The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1986, Volume 32, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

by Norman Neuerberg

Photographs from this article

Search and research: that is the task of the historian whether his topic be political history, economic history, social history, or architectural history. Often he will be continually frustrated, but at times his efforts will be more than amply rewarded. He may uncover unpublished sources or a single clue will help to fill in the gaps in a particularly difficult problem, and things will begin to fall into place.

As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library I was involved in the evaluation of two important collections of research material donated by the heirs of Edith Webb and her husband H.P. Webb (both d. 1959) and of Kurt Baer (d. 1979) who had concentrated on the study of the California missions, a field in which I am actively involved myself. As a youth I had known and learned from Edith Webb and admired her immensely; I had only spent one afternoon with Kurt Baer, and we discussed the topic, a documentary study of the art in the missions, that had occupied his last years but was never completed. Both collections contain significant unpublished materials concerning all of the missions, including Mission San Diego, and some of that from the Edith and H.P. Webb collection inspired the thoughts presented here.

More than a half century ago Frances Rand Smith had prepared a study on Mission San Diego’s architecture, but it remained unpublished, though Edith Webb had seen a copy of the manuscript and made excerpts from it.1 Without the whole manuscript one cannot be sure of what her study encompassed, and any study made today would need to consider the results of the excavations undertaken at the time of the rebuilding of the church in 1930-312 and the more recent excavations carried out by the University of San Diego.3 Since that excavation is far from complete and remains to be studied adequately it would be premature to undertake a definitive study of the architecture of the whole mission complex at this time. Nevertheless a study of certain aspects of the appearance of the church might not be unwarranted, especially since no further excavation is likely to be carried out in that building.

Not surprisingly, the buildings of almost all of the California missions have undergone numerous modifications since they were first erected. In mission days these alterations were made because of changing needs or in response to particular structural problems or natural disasters. Some changes, such as the transforming of the espadana to tower at Carmel or the adding of a second bell tower at Santa Barbara, may have been nothing more than the completion of an original plan. At San Luis Rey the proposed twin tower was never built, though it surely must have been planned. Other modifications came about because of faulty construction or because of the frequent earthquakes, especially the one of 1812. At San Gabriel the roof of the church was rebuilt in a different form on more than one occasion, and the espadana next to the facade of the church fell down in the 1812 temblor, and rather than repairing it they decided to build a new one above the sacristy behind the altar. It was built with five arches in a symmetrical scheme, but the acquisition of a new and very large bell in 1829 required the enlarging of one bell arch and the addition of a sixth arch which created the asymetrical arrangement now seen and so much admired. Severe damage in the same earthquake of 1812 necessitated the lowering of the height of the facade and the ceiling of the church at San Buenaventura, along with the total rebuilding of the belltower (perhaps in a position different from the original) and the addition of a huge buttress at one side of the facade.4

Miscalculations in design due to the church’s placement on the brow of a hill required the addition of two massive buttresses, triangular in plan, in front of the facade of Mission San Diego. The facade underwent a number of subsequent transformations – changes in its face – and it will be the intent here to chronicle these transformations and to try to discover what the original design of the facade might have been and what were its art historical sources.

The history of this church and its predecessors can be outlined in the surviving original documents. At the founding of the mission on the original site on Presidio Hill in 1769 a simple brush enramada may have given shelter to an improvised altar that served until a first crude jacal constructed of poles set in the ground and roofed with tules became the first church by 1773.5 That same year foundations were laid for an adobe church thirty varas long and 4000 adobes were made for it,6 but the following year the mission was moved to its present site six miles upstream,7 and another jacal, six by nineteen varas,8 was built there only to be burned in the Indian uprising of 1775.9

Another jacal, which had been previously used as a granary, was utilized as a temporary church in 177610 while the first adobe structure at the new site was begun. In its incomplete but functioning state it was open on one side,11 much like a typical Mexican open chapel of the 16th Century.12 By the 12th of November of 1777 its walls were completed, and it could be blessed. It had two windows with wooden grilles and a door with a lock. The two-leaved door was made from cedar which had been left as a donation by the ship San Carlos.13

A new church was begun in 1778,14 with the inside measurements of thirty varas in length and five and a half in width and height. The walls were two adobes thick and the ceiling was of pine beams with brackets of live oak. Above that was the roof constructed of eleven rough beams of sycamore and cottonwood with small king posts of the same material. The slopes of the roof were covered with tules and then dirt was placed on top to cut down on the fire danger; subsequently the church was roofed with tiles in 1788.15 A sacristy of the same width and height extended behind for four varas. This church was completed in 1781 and dedicated on June 7th, the feast of Saint Francis.16 It was noted that everything was of the best quality and workmanship that was possible within the limited means of this poor mission. There were five windows (one on the sacristy) with shutters and grilles of cedar. There were three doors: a front entrance and one in each side wall (no mention is made of a sacristy door, but there must have been one from the sanctuary). A small portico was placed in front of the main entrance with two pillars of pine and two of palo Maria. A cemetery, walled in adobe, was placed on the north side of the church for its whole length and a width of ten varas. On the south side of the church was a corredor two and a quarter varas wide with posts with brackets of live oak holding up the roof.

Pedro Fages, who visited the mission in 1782, described the church as being “muy adornada,”17 probably referring to the painted decorations. The 1783 inventory18 gives us an idea of its actual furnishings. There were two altar tables, the main one of cedar with gradines and a smaller side altar of pine. The main altar had a painting a vara and a half high of the patron Saint Didacus which had just arrived and two a vara high of the Immaculate Conception and Saint Joseph. Three small paintings, also listed, of Our Lady of Light, Our Lady of Solitude, and Our Lady of Sorrows may also have joined these. Other paintings of Our Lady of Light and Saint Didacus and one of Saint John the Baptist would have been placed elsewhere in the church or in the sacristy. The figure of Our Lady of the Pillar was placed on a painted octagonal bracket or pedestal above the side altar; it had four candle sconces. There were two tabernacles, one locally made and another painted and gilded one from Mexico. A figure of the Christ Child from a statue of Saint Joseph was a survivor of the revolt of 1775. Fourteen prints of the Stations of the Cross with frames of mouldings and little crosses were hung in the church, while a very fine mirror with a gilded frame may have been used in the sacristy. A sacristy chest which had been poorly constructed was rebuilt by two fine carpenters who had arrived on a ship that year. Another portion of the report of the same year remarks that “everything, especially the interior of the church and sacristy, was as carefully done, clean and neat, and agreeable as the ability of the artisans of the country can accomplish and as the funds of the mission permit.”19

This church had become much too small by 1808 as the population of the mission had more than doubled since 1781. The Biennial Report of 1807-0810 noted that a new church had been started but no particulars were given. The records for this church, the sixth if one counts all the jacales or the third if one counts only the adobe buildings, are much more laconic than for the earlier churches. The interior measurements, as rebuilt in 1931 on the original foundations are 133 feet 2 inches in length by 25 feet 9 inches in width (48 and 1/3 varas by 9 and 1/3 varas, By 1810 the church had been roofed, but in 1811 that roof, an azotea or terrace roof, had to be removed and almost all of the upper part of the facade had to be taken down because of cracks that had appeared.21 Undoubtedly the problems were due to the placement of the facade right on the brow of the hill; presumably the two triangular buttresses were added at this time, and they were carefully keyed into the brick facade. They were what saved the incomplete church from serious damage in the disastrous earthquake of 1812. Finally, on November 12th, 1813, the day of the mission’s patron, Saint Didacus of Alcala, the church was blessed.22

The laconic records of this church make no mention of its painted decoration, but there is adequate evidence that it did not lack this. In 1931 traces of a lambrequin frieze with lily-shaped tassles were found by J. Marshall Miller above the arch to the baptistry and just beneath the cornice under the choir loft. They were traced and forgotten. More significant, however, is a passage in a letter, dated February 20, 1815 to Don Jose de la Guerra, who was habilitado (paymaster) at the Presidio of San Diego at that time, from Fr. Tomas de Ahumada at Mission San Francisco Borja in Baja California requesting that he send the patterns used to paint the church of San Diego so that they could serve for the decoration of the new church being completed by Fr. Jose Martinez23. We do not know if this request was acted upon, and presently we do not know at which mission Fr. Martinez was then stationed. If that could be determined it would perhaps be worth investigating to see if traces of those decorations might have survived. However, Fr. Ahumada had been present at the dedication of the church in 1813 and would have seen the recently completed decorations at that time.

A reredos, or altarpiece, for the new church had been sent and billed as early as 1809, though it had to be stored until it could be installed in the completed new church24. It came from the shop of Jose Maria Uriarte in Mexico City and cost 1500 pesos. It was of ayacaguite (a kind of pine) wood and was eight varas high; it came in 26 boxes.25 The altarpiece now at Mission San Gabriel came from the same source the following year and cost the same but only required 20 boxes so presumably the two were not identical in design.26 This reredos would have held figures of Saints Didacus of Alcala, Francis of Assisi, and Anthony of Padua27, and probably the figure of the Virgin of Sorrows28 which came at the same time as the reredos. The figure of Our Lady of the Pillar29 and perhaps Saint Joseph30 could have been above side altars. Two small mirrors and four large ones31 would have adorned the altar wall while various paintings could have been distributed throughout the church. The Stations of the Cross were engravings which had been sent in 177632.

No further mention of the church building appears in the surviving annual reports so we have no information as to when the triple arched portico was added, though since a portico had been a feature of the previous church they may have missed the convenience of it and added it fairly soon. However, the manner by which the holes for its beams broke into the architectural features around the doorway leaves no doubt that it was not part of the original design. Further and more radical transformations of the church and its facade took place during the U.S. Army’s occupation of the mission from 1847 to 1857.

It has been assumed by Fr. Engelhardt that this church occupied the same site of the church finished in 178133, but the surviving records nowhere make that statement. It is highly unlikely for practical reasons, unless we assume that the new church rose with the earlier church still inside, and that seems improbable. The availability of land scarcely made this necessary and the inconvenience during five years of construction would be excessive. The use of the same site would be probable only if the functions of the church were moved temporarily to another building such as a granary as had been done after the jacal church was burned in the 1775 uprising, and there is no mention of such an arrangement in the available records.

The question of the site of the previous church is connected with the problem of the location of the mission’s cemetery. There is no doubt that a cemetery adjoined the 1781 church, and Engelhardt stated that the cemetery was next to the 1808-13 church since, as he says, “the cemetery of all missions invariably adjoined the church building, on one side or the other.” However, at Mission San Antonio the cemetery was in the open, some distance from the church, so there were exceptions.

On the plats made by the U.S. Government surveyors in 1854 when mission lands were to be returned to the Church the cemetery is carefully located on the plats of all but two of the missions, Sonoma and San Diego. Sonoma’s is probably lacking because the town had already been urbanized and the church adjoining the cemetery was completely ruined. The document accompanying the San Diego plat mentions the cemetery but simply says that it adjoins the church and mission buildings; it is not shown next to the church nor is there space within the boundaries for it to be included at that spot as it is on the other mission plats. However, a second survey of the lands of the mission made in September 1860 locates the cemetery at the opposite side of the quadrangle from the church within the perimeter wall.

A sketch plan of the mission made in 1874 by Henry L. Oak also places the cemetery in the area of the quadrangle opposite the church34, and at least one early photograph taken from that spot includes a fenced grave. Thus it was sufficiently inside the mission quadrangle that the earlier surveyor did not feel the necessity of labeling it. A detailed plan of the mission35, undated but presumably from the Mexican period, has numbers or letters for the various rooms or walled areas, but the accompanying legend has not survived. No walled area is shown next to the church though cemeteries were always walled in mission days in order to set the consecrated ground aside and protect it. An L-shaped enclosure marked “M” on the plan more or less occupies the site indicated in the 1860 survey and Oak plan, and the smaller section encloses an area approximately equal to the area of the 1781 church and its cemetery. On the inked copy made for him and now in the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library Fr. Engelhardt wrote “cemetery” in pencil next to the church where he felt it should be and drew a line for a wall as well.

The rare descriptions of the cemetery serve only to confuse the matter. In 1858 the Visiting Committee of the State Agricultural Society remarked that “the soldiers’ graveyard, in immediate proximity to the barracks, is a place of melancholy interest. The number which is annually added to its tenantry, as indicated by the neat white slab which marks the resting place of each, is truly surprising when the small number of the company is considered. Everything in and about this yard is kept in the neatest manner.”36 In 1873 a writer for the San Diego Union noted that “East of this courtyard is the ancient cemetery. It contains but one lonely monument of marble . . . There are eight headboards in other portions of the cemetery”37 Finally, in an essay by Flora L. Stanfield published in 1885 we read “the building is upon a hillside; standing in its door . . . we can have a view of the little graveyard with its decaying crosses . . .”38 No drawing or photograph consulted shows any crosses or gravestones on the side of the church where Engelhardt would place the cemetery, and none of the earliest drawings show a cemetery wall on that side as one would expect if it were there.

Engelhardt assumed that the site of the churches was the same because he noted that, starting in 1805, the burial entries in the mission register frequently say “in the cemetery next to the church” and continue in that form through 1814, one year after the new church was blessed .39 Until the blessing of the new church took place “next to the church” would certainly be correct to describe the location of the cemetery, and the Father may simply have continued writing that out of force of habit. However, the entry number 2339 of March 7, 1814, has the word for “next to” crossed out and it does not appear at all after 1814. Rather more significant, though, is the statement in a Nota in the Baptismal Register when the church was blessed that the bodies of the missionaries who had served and died at the mission were moved.40 That scarcely would have taken place if the site of the church were identical to that of its predecessor. Thus it would seem that there is little reason to doubt that the previous church was at the opposite side of the quadrangle and that its adjoining cemetery remained there. In all probability, though, its walls and foundation may have been removed to expand the very crowded cemetery. A complete excavation of the probable site could perhaps demonstrate the accuracy of this assertion.

No pictorial representations of the mission antedate the beginning of the American period, at least among those now known. The earliest preserved drawings are those of H.M.T. Powell, dating from 1850 when he stayed in Old Town and tried to eke out a meagre living by selling drawings of the mission and of Old Town to fellow Americans. It is not clear how many were made (he mentions a half dozen or so in his journal) or how many survive today.41 In public collections there are ones in the Bancroft42 and Huntington Libraries.43 The latter copy had been bought by Cave Couts who erased Powell’s signature and put his own in its place! He also dated it February 13, 1849, before either he or Powell had reached San Diego. Other drawings may be in private hands, and there is an oil painting of the mission by him in the Dentzel-Waldo collection.44 The drawing was also lithographed45 and other copies by other artists exist, including ones that distort the espadaha into a tower.46 Possibly only one of Powell’s sketches was drawn at the mission and others were made from that in Old Town. Of the two cited the Bancroft copy appears to be the earlier; the facade window in the Couts version is much larger, the espadana is less accurately drawn, and Couts seems possibly to have strengthened the lines. At the time of Powell’s drawings the front corredor was intact, though part of the roof of the building behind was beginning to collapse on the right end.

Not much later is the drawing by Heinrich Moellhausen47 which served as the model for a lithograph in the Railroad Survey.48 Like Powell he shows both the espadana and triple portico intact, but about half of the front corredor was already gone, and the whole wing was rapidly falling into ruin. In Powell’s drawing two bells were still in place, but they are now gone as are the tiles on the portico roof. The window is closer in size to the Bancroft drawing than to the Couts version. Small, square panes of glass can still be made out in the window. A detail that is much clearer in this than in either of the Powell drawings is the finials placed at the sides in each level of the bell arches of the espadana, a detail missed in the 1931 reconstruction since this drawing was probably not then known.

The drawing of H.C. Pratt reproduced as a woodcut in Bartlett’s Personal Narrative49 still shows the espadana and arched portico (still with a tile roof) but no trace of the corredor is visible. The drawing may have been done in 1852. It is less accurate than either Powell or Moellhausen; a drawing related to it incorrectly shows four arches rather than three.50

As early as 1847 the mission buildings had been occupied by the Mormon Volunteer Battalion for several months, but no changes were made until the U.S. Army began to occupy the site on a more permanent basis in 1849; they remained until 1857. Two drawings made in 1856, one by William Burch McMurtrie done in July51 and the other by Henry Miller done in September or October,52 show the remodeled mission. Miller’s drawing shows a picket fence in front of the church and adjoining wing, suggesting that a part of the front wing was still usable. During this period of occupation the dilapidated church was extensively remodeled for use as a military barracks. The floor plan of this is recorded in the sketch plan made by Henry L. Oak in 1874, and photographs of the 1880s give an idea of how radical it was. The espadana soon collapsed, the tile roof was replaced by a shingle roof, the height of the interior was divided into two stories with stables below and living quarters above. These were accessible directly from a wide wooden staircase on the northwest side. The front window was enlarged and squared up and the arched portico was torn down and the space occupied by two rooms, each with two windows to the front. They opened onto a passage in between which gave access to the main door. These rooms, too, got a new shingle roof at a lower pitch than that of the preceding tile roof. The front corredor fell completely and gradually the front wing fell into ruin, except for the rooms right next to the church. As soon as the military left the ruin accelerated. By the time of the earliest photograph, taken in 1865, the north corner of the church had collapsed and only four rooms of the front wing next to the church were still roofed. Starting from the rear the church began to fall down so that by the turn of the century little more than the front wall remained in tact, though portions of the northeast wall survived in spots. About half of the front wall of the residence stood until around 1890 when all had disappeared except for the one room still surviving; the rooms between the buttresses had fallen in by then, too.

The California Landmarks Club stabilized the walls around 1900,54 and some ill-advised rebuilding of a part of the side walls was done by the San Diego Mission Restoration Committee in 1920.55 A movement for a complete restoration of the mission church was begun in 1927 and work was commenced in 1930 and completed in 1931. The supervising architect was I.E. Loveless and the historical architect was James Marshall Miller. All that was salvageable of the structure was the facade with its buttresses and the adjoining platform for the espadana which contained the baptistry. During the preparation for the rebuilding the historical architect uncovered a number of interesting details. Perhaps most important for the problem here was his discovery of the lower part of a niche, which was filled in, right above the cornice over the door and beneath the window. Undoubtedly this had been suppressed at the time that the first portico was installed. He also uncovered the arch of the window which seemed to indicate that the original had been narrower than as remodeled by the U.S. Army. In his restoration he used this width, 32 inches, but maintained the same sill, thus creating a tall and narrow proportion not typical of the architecture of the mission period. Since the porticoes had been added he filled in the two rows of beam holes in order to present the facade as it would have looked in 1813. Except for the unresolved problem of the niche and the bottom of the window the goal was reached satisfactorily.

Besides the fragments of decoration that he had found above the baptistry arch in the interior Miller had discovered traces of painted decoration on the facade around the door and not only photographed these remains but made tracings of them. However, they were not restored and the discovery was simply forgotten until the tracings were found among the papers of Edith Webb now in the Mission Archive-Library in Santa Barbara. Photographs, unfortunately out-of-focus, turned up subsequently in a box of Miller’s negatives given by him to the San Diego Historical Society. The principal designs were urns of flowers, rather curiously placed in the spandrels flanking the arch of the entrance door. Another design of uncertain interpretation, resembling a vulva, was discovered on one of the pilasters. Unfortunately no indication of any of the colors was recorded. It may have been done at the same time as the interior, before 1815, and the curious placement of the urns in the spandrels of the arch rather than a more normal placement above the cornice suggests that it would have been done after the building of the portico. If that assumption is correct it could help date that modification. However, facades, decorated with painted designs or simple colors were not rare at the missions. Santa Clara is the most notable (even Fr. Murguia’s church had a painted facade), but traces have been found at San Luis Rey, San Gabriel, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, Santa Ines, and San Antonio, and there is abundant evidence for the custom in other parts of Mexico and Latin America.

In the fine scale model of the mission made in 1940 under the supervision of Edith Webb the larger window opening appearing in the Powell and Moellhausen drawings was used instead of Miller’s tall, narrow window because that seemed too much out of character. Mrs. Webb’s objection to that shape of window was a valid one, but Miller’s discovery of the narrower arch seemed to support his position, too, at least as far as width. The key to the solution to the problem lies in the cut-off niche (which Webb chose to ignore) at the bottom of the window. As rebuilt, the sill of the window is precisely at the top of the amputated niche. However, if this niche were complete in its upper half and the sill of the window were some distance above it, then we would have a window of normal proportions, albeit a rather smaller one than appears in the drawings (which among themselves are not consistent). However, relatively small choir windows are not unknown in California mission churches. There is also the possibility that the choir window could have been enlarged in mission days, perhaps when the portico was added.

From this realization we can go back to the original form of the church facade as designed. It was certainly designed without the buttresses, and in its central part it would differ only in that there would have been a small niche above the door and a window of more typical proportions.

Now that the probable original appearance is known the question of the source of the design still remains. The most distinctive feature is the gable with its undulating outline. Deriving from the baroque style of the 17th and 18th Centuries, it is actually a bit old-fashioned for the time in which it was built, though Mission San Diego is not alone in California in perpetuating a motif already discarded in metropolitan Mexico. If the gable is not in the latest fashion (Mission Santa Barbara’s temple facade represents the latest fashion -internationally) the scheme of decoration around the door is positively archaic, deriving from schemes current in Mexico in the 16th Century. The arrangement whereby the arch of the doorway is flanked by short pilasters not reaching to the ground, and the whole is surrounded by a frame (in this case the elements are inset, not projecting as is more usual), creates what is known as an alfiz, The word, of Arabic origin, suggests a Moorish source, and it is, in fact, a feature found in Islamic architecture in Spain and in the subsequent Mudejar style which then influenced Spanish Gothic and Renaissance doorways. There are numerous variations on this theme in the 16th Century architecture of Mexico, but then it dies out by the end of that century.

The niche above the cornice with its pilaster strips on either side also echoes a 16th Century scheme but one belonging to the Plateresquee trend as is best represented by a number of Augustinian churches in central Mexico. The San Diego version is more rudimentary in its ornaments. Such a placing of a small niche above the door does not go out of fashion as the alfiz had, however.

These architectural details bring up the question of the authorship of the design, but that is not easily resolved. Rexford Newcomb attributed it to Fr. Jose Bernardo Sanchez,”56 the missionary who was there during the whole period of its construction, and Miller57 and others have followed this opinion.

More fundamental is the question of the extent of the involvement of the missionaries in the design of buildings when that involved anything more than four unornamented walls. Here, though, the graceful gable and the designs surrounding the door suggest some architectural knowledge, albeit not of the most up-to-date sort. All four of the missionaries in residence at San Diego during the period of construction of the church (Fr. Joseph Barona, Fr. Jose Bernardo Sanchez, Fr. Pedro Panto, and Fr. Fernando Martin) entered the Franciscan order at a fairly young age, presumably without having any previous profession. Two of the four (Barona and Panto) did spend rather more than a few months in Mexico, though whether they saw much more than the monastery of San Fernando in Mexico City is not known. There certainly were books on architecture in the monastery library, though these tended to emphasize the classical prototypes such as were used for the facade of the church of Mission Santa Barbara. An architectural treatise had even been sent to Mission San Diego in 1770-71, but it presumably was lost in the 1775 uprising. Certainly, by the time any of the four fathers had arrived in Mexico a neoclassical style was the current rage, and it had been the official fashion in Spain since before any of them had been born. Although numerous examples of undulating gables could be seen in Mexico City very little in the way of 16th Century architecture had survived in the capital. Thus, we must either assume that Fr. Barona (Fr. Panto really arrived in California too late to have participated in the design) had traveled outside the monastery and had noted and liked some details he saw during his three years in Mexico, or we must hypothesize that there was at the mission a Mexican artisan who came from a village that was the site of a 16th Century church and had not yet succumbed to the latest styles dictated by the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City. This is probably more likely than the attribution to one of the missionaries. Also, it is rather improbable that such an old-fashioned design would have been sent up in the form of a drawing from Mexico City either.

The espadaha, on the other hand, is a commonplace not only in California (e.g. Pala, San Gabriel, Santa Ines, Carmel in its first phase, and the Presidio Chapel at Monterey) but throughout Mexico and Spain where it is often found on convents or monasteries so it does not presuppose some special knowledge. The (unrestored) finials on each level are common on the Spanish version and occur in Mexico, too.

The huge buttresses, in contrast, belong to no architectural style, having been added only for reasons of stability rather than aesthetics. The necessary asymmetry of their placement (the left hand one supports the base of the campanario as well) may have bothered the missionaries enough that they decided to mask them with the triple arched portico. As we said, the previous church had a porch supported by four posts; thus there were three intercolumnations. Records tell us of other early churches with similar porches held up by posts. Triple arched porticoes in masonry can still be seen at the missions of San Luis Obispo, San Antonio, and San Juan Bautista, and the next to last church at Santa Barbara had a portico which may have had three arches. Also, it has been hypothesized that the stone church at Mission San Juan Capistrano was preceded by an arched porch of some sort. Though not unusual in Spain, porches on the front of churches are quite rare in Mexico. In most cases in those countries there is a second story above (as opposed to a simple projecting porch in front of the facade) which permits a deeper than normal choir above the entrance to the church. just such a solution can be seen at the Franciscan church of Santa Cruz in Queretaro and is standard in Carmelite churches. In California, however, only at San Juan Bautista is the choir loft above the portico and it is of normal size. Thus, the use of the simple portico as a shelter may be peculiar to California among the Mexican provinces.

All of this serves to point up the fact that a true understanding of the art and architecture of Hispanic California is dependent on an acquaintance and understanding of the art and architecture of Spain and Mexico. Only in recent years, though, has the Mexican material become more available, both in Spanish and English. For instance, the art and architecture of Mexico in the 16th Century is largely a revelation of recent decades and the first treatment of the subject in English appeared only in 1948,58 seventeen years after the rebuilding of San Diego’s church. Thus it should not be taken as a criticism of either Miller or Webb that neither tumbled to the correct solution nor understood the implications of the design. In a like fashion, others, in time, may find evidence to modify much of what is said here.



1. When Mrs. Webb consulted the manuscript it was in the collection of the California State Historical Association, then under the direction of Dr. Owen C. Coy at the University of Southern California. After his death the collection was dispersed with the largest portion ending up at the State Library in Sacramento where it is yet to be catalogued so it is not presently known whether the Smith manuscript is among the papers there.

2. An article by J. Marshall Miller, “Restoring California’s First Mission,” Annual Publications of the Historical Society of Southern California, 1932, pp. 321-336, refers to excavations and important discoveries but gives no plan or details. The whereabouts of the notes taken at this time is uncertain (they are not in the possession of Mr. Miller), though they may be among the Coy papers in Sacramento.

3. An article by Ray Brandes, “Mission San Diego de AlcalA: Archaeological and Historical Discoveries,” Some California Catholic Reminiscences for the United States Bicentennial (California Catholic Conference, 1976), pp. 139-152, hints at the wealth of discoveries, actual and potential, but no complete publication has yet appeared.

4. Norman Neuerburg, “New Light on the Church of Mission San Buenaventura,” The Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly, XXVIII (Fall, 1983), pp. 1-24.

5. Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, San Diego Mission (San Francisco, 1920), p. 25.

6. Ibid., p. 50.

7. Ibid., p. 56.

8. Ibid., p. 56.

9. Ibid., p. 59 ff.

10. Ibid., p. 72.

11. Informe of 1776 (copy) in Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library; Account Book of Mission San Diego, p. 2r, Bancroft Library. “Sirve de Iglesia una Pieza mui pequeha de Adobe abierta por el lado que mira a la cerca, para que la gente oiga Misa pues dentro no cogen mas que diez o doce Muchachos.

12. Cf. John McAndrew, The Open-Air Churches of Sixteenth-Century Mexico, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965) passim.

13. Account Book, p. 2r.

14. Informes, 1777, 1778; 1779; 1780, 1781, SBMAL.

15. Informe, 1788, SBMAL.

16. Informe, 1781, SBMAL.

17. Ed. Herbert Ingram Priestly, The Colorado River Campaign of 1781-82. Diary of Pedro Fages (Publications of the Academy of Pacific Coast History, Vol. 3, No. 2), University of California, Berkeley, May, 1913, pp. 97-98.

18. Informe, 1783, SBMAL.

19. Ibid.

20. SBMAL.

21. Biennial Report, 1811-12, SBMAL.

22. Biennial Report, 1813-14, SBMAL.

23. Letter from Fr. Tomas de Ahumada at San Borja, 20 February, 1815, to Jos6 de la Guerra at the Presidio of San Diego, De ]a Guerra Papers, SBMAL.

24. Cf. Neuerburg, “The Angel of the Cloud, or ‘Anglo-American Myopia’ Revisited: A Discussion of the Writings of James L. Nolan,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. LXII, No. 1, 1980, p. 14.

25. Archivo Historico de Hacienda, Legajo 281-60, p. 2.

26. Ibid., Leg. 281, f. 51.

27. Ibid., San Fern. III, ff. 317-317v., 1804.

28. Ibid., Leg. 281-60, p. 3.

29. Ibid., CSF., vol. XII, 23 Nov. 1775.

30. Ibid., San Fern. 111, ff. 317-317v, 1804.

31. Two large ones were sent in 1791; the others were there by 1816 when they are included in the inventory in the mission’s Libro de Patentes, now in the Archival Center at San Fernando Mission.

32. Archivo Historico de Hacienda, CSF, vol. XII, p. 15.

33. Engelhardt, San Diego Mission, p. 288.

34. Henry L. Oak, A Visit to the Missions of Southern California In February and March 1874 (Los Angeles, California: Southwest Museum, Highland Park, 1981), p. 28.

35. Engelhardt, San Diego Mission, p. 331.

36. Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society During the Year 1858 (Sacramento, 1859), p. 273.

37. Clipping in Benjamin Hayes, Emigrant Notes, p. 280, Huntington Library.

38. Flora L. Stanfield, “The Mission of San Diego and Its Founder,” Ave Maria XXI, November 28, 1885, pp. 964-965.

39. Engelhardt, San Diego Mission, p. 288.

40. Ibid., pp. 160-161.

41. Ed. Douglas S. Watson, The Santa Fe Trail to California 1849-1852 – The Journal and Drawings of H.M.T. Powell, Book Club of California, 1931, pp. 189 (first sketch, Jan. 1, 1850), 193 (3 sketches, one for Lt. Couts, Jan. 21, 1850), 195 (2), 197, 198.

42. Ibid., facing p. 194.

43. Oak, A Visit to the Missions, p. 26.

44. Irwin Shapiro, The Golden Book of California (New York: Golden Press, 1961), p. 14. The painting was formerly in the Grabhorn Collection.

45. Elisabeth L. Egenhoff, Fabricas, Sacramento, 1952, fig. 31.

46. Engelhardt, San Diego Mission, p. 152.

47. Collection California Historical Society. Illustrated in Fabricas, fig. 111, where it is incorrectly attributed to James Madison Alden.

48. Lt. R.S. Williamson, Report of Explorations in California for Railroad Routes to Connect with the Routes Near the 35th and 32nd Parallels of North Latitude, 1853, Col. Plate XII.

49. John Russell Bartlett, Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in California During the Years 1850-53 (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1854), Vol. 11, p. 103.

50. Drawing by C.C. Churchill, done in 1855 (or 1858), Pierce photograph 7286.

51. Collection California Historical Society, unpublished. There is also a second view taken from farther up the valley.

52. Henry Miller, Account of a Tour of the California Missions – 1856 – The Journal and Drawings (The Book Club of California, 1952), facing p. 56.

53. See above, note 34.

54. Land of Sunshine, July 1899, August 1899; August-September 1901.

55. J.M. Miller, “Restoring California’s First Mission, ” p. 323.

56. Rexford Newcomb, The Old Mission Churches and Historic Houses of California, (Philadelphia & London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1925), pp. 121-122.

57. J.M. Miller, “Restoring California’s First Mission,” p. 322.

58. George Kubler, Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948).


Photographs from this article

PHOTOGRAPH CREDITS: page 3 & 6, San Diego History Center; page 4, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles; page 7, 15, 16 and 18, Santa Barbara Mission Archives Library; page 8 (top) & 13, Bancroft Library, Berkeley; page 8 (bottom), Huntington Library, San Marino; page 10, 12 & 14, California Historical Society; page 22 & 23, author’s collection. COVER: is a detail of a painting of Mission San Diego de Alcala (c. 1850s) by H.M.T. Powell. Courtesy Carl Dentzel and Elizabeth Waldo Dentzel Collection. Back cover is Mission San Diego in 1927.


Norman Neuerberg is Professor Emeritus of Art History, California State University, Dominguez Hills.