the very substantial fortification, the Castillo de San Marcos at St. Augustine. Stone was also used in the eighteenth century for the thirty-six surviving houses there.

Spanish towns were planned systematically according to the Ordinances of Settlement, but only St. Augustine grew into an ordered, rectangular grid surrounding a central plaza. Other settlements such as Santa Fe, San Antonio, and Los Angeles were carefully laid out initially but developed slowly in loose and disorderly ways.

More Hispanic structures survive in New Mexico than in any other American area. At least thirty churches were in use in Indian pueblos before the Spanish were driven from most of the territory in the revolt of 1680, and in 2005 seventeen are still in use. Twenty churches remain from the Spanish and Mexican periods which served mixed populations living in Santa Fe and other New Mexican communities. More than fifteen hundred difficult land miles from Mexico City, the friars and secular New Mexicans adopted the Pueblo Indians' materials and construction techniques for their churches and houses and for the civic buildings of the towns. In contrast, the most significant structures in Florida were designed and built under the direction of military engineers, who were generally available in the Caribbean area.

In Spanish Texas, which contained thirty-seven missions, eleven presidios, and at least half-a-dozen towns, the friars hired master masons from Mexico to design and direct the construction of a modest number of vaulted and domed churches. Notable among these in the San Antonio area are Purísima Concepción, which retains its original vaults and dome, and San José, with its flowing baroque frontispiece.

Masons were also essential in the building in Arizona of San Xavier del Bac, south of Tucson, and the church at Tumacácori. San Xavier del Bac is the best-preserved Spanish church in the United States and has a dazzlingly ornate interior that was restored in the 1990s.

Buildings constructed when Spain controlled Louisiana from 1763 to 1800 are major monuments of the French Quarter in New Orleans, where the Spanish took over an urban layout similar to that prescribed in their Ordinances of Settlement. The cathedral facing the plaza later named Jackson Square has been enlarged and drastically altered, but the flanking structures—the Cabildo and the Presbytère—remain as designed by Gilberto Guillemard, a soldier engineer, although both structures were disfigured by the addition of a dormered third story in 1847.

In California twelve mission churches (out of twenty-one) and two chapels survive, most of them heavily restored. Examples of adobe-walled houses remain in San Diego, in the Los Angeles area, and in Santa Barbara, although they were later roofed with tiles instead of the tar normal for California houses in Hispanic times. The construction of major churches was directed by masons from Mexico. San Carlos in Carmel, San Gabriel near Los Angeles, and the stone church of Mission San Juan Capistrano, the latter substantially destroyed by an earthquake and further damaged by would-be restorers, were vaulted. Ultimately, vaulting was abandoned in California because of the danger of earthquakes. Notable later churches, such as the restored stone church at Santa Barbara and the church at Mission San Luis Rey, both designed by masons, were timber-roofed, San Luis Rey with an internal timber dome.

The building remaining from the nearly three hundred years of Spanish occupation of much of the United States is impressive. It provides a rich heritage at least comparable to what survives from the briefer English colonial period.

See alsoArchitecture: Religious; Forts and Fortifications; New Spain; Religion: Spanish Borderlands; Spanish Borderlands; Spanish Empire .


Early, James. Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo: Spanish Architecture and Urbanism in the United States. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 2004.

Gordon, Elsbeth. Florida's Colonial Architectural Heritage. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

James Early

About this article

Architecture: Spanish Borderlands

Updated About content Print Article