The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1995, Volume 41, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Building and Builders in Hispanic California, 1769-1850.

By Mardith K. Schueltz-Miller. Tucson and Santa Barbara: Southwestern Mission Research Center and the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, Presidio Research Center, 1994. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 231 pages. $137.00 Buy this book.

Reviewed by Jack S. Williams, Executive Director of the Center for Spanish Colonial Archaeology and Principal Investigator of the San Diego Presidio Archaeology Project. Author of numerous studies and articles on Spanish Colonial history and archaeology.

Mardith Schueltz-Miller’s most recent contribution concerns the role played by artisans in the creation of early California. The book should help dispel the common misconception that the missions and the presidios were built by simple padres and soldiers, with the aid of a few Indian workers. In the pages of this well-crafted volume, Schuetz-Miller has carefully documented the significance of many professional construction specialists, including those who worked in the San Diego Presidio District.

A flaw of this book is that it sheds little light on the nonprofessional builders who also contributed to the Latino architectural tradition of California. This weakness is especially troubling when it involves major construction projects undertaken without the aid of professional builders. An example of such an endeavor was the massive emergency building program pursued at San Diego Presidio between 1775 and 1778. This effort resulted in the creation of the first adobe citadel at the site. The characteristics of this fortification, which were described in detail in 1778 by Josef Comacho, were apparently unknown to Schuetz-Miller (p. 149).

The author also clearly emphasizes the contribution of workers from the Naval Department of San Blas at the expense of other groups of builders. For example, the instructive papers of both Nicolas Lafora (1772), and Geronimo de la Rocha (1781), played important parts in the evolution of the California presidios that are not acknowledged in the pages of this manuscript. The construction of the Fuerte de Laguna Chapala in the Imperial Valley (built by Ramuldo Pacheco in 1826), as well as the creation of the Yuma settlements (1780-1781), are also topics that do not appear in the book.

In truth, much remains to be learned about the builders and buildings of early California. In spite of the flaws noted above, this book makes an excellent start in the direction of solving many of the region’s most elusive architectural and biographical mysteries. Both the Southwest Mission Research Center and the Santa Barbara Presidio Research Center should be applauded for bringing this book to publication. Anyone interested in Spanish Colonial California will want to include a copy of this work on their book shelves.

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