The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1985, Volume 31, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

California’s Mission Revival. By Karen J. Weitze. Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc., 1984. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 160 pages. $22.50.

Reviewed by Lucinda Leggett Eddy, graduate student in history at the University of San Diego and former Institute of History award winner (1983).

During the last quarter of the 19th century, a series of occurrences initiated an architectural movement in California known as Mission Revival. Unlike other late Victorian revivals, which borrowed from older European or Classical models, this movement drew inspiration from a form already present on California soil-the early Spanish missions. Initial designs met with success, although architects struggled over the correct definition and usage of Mission Revival. By the turn of the century, however, there emerged a distinct and popular style which not only captured the spirit of a by-gone era, but proved through use of building materials and design features to be a style uniquely suited to the California environment.

The author begins her search for the origins of the movement shortly after the mid-19th century when decline and neglect had left most of California’s missions in ruins. About this time, a change in attitudes occurred as Romanticism spread across the continent. Journalists hired by the railroads filled promotional literature with enthusiastic references to the missions. Initially, a “fascination with the concepts of the sublime and the picturesque,” led writers to portray the missions as “noble institutions” or spiritual bastions in the wilderness. Romantic imagery and sentiment filled the guidebooks and periodicals of the day, elevating the missions to legendary status. Such accounts eventually gave way to a movement toward historicism as the public sought a more accurate picture of mission life. A growing historical perspective fostered detailed research into mission records and encouraged early preservation efforts. Finally, the great Southern California land rush of the late 1880’s spurred promoters to use the history and lore of the missions to lure tourists and sell land. Journalist and promoter, Charles Fletcher Lummis, recognized the potential capital worth of the old missions and upon reflection in later years, commented, “Plymouth Rock was a state of mind. So were the California Missions.”

Against this colorful backdrop, the author presents a definitive study of each phase of the Mission Revival period from inception to decline. Considerable attention has been given to the designs for the Stanford University campus and the California Building for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Both designs received wide acclaim and signaled the acceptance of Mission Revival as a valid architectural style for California.

Weitze’s book offers a detailed account of the period between 1890 and 1915 during which the movement enjoyed its greatest popularity. She highlights the early years with an analysis of the efforts made by architects to clearly define what should or should not comprise Mission Revival architecture. Out of this debate came some of the most innovative buildings the movement produced. While architects experimented with primarily residential and hotel designs during the 1890’s, by 1900 the style had gained such popularity that schools, libraries, churches, train stations and commercial structures reflected the tremendous impact the movement had on California design.

In part, the popular use of this style also resulted from its identification with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Furthermore, the American cement industry showed how compatible Mission Revival designs were with new construction methods, namely reinforced concrete. Weitze clearly demonstrates the important role played by these two progressive trends and concludes her discussion with an insightful interpretation of the broad impact Mission Revival architecture made on the American scene.

Meticulous and thorough research best characterizes this book. Weitze has made extensive use of primary source material as evidenced in the text and notes. An impressive selection of photographs and drawings documents each phase of the movement and adds illustrative support to the text. Weitze has also been careful to note specific architects who figured prominently throughout the movement and has identified architects for illustrated buildings wherever possible.

An occasional over-abundance of quotes and references sometimes obscures the author’s text, weakening the readability in a few places. However, this remains a small criticism of a book that is otherwise a fascinating and informative study to be enjoyed by either the serious student or casual reader.