The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1987, Volume 33, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

by Norman Neuerburg

Images from this article

IT is possible that man began to make small-scale models of buildings almost as soon as he was able to construct the buildings themselves. For many centuries models were principally religious or funerary in function and only during a more technically advanced stage were what we might call “architect’s models” made. The religious models were usually symbolic or imaginary while the architect’s models were representations of what was yet to be built. However, in the nineteenth century we begin to find interest in the construction of models of buildings already existing or previously existing. The function of such models is essentially educational and it seems to touch a responsive chord in most individuals.

Each region has its own favorite subject for models, but in California there can be little doubt that the preferred one is the old Spanish Missions. Tourists vicariously tour El Camino Real in a few minutes at Knott’s Berry Farm and children in school learn of the early days of the state by creating their own models of missions. Most such models are rarely more than an approximation, to be charitable in describing them, and only very occasionally does one find a carefully executed, historically accurate representation. The various series of the whole chain of missions, in particular, tend to be ludicrously inaccurate. However, had it been completed, one series would have been the definitive small-scale recreation of El Camino Real.

In the spring of 1941 the first of the planned series, a model of San Diego Mission, was put on display in the garden of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. And what a magnificent model it was! Executed at the scale of an inch to a foot it was archaeologically correct in all details. The walls were made of redwood with the surface carved to represent the uneven plaster surface and then whitewashed (seven coats) and finally carved doors and windows were prepared as well, while thousands of miniature terracotta tiles covered the roofs. The structure was brought to life by innumerable figures representing the life of mission times.

Festivals were recreated as well as the scenes of everyday tasks. Even pieces of furniture and tools were made to scale.

The intention was that the whole chain of missions was to be recreated on an outdoor site sufficiently large that they could be placed far enough apart to be invisible from each other by careful shaping of the terrain and landscaping. The educational potential of the concept was immense and it is all the more to be regretted that the events of December 7, 1941, dashed all hopes of its fulfillment, even though attempts were made to revive the project after the end of World War II.

The initial idea was conceived by William M. Connelly who had promoted the Holland (Michigan) Tulip Festival and he took care of the initial financing, but the real master-mind behind it all was Edith Webb (1878-1959), a most remarkable woman. She did all the research and supplied the ideas which she and her son Alfred were able to communicate to a small group of enthusiastic and highly talented artists and craftsmen. Her son Alfred was the master architect and builder, aided by Avard Ward, Paul Brandenburg, and Forrest Howsley, while the human figures were done by Katherine Donnell, and the animals by Peter Terry and Charles Jenny. Her daughter Helen Duke laid the thousands of tiles. Rev. Joseph Thompson O.F.M. insured the liturgical authenticity of the religious scenes.

If Edith Webb’s name is now known outside of a small group of family and friends it is as author of Indian Life at the Old Missions, perhaps the finest book ever written about the California Missions. That book was the culmination of many decades of research on the missions. Her initial curiosity about the missions came about because her grandmother had resided in one of the rooms of Mission Dolores in San Francisco in the period just before the Gold Rush. Born in Utah, Edith Buckland Webb moved to California around the turn of the century. Her husband, whom she met here, was a teacher and a photographer. This latter talent of his was to be of great use during her research in the succeeding years; his first photograph of a mission shows her in a carriage with their first-born Alfred at age three months in front of Mission Dolores. In succeeding years she was occupied with raising a family, but she also applied her considerable artistic talents to the tinting of his photographs for sale. His photographs were exhibited in many salons, and he supplied photographic postcards and enlargements to several of the missions, especially San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, and San Fernando. By about 1923 she abandoned the simple tinting of photographs and began to devote herself seriously to painting, especially, though not exclusively, of the missions. These paintings were usually closely based on his photographs, but she soon conceived of the idea of executing a series of paintings of the missions as they appeared in their heydey. To prepare for this she began a systematic study of the buildings, beginning with the classic sources such as Bancroft and Engelhardt, then expanding into the original documents and the collecting of accounts and descriptions by the old settlers near some of the missions. At the same time she began to put together a notable collection of historical photographs, mostly acquired from C.C. Pierce, while her husband took countless others for her. Only in the mid 1930s was she finally ready to begin the paintings. These were first prepared in perspective by her son Alfred and then transferred to the canvases. She completed six of them and three, including San Diego, were in process when she became involved in the Little Mission, and she never returned to these. Her daughter Helen Duke has undertaken to complete the unfinished ones. The research done for the paintings, however, served as the basis for her great book which appeared in 1953, and that, as well as other writing projects, unfortunately never completed, occupied her last years.

After the initial showing at the Ambassador Hotel, the model was returned to the backyard of the Webb home in Hollywood where it had been constructed and remained there for some fifteen years, always with the hope that some day the project could be taken up again. Eventually the health of Mr. and Mrs. Webb became such that they gave up the house and the model was dismantled and stored. Two attempts later to find a permanent home for the model ended in its final destruction. Today nothing survives of the structure of the buildings, though the roof tiles, doors, furniture, and figurines all survive. Recently, twenty years after her death, the research materials of Edith Webb have been given to the Santa Barbara Mission Archive Library, and among the papers are the working drawings for the building of the model so that it would be quite possible to recreate it today, and that would, indeed, be a most worthwhile project to undertake.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the author and the collections of Edith Webb.