Associated with both wedding cakes and McMansions, the Spanish Colonial Revival movement that took hold of California's early 20th century architecture left behind many civic structures that have since become classically Californian. Mixing elements from the colonial Spanish missions, the American Craftsmen style and the Arts and Crafts movement, architects like Bertram Goodhue set out to establish the metropolises of California as romantic bastions of "Spanish Magic". The style crystallized in San Diego's Balboa Park during the Panama California Exposition of 1915, celebrating the Panama Canal's opening and honoring San Diego's role as the first port north of the canal's westward opening.
3rd generation Los Angeles native Mike Sonksen -- perhaps far better known as "Mike the Poet", an impassioned flâneur and urban hiker famous for his city tours punctuated by poetic outbursts -- has been a mouthpiece for Los Angeles architecture and urbanism through his work as a tour guide, journalist, and (according to Mike Davis, at least) the Walt Whitman of the City of Quartz. His piece on the Spanish Colonial style's revival in Balboa Park, reproduced below, was originally written for his work as a graduate student in Los Angeles.
Deconstructing Spanish Magic in Balboa Park
By Mike Sonksen
The celebration of Romantic Spanish California is discussed by scholar Phoebe Kropp in California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place. Kropp presents four iconic California venues to illustrate the spirit of the times. San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition will be the venue discussed for this assessment because “with ornate architecture, costumed guards, strolling guitarists, and speeches honoring the conquistadors, San Diego’s exposition elaborated on the regional theme of Spanish romance at a new and monumental level” (103). As the author asserts, the many themed activities of the fair and Bertram Goodhue’s iconic architecture expressed California’s “Spanish Magic” in high relief. This discussion will examine how the exposition served to catalyze San Diego’s growth as well as cementing Spanish-colonial architecture as Southern California’s dominant regional aesthetic. Furthermore, nearly a Century after the exposition its ideological and concrete effects remain in place and will be forever enshrined with California booster mythology.
Held the same year as the Panama-Columbian Exposition in San Francisco, San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition proved to be a rousing success for the fledgling city. At the turn of the 20th Century “San Diego was a small city with big ambitions” (105). San Diego saw itself in competition with Los Angeles for West Coast primacy and economic development especially because of the city’s superb natural harbor. By the time of the exposition in 1915 however, Los Angeles was already much bigger than San Diego and city leaders were getting anxious. “The city’s dimming prospects,” Kropp writes, “led San Diego boosters to the idea of staging a world’s fair to advertise their city to the nation and to outpace rivals” (105).
The masses of enthusiastic people that attended the fair helped San Diego find its own place and identity within the landscape of Southern California and beyond. Kropp writes, “Over three and one-half million visitors descended upon the city, and one long-time San Diego resident later recalled that the fair ‘really opened San Diego’” (155). The organizers of the fair and city boosters achieved their objective and then some. The exposition clearly helped San Diego grow and moreover “the fair suggested that a ‘good-life’ economy might pan out after all, if on a smaller scale than in Los Angeles” (155). In other words, San Diego learned from the exposition that it no longer needed to surpass Los Angeles, the city could flourish on its own terms. The fair helped the city find the spirit of its identity with the good-life economy. Kropp concludes, “As a catalyst for San Diego’s growth, the exposition worked” (155).
On the eve of the fair, boosters’ described San Diego with superlatives like “the coming of ‘a new El Dorado’ in the Southwest” (119); and the “magic city on the mesa” (120). Their “dual intentions to display the region’s romantic history while encouraging future development led to designs that juxtaposed regional antiques with cutting-edge technology, a Spanish past with Anglo progress” (120). Held in Balboa Park, the iconic architecture of Bertram Goodhue greatly contributed to the fair’s powerful aesthetic. Kropp writes, “The image that first greeted visitors was the architecture and ambiance of Spanish romance” (120). Balboa Park itself was named for a famous conquistador or as the author recalls boosters “chose the ‘hardy Spaniard,’ for whom they thought the Pacific Ocean ought to have been named” (114). Balboa Park was the ideal location for the coming events because it “foreshadowed the merger of nostalgic sentiment for the region’s Spanish-colonial past with the imperial civic ambitions that animated exposition boosters” (114).
In spite of his East Coast roots, architect Bertram Goodhue proved to be an astute choice to create an atmosphere of Spanish Magic in California. Goodhue created a built environment of Spanish baroque, colonial and Moorish styles that used ornament as a prominent feature on the building facades. The Spanish-colonial style had been influenced from the Mission era and had reappeared in the 1890s but “Goodhue’s approach at the Panama-California Exposition would touch off a Spanish-colonial building spree in the later 1910s and 1920s” (121). Goodhue’s brand of Spanish-colonial buildings led to hundreds of similarly themed Spanish Colonial style structures in Southern California from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
Goodhue employed a version known as Churrigueresque, which is based on the 18th Century Spanish baroque style of the Spanish architect Jose Churriguera. Churrigueresque is sometimes called “wedding cake architecture,” the extra detail of its design is why enthusiasts value it more than other styles. It is much more decorative than most aesthetics. Kropp explains, “local designers applauded the move from the more austere style of the California missions to the flamboyant stage of Spanish-colonial style, which they claimed could be a ‘style as complex and rich as the Baroque of Europe’” (120).
Many notable Southland projects built in the 1920s like the Beverly Hills City Hall, Beverly Wilshire Hotel, El Capitan Theater and St. Vincent’s Church emulated Goodhue’s Spanish-colonial style and his frequent use of ornamentation in their rendering. The author confirms his towering influence when she notes, “In 1920 The Architectural Forum proclaimed that Goodhue’s design was ‘the greatest single factor influencing the present growth of good Spanish Colonial architecture in California’” (165). Moreover, though Goodhue would die a decade later in 1925, the last years of his life were filled with commissions because of the success of the fair.
Goodhue’s final project was the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles but for architectural historians the buildings he created at Balboa Park were undoubtedly the crown jewel in the storied architect’s oeuvre. The magnitude of Goodhue’s iconic work at Balboa Park is analogous in our contemporary era to architect Frank Gehry and his signature structure, the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The exposition demonstrated “the possibilities of using a Spanish idiom to express the regional identity” (155). Goodhue’s California Building is an outstanding example because the heavily ornamented building included relief images of historical figures like Father Junipero Serra, Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo, the first Spanish governor of California Gaspar de Portola, the Spanish monarch Charles III and several other figures including English navigator George Vancouver. Kropp observes, “the array of monarchs, sailors and missionaries reflected the way in which fair designers used regional history as a grab bag of references” (123).
The inconsistent use of these references demonstrated how exposition organizers manipulated history to create their desired narrative. Kropp explains, “while George Vancouver, the lone English explorer in the group, might seem out of place, his presence testified to the Anglo claim on California. Having Serra nearly carry the U.S. shield reinforced the point that the Spanish conquest of California had been an obliging precursor to the Anglo-American one” (123). Goodhue’s masterful use of these iconic images created a visual narrative that reaffirmed the intentions of fair organizers to celebrate the Spanish past but to still promote booster ambitions. Kropp writes, “Here was the Spanish legacy as imperial spectacle, designed to impress, spur growth and development, and inspire booster dreams” (155).
The sheer spectacle of these buildings reflected both the region and country’s imperial ambitions. Julia Morgan’s design for Hearst Castle built a few years after, used many of the same motifs Goodhue used in San Diego. The majesty and ornamentation of these respective buildings conveyed power and influence, it makes sense that Goodhue’s Spanish-colonial style was co-opted across California for city halls, churches, courthouses and hotels. A drive through Old Town Pasadena, Santa Barbara or Beverly Hills reveals dozens of these architectural gems still standing in almost perfect condition. The lasting success of the architecture is one of among many concrete products of the fair.
The ideological product or historical memory of the exposition remains firmly in place a century later. The author explains, “The fair’s Spanish style had as much regional impact, architecturally and culturally, in the decades to come as it did upon the exposition grounds” (156). The fair’s programming featured California history reenacted in carnivals, concerts, ceremonial pageants and costume balls. The historical memory of Spanish romance personified the fair: “The Panama-California Exposition painted regional ambitions in imperial terms. At the same time, it transformed the Spanish inheritance into one of national glory” (262). Furthermore, as Kropp notes, “The exposition showed that a fanciful version of the Spanish past could convey sentiment and ambition, nostalgia and progress, region and empire” (155).
All and all, the Panama-California Exposition’s significance and influence extends beyond San Diego to include Southern California and the entire West Coast. Kropp writes, “the fair began to promote loyalty to city and region by generating shared styles of popular culture, the most important of which was a fanciful and entertaining memory of Spanish California” (116). Architect Lillian Rice and the developers of Rancho Santa Fe applied these principles to their elite subdivision of homes.
Similar fanciful memories of Spanish California worked for city boosters throughout the state. As noted above Pasadena, Beverly Hills and Santa Barbara exploited the use of decadent Spanish-colonial architecture to sell their city. What’s more is that the mythology connected to these structures remains firmly in place. In her conclusion Kropp writes, “the commitment to the romantic past both saved and created a built environment for future generations to see, interpret and reclaim” (268). Thus, the exposition not only succeeded in promoting San Diego, it affirmed Spanish-colonial architecture as the region’s dominant aesthetic and ended up boosting both the economy and mythology of the entire region. The momentum created by the exposition in 1915 continues to this day.
On a final note I recently visited Balboa Park and marveled at structures like the California Building. There were too many buildings and gardens to walk through, nonetheless we saw what we could and enjoyed every moment. The park itself is indeed a majestic site with several structures and museums on a monumental scale. Kropp writes, “by building elaborate Spanish castles in service of American regional empire, the fair represented Anglo-American conquest as a mantle rightfully won and confidently worn” (156). The early boosters’ imperialistic intentions remain on full display and look better now than ever. The precedent set by the Panama-California Exposition helped define Southern California in several ways, especially in architecture and the region’s close association with the romantic Spanish past. Moreover, the iconic imagery and spirit inaugurated there a Century ago remains in full effect for future generations that visit Balboa Park.