Los Angeles and the Mission Revival

by Thomas Owen, appearing in Volume 2

For many people, the tradition of church architecture in Los Angeles is seen as being predominantly of the Spanish style before the advent of Modernism. However, this is partly due to the great revival of interest in Mediterranean and Mission architecture which began in the late Nineteenth century. Interest in California’s missions—a time period beginning in 1769 with the founding of the first mission through their demise in the 1840’s—was not only to inspire buildings, but also books, poetry, “romance,” tours to the extant buildings, and eventually scholarship.

By the 1920’s the most important style for church building in Los Angeles was Spanish. There are Gothic examples, one Tudor revival, which comes to mind, or another local church with an Italian ancestry from Lombardy, but the most important style of the moment was Spanish. These designs came in several very definite varieties with preferences modified mostly by available funds—in short, this style could be deceptively simple—or very expensive.

The earliest of these revivals was based on California’s missions, and appropriately is referred to as the “Mission Revival.” Few of these early buildings actually copied extant mission structures, but perhaps might be said to have been “inspired” by them. What is usually cited as the first building in the state to revive any kind of Spanish decorative elements was built for the San Francisco Mid-County International Exposition in 1894 in Golden Gate Park. Designed by A. Page Brown, it was simply a copy of the facade of Santa Barbara Mission on a rather monumental scale and attached to the usual fair structure. This building and its so-called “style” was a popular success, but it was not until the early twentieth century that familiar design elements began to appear and a viable style was born. Churches did not hurry to raise buildings in the “new” style. In Los Angeles, architects McGinnis, Walsh & Sullivan, a group which almost always provided Gothic designs, or designs which had some Gothic elements, supplied the plans—apparently their only attempt in the style. The Church of St. Thomas, a small parish to the southwest of Los Angeles, is still extant and, with the exception of changes made through the years, its facade remains as built: a very simple building in the Mission Revival style.

Perhaps the finest extant of these mission-inspired churches is the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Ironically, this church was not built early in the century, but in 1924. Local architect J. J. Donnellan provided plans for an historically accurate facade: two towers, flanking what appears to be the usual narrow nave, and free from decorative distractions. However, while architect Donnellan and his parish building committee were influenced by the Santa Barbara Mission, the church as designed uses side aisles—hidden by the towers—to greatly increase the seating capacity.

Had the Spanish revival depended only on California mission ideas, it would have faded long before the 20’s, as design possibilities were quite limited. The introduction by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue—oddly enough, again for a fair—of a style which was to carry the name of its 18th century originator, Churrigueresque, provided the necessary excitement to again make Spanish architecture important. This highly decorative style offered many new possibilities for a wide variety of buildings—an important element in the continuing popularity of the revival. Although the fair—this time at San Diego—did not open until 1915, the published designs created enough interest that a church was actually conceived and finished before the “official” unveiling of the new style. The First Congregational Church at Riverside, a city some seventy miles southeast of Los Angeles, opened their new church with its dramatic and highly decorated tower in 1914. Pasadena architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey—both usually better remembered for buildings other than churches—provided the plans. The essence of Churrigueresque was to combine highly decorated elements and contrast them against absolutely plain wall surfaces. As many twentieth century church buildings were built in concrete, the baroque decorative details, usually precast in either concrete or terra cotta, could then be added directly to this surface.

Elements of these highly decorative ideas began to be part of the developing style which Californians would eventually call just “Spanish.” The Churrigueresque perhaps had more to offer non-church buildings, but in ten years oil magnate E. L. Doheny and his wife donated funds for a new St. Vincent’s Church in Los Angeles. Their selection was Churrigueresque and they opted for a full-scale treatment of the highly decorative style. Local architect A. C. Martin, who designed many of the city’s Catholic churches, provided plans for a very large church, actually monumental in scale and setting, and historically accurate in both exterior and interior details. The central unit of the facade and the upper stories of the tower carry elaborate decorative detail. The only other decorated feature is the dome over the crossing, which echoes the architectural details and is roofed with decorative tiles. The walls below are totally without ornament. This magnificent monument to the second phase of the revival was built in 1923-1924.

Out of this decade came another type of church building: one that would suit the needs of a parish, that might be an example of several of the “Spanish” styles, and was not predicated on a Spanish cathedral. St. Elizabeth’s of nearby Altadena, built in 1924, is a dazzling example of what was happening to Spanish ideas. Although the building has been called “Medieval” Spanish, one can look closer to home for its origins. The decoration on the tower, the sparse, but still baroque decoration surrounding the niche on the facade, have their genesis in the Churrigueresque. The long narrow nave, with the deeply recessed windows echo the thick walls of adobe missions, although this building is built of concrete and its nave is wider than a builder of the mission period could have ever hoped to build. Along the south side of the church runs an arched corridor, an element which also came from the missions. And yes, the medieval? Well, the other element that joins those of California, was inspired not by a church in Spain, but from a monastic building. Architect Wallace Neff, a man who unfortunately never designed another church, is well remembered for his many California homes.

It was during the 1920’s that many of these seemingly different ideas of what was supposed to be “Spanish” architecture began to come together in a particular style—actually a style of many origins, but so carefully blended that it became uniquely Californian. At no other time in Los Angeles history have the unique factors of rapid growth, the need for many new churches and the financing to build them come together at precisely the same time. In addition to the large expensive designs, there were also parishes that wanted smaller buildings; a building that offered expansion for the future, one that they could finance without courting disaster, and perhaps above all, they were so interested in that nebulous thing called Spanish style—for this is the elusive element that is the essence of the era’s churches.