Blogs > Cliopatria > Myths of Alta California

Aug 29, 2004 2:48 pm

Myths of Alta California

I spent several days in California visiting my parents. They no longer live in Los Angeles, moving to one of the interior valleys about a decade ago. This was the first time I had been in California and did not visit LA–--it was no longer my home. And as Goa Xingjian says, it is impossible in a city for any place to belong exclusively to one person. Still, I was a tourist in the place of my birth.

The Temecula Valley, where they live now, has undergone immense change in a short time. It is high desert nestled between tall mountains. The climate is generally dry, and trees are precious. Initially, there were numerous orange groves; to the south there are avocado groves. There is also a small wine country with a dozen and a half vineyards. Every time I visit I am impressed by the progress made by the winemakers

The landscape is a piece of the Mexican desert pushing into California. In fact, there are a number of strong, long-standing Mexican-American communities. It is possible to see a long distance from almost anywhere within the valley. My Connecticut-born wife thinks it is picturesque, but not quite hospitable.

This area has come under pressure as new housing developments are raised and new people move in. A few orange groves have disappeared. Cookie-cutter houses obscure the original buildings that were appropriately weathered. The new residents commute to far off San Diego and Orange Country ... and to LA in some cases. They don’t understand the Mexican Americans who live in the area.

Being a tourist at home allowed me to do tourist things that I would not have done before. One thing I wanted to do was explore Spanish Colonial influence. Local myth in New England is intimately entwined with the founding history of America: people tend to see all American history originating from them. I was happy to show my wife the history and myths of old California with which I was raised.

The myth, of course, is that of Catholic missions and Father Junipero Serra: a Franciscan who was sent to establish a firm Spanish presence in Alta California against the encroachment of British and Russian traders and to Catholicize the natives. The mission were outposts whereat Europeans and natives coexisted. They were the basis for the settlement of California. The pastoral image of monks and natives living together in harmony persists today. The reality was that the mission system, while growing, was fragile, and the religious goals of the missionaries conflicted with the goals of the crown, which wanted to turn natives into Spanish citizens. To this end, the state founded towns: there were parallel policies that led to the settlement (in the European sense) of California.

We drove out to two missions, San Juan Capistrano and San Luis Rey (a beautiful drive over the mountains). Each mission left me with a different impression. San Juan Capistrano completely fit its romantic image. The mission is right in the middle of the city, surrounded by streets that run parallel to the walls. Large parts of the structure have been not been rebuilt, giving that classic look of a ruin. The large church has been left completely open to the elements, its roof having collapsed in an earthquake. The gardens are filled with colorful plants; there are running fountains. Numerous artists paint the famed bells. Parts of the mission dedicated to artisanship are open and thoroughly explained. There is even a little display showing the piano whereat “When the swallows return to Capistrano” was composed. So close to the street, the mission is more of a park than an historical site–a respite from urban life among romantic surroundings.

San Luis Rey has been restored. The damage that it experienced has been repaired, and it appears to be more functional. The mission is painted in a stark white, and stunning site as it is some distance from its city. One of the last missions that was built, it was meant to look more like a baroque Spanish church. Details that would normally have been created with wood carving, stained glass and marbled stone were painted in. Imported statues of religious figures were evocative and emotional. The museum was well organized, showing the articles of daily and religious life. Most of these came from Spain, although some were produced in Mexico and (in rare cases) locally.

Despite its restoration, San Luis Rey probably did more to recreate the impression of a mission against the Southern California landscape: a stark white edifice against high mountains, surrounded by land affected by drought. I was transfixed by two photographs that showed the conditions of both mission in the mid-nineteenth century. Not only were they in need of repair, but the landscape was desolate. Time has given richer flora to both San Juan Capistrano and San Luis Rey (thanks to the likes of William Mulholland). However, the former looks like a piece of paradise in a hectic world. The former reveals more of the imposing presence of the Church when it was first built, something that could have been alien and unfamiliar. Furthermore, San Juan Capistrano gave the impression that the missions were self-sufficient because of the centrality of displays of artisanship, a notion betrayed by San Luis Rey.

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Julie A Hofmann - 9/4/2004

What always gets me about preservation of "our Spanish" heritage in California, or at least as it seems in Santa Barbara, where I've spent a pretty big chunk of my life, is very much bound up in the mythology. Santa Barbara is particularly interesting to me, because it has this bizarre heritage as an alternate Hollywood, as the home of the "Queen of the Missions," and one of the most clear indications of income disparity I've ever seen. The myth of the happy native-Spanish relations is there, too -- although it's not hard to hear about the huge number of local Chumash who died (both intentionally and iunintentionally) at the hands of the Spanish -- and Serra's missionaries. It's a place where huge amounts of historic restoration and preservation have taken place -- for example, the rebuilding-restoration of parts of El Presidio. Where else could entire blocks of prime downtown real estate be given over to this kind of restoration? It's a place where buildings within the downtown area must fit into the city's "historica architecture" theme -- something I've always kinda likes, but that's because as a little kid I wanted the Santa Barbara Courthouse to be my own private castle.
Still -- it's the myths that cover up some things about California that I don't so much like. "Oooh -- Chumash Heritage and Island of the Blue Dolphins" but damn those Chumash for trying to trump environmental impact regs with their new casino-hotel project. (Although, to be fair, I think that's a big ol' boondoggle where Fess Parker (yeah, him -- he's SB's own special hell) is conniving with the Chumash to get rich off tribal casinos. Or "Ooh -- old Spanish Days!" but screw the long-time Latino residents and recent (legal and illegal) immigrants who need decent pay, housing, and healthcare, despite the fact that they do all the scut work ...
The myths are pretty, but sometimes, we have to look beyond them, I guess.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/31/2004

"Recovering architect" John Massengale has some comments on this article.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/31/2004

I'm inclined to agree. There are buildings that need to go. It is tricky though. Stability of architecture does help provide a feeling of community, even if it is not particularly inspired.

That's part of the problem colleges and universities face. They have alumni who want to come back 20 years laters and see glimpses of their own haunts and get a glimpse of their salad days. I understand that.

However, if North Texas has not torn down Quad 4--one of four cinder block kilns used to house freshmen including myself--a crime of omission has been committed.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/30/2004

There is too much bad architecture that we are fighting to maintain--stuff that ought to be torn down. And I think that colleges and universities are big offenders, spending millions to repair old dorms and bring them up to code. Many of these buildings were not meant to last thirty years, yet are pushing fifty.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/30/2004

Indeed. A British architect is actually arguing that the removal of bad architecture should be subsidized in the same way that preservation is:

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/30/2004

There are two basic reasons to preserve or rebuild old buildings/ruings: their beauty and their history. I suppose even an old Walmart superstore might be valuable for its history, but how much that has been produced in the last 50 years would really be worth saving because of the aesthetics?

I see very little. Even some things like the 1930s era school buildings that excite some of my preservationist friends leave me cold. They can be touchstones for communities (history) but their smells, their attempts at compromising water fountain heights, the vaguely classical concrete work over the main entrance arouse in me dolor and not joy.

OK. So I didn't like public school. But there is a grace and sense of builder's pride to the old California buildings in these photos that I don't see in most 20th century architecture. And it gets less common with each passing year as all retailers turn to disposable big boxes to peddle their wares before moving on to the next bypass.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/30/2004


These are great questions. I think that landscape preservation requires that ruins be remade in some way. Some of these old, European style buildings were meant to dominate their landscape. Walking around at street level, I am awestruck when I see a spire peeking above the rooftops of buildings.
I think that preservation ought not be limited to maintaining ruins as-is: visitors need to be able to sense, in some way, the impression that old buildings made on people. The question of the preservation of landscapes and skylines is very important. Indeed, UNESCO is threatening to delist the Cologne Dom because construction around the cathedral threatens (what UNESCO considers to be) a unique skyline.

There is a good argument to be made that ruins should be kept as is. As much as possible, the old construction should be preserved so that it can be studied in itself. Furthermore, decay is evidence of misuse, neglect and abandonment. But this is not more genuine than reconstructing the building wholly: decay is being arrested in order to freeze history in its place--San Juan Capistrano is not simply left to nature, but kept as a sanctuary to memory. As a result, a part of the missionary past of California made unthreatening. (I gave some other thoughts to the role of ruins here.) San Luis Rey, while restored to its original look, gives the impression of continuous, uninterupted use. That said, there are ways that the structures of buildings can be completed in a way that reveals the building "as is" and places where modern man stepped in.

One example is the Reichstag building in Berlin (the former imperial parliament building, now used for the federal parliament). The drive to rebuild destroyed architecture in Germany has been strong, and there is a recipe by which reconstruction is done. The general pattern in Germany has been to complete the building with glass. The stone dome of the Reichstag, which was destroyed during WWII, has been replaced with a glass dome that allows light to shine out across Berlin. While not my first choice for a mix of building materials, it brings back the weight that the Reichstag placed on the Berlin skyline without disturbing the damage brought on by the war that Germans created themselves.

There are also historical restorations, like the Frauenkirche of Dresden which has been rebuilt stone by stone. The result are impressive, but I think that this project is being undertaken for reasons of civic pride: to show Dresden emerging from the so-called end of history.

Of course, the question of how to rebuild is American as well: the sites of the September 11 attacks. In the case of the Pentagon, the building has been seamlessly restored to its old coldness--the memorial to the attack exists apart from the building itself. The drive to rebuild in New York has not focused on remaking the Twin Towers (so unloved before the attacks) but on creating a building that reflects what happened.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/30/2004

Nathanael, Your interest in ruins and restoration is beautifully captured in the contrasts between the current condition of these two missions. Do you have any sense about when we ought to attempt restoration and when we should enjoy the ruins as ruins? Should the decision be simply based on current use?