From Missions to “Modern Family”: Mexico’s Legacy in American Architecture

San Diego’s architects decide that, to celebrate itself, this American city would dress up as Mexico.

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

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It seems almost unthinkable now, but just over a century ago a fast-growing American city looked to Mexico for a model of how to brand itself.

In 1909, an ascendant San Diego began plans to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, an engineering triumph that signaled the United States’ political and technical dominance over the Western Hemisphere. The proposed Panama-California Exposition would announce San Diego on the global stage, hosting pavilions from around the world and introducing other nations to the closest American Pacific port to the new canal. Celebrated architects Bertram Goodhue and Irving Gill were called in to design the festival, which, in keeping with the fairgrounds of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, the Crystal Palace of the British Great Exhibition and the Eiffel Tower of Paris’s Exposition Universelle, would put a glamorous face to the growing city.

But what style would be fit for an ambitious American metropolis, one poised to be a base for the expansion of the American empire? Not Beaux-Arts classicism and all its connotations of the sleepy Old World, but something local, vital, a nod to the regal missions of California, the majestic plazas of towns from Tecate to Texas and the opulent cathedral of Mexico City. These architects decided that, to celebrate itself, this American city would dress up as Mexico.

Panama-California Exposition, San Diego, Calif.; via LA Times

While today many within America favor building a wall to separate the U.S. from its southern neighbor, at the time of the Exposition, San Diego and the rest of the American southwest were less than a century removed from its Mexican past. It was only in 1848 that Mexico surrendered an enormous swath of land to the U.S. and suddenly thousands of Mexicans, along with their culture and architecture, became American. The self-confident America of 1910 had manifested its destiny, had spanned a continent, had conquered the land itself, and it seemed to look to its southern neighbor as a source of friendly exoticism and a nonthreatening history that could be claimed as America’s own.

California Bell Tower, San Diego, Calif.; images via The Wolfsonian-Florida International University andBalboa Park

The buildings of the Panama-California Exposition were extremely well-received by the public and by influential visitors like Theodore Roosevelt. Many of the temporary structures were converted for permanent use and still stand as some of the signature buildings of San Diego today. The San Diego Museum of Man, California Bell Tower, Casa del Prado Theater and others around Balboa Park remain in all of their florid, baroque Catholic glory so different from any of the English Colonial, Classical or Gothic Revival monuments of the East Coast.

At the risk of getting too topical, many of the buildings are detailed in a style known as Churrigueresque, an elaborate mode of ornamentation with roots in Moorish Spain, making the great buildings of a great American city just a few steps removed from the architecture of a great Muslim culture.

Detail of Churrigueresque facade of Casa del Prado, San Diego, Calif.; via Wikipedia (Visitor7)

Irving Gill, one of the lead architects of the Exposition, was very familiar with local historical styles, as he was a celebrated residential architect of Southern California. Known today as a pioneer of Modern Architecture — especially as seen in his stripped, volumetric, now-demolished Dodge House in West Hollywood — he built his career designing Arts and Crafts and Mission Revival homes across the state.

While much has been made of Los Angeles’s early modern architects being enamored with minimalist Japanese aesthetics and minimally intelligible Central European philosophies, the Mexican influence on Gill’s work goes underappreciated — despite the fact that many of his signature “modern” works featured recognizably Mission features such as long arched porticos and flat terra-cotta roofs.

Irving Gill’s Dodge House, West Hollywood, Calif.; via LA Times

Gill never made a decisive break between traditional and modern styles, and there is every reason to suggest that his foundational work in Modernism was informed by his absorption of Mission Style principles. Considering Gill worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, who had his own Mexican fascinations — and that Gill would mentor Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, both lions of Modernism in their own right — it’s fair to say that traditional Mexican design, with its flat white façades, blended interior and exterior spaces and practical economy, may have contributed more to that most vaunted of architectural movements, High Modernism, than we typically recognize.

Left: Irving Gill’s La Jolla Women’s Club, La Jolla, Calif.; this project used Gill’s novel tilt-up concrete construction method; via Curbed. Right: Irving Gill’s First Church of Christ Scientist, San Deigo, Calif.; via sandiegohistory.org

Original Spanish Missions dot the landscape of the American West and Southwest, where they are generally the oldest surviving structures and some of the most iconic — remember the Alamo.

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas; via WSBE Rhode Island PBS

Missions have so permeated America’s visual conception of itself that the Mission Revival style has been embraced by that quintessential American development: the suburb. Ever since Gill and his contemporaries covered the Hollywood Hills with imitation presidios, Mission Revival has had a sort of glamour built into it.

On ABC’s “Modern Family,” we know that Cam and Mitchell are a little chichi with bourgeois pretensions to style because they live in a Mission Revival townhouse. Suburbs from Rancho Cucamonga to Coral Gables cover their buildings in terra-cotta tiles and plastered balconies that Zorro could swashbuckle across to project an image of tradition without fussiness, of casual comfort with just enough class, a sunny, meandering alternative to the formal English Colonials of the northeast.

Cam and Mitchell from “Modern Family” in front of their house; via Media Wales

America’s architecture alone proves that its culture is drawn from Mexican, indigenous and Spanish-speaking heritages. These architectural heritages are hardly negligible or peripheral considering they form the direct history of three of America’s most populous states, California, Texas and Florida, which together compose over a quarter of the country’s population.

This is not to say that the country or these architects have embraced Mexican people; the U.S.’s long history of discrimination against Latino people should be too obvious to have to mention. There’s a lot of talk about who or what is allowed to cross the Mexico-U.S. border these days, but it doesn’t take much more than a stroll around America’s cities to see that the architectural histories of the two countries have been and will continue to be tied affectionately together.

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