Santa Barbara's Spanish Roots Spring to New Life with Mission Revival Style

by Anthony Grumbine
Harrison Design Associates, Architects [ ]

Architecture evolution embraces a newfound respect, awareness of our past

Architect Arthur Benton drew up plans for Santa Barbara’s Arlington Hotel in Mission Revival style. The hotel, on the current site of the Arlington Theatre, was built in 1910 but destroyed 15 years later in the 1925 earthquake. (Anthony Grumbine sketch)

It is easy to assume that Mission style architecture was always a well-loved part of California’s heritage. Any Fourth Grade elementary school student building a Mission model can tell you that the Missions are what Early California was all about. The Missions, however, were not always this respected. At one time they were practically forgotten. Through the later part of the 1800’s, nearly every California Mission was in various stages of disrepair.

In the later part of the 1800’s public attitude of the Missions began to change. Part of the new-found awareness for the Missions was due to Ramona, a novel which helped to popularize the Early California period. In Ramona, the dilapidated state of the Missions is brought to light through the eyes of a Franciscan traveling throughout California witnessing first-hand the sorry state of the Missions:

“But as year after year he journeyed up and down the country, seeing, at Mission after Mission, the buildings crumbling into ruin, the lands all taken, sold, resold, and settled by greedy speculators…”

The Missions were in dire straits, and something had to be done.


Mission Revival Column
Mission Revival column.
(Anthony Grumbine watercolor)

Although in great disrepair, a group of mission promoters began raising awareness and interest in California’s missions. Architects like Arthur Page Brown and Arthur Benton (must be the name) championed the style by bringing mission elements into their designs. Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition saw the California building designed as a Mission Revival building. By the mid-1890s, Mission Revival architecture was in full flight.

Its popularity soared, especially in the Southwest. Hotels across the region began building in Mission Revival style. The Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads built their train stations in the new style. Great works of Californian architecture like the Mission Inn in Riverside were constructed. So enthusiastic were some that an entire theater in Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, was built for the sole purpose of housing a play to celebrate the founding of early California.

A huge hit in California, Mission Revival architecture soon spread across the nation. Enthused with a newfound love of early California, architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries looked to the Southwestern icons of early Spanish architecture, the missions.

God and the Details

The modern architect Mies van der Rohe famously stated “God is in the details.” For Mission Revival architecture, this can be taken literally, since its principle forms stem from the church architecture of the missions.

One of these forms is the Mission gable, whose strong, clear façade announced the presence of the church, helping it stand out from surrounding buildings. Bell towers, which marked the hours of the day with their unmistakable toll, were incorporated into the more elaborate examples of Mission Revival architecture. Quatrefoil openings, once used for ventilation (which is why they are located in the upper portion of the façade), became signature windows of the style. Arcades that helped define the courtyards in front of the missions were brought back to life in the porches of Mission Revival houses. The missions had found new life.


Although a contemporary with Queen Anne Revival architecture, much of Mission Revival was in strong contrast to its fussier Victorian counterpart. The simple, almost bare treatment of the plaster Mission Revival walls are a stark contrast to the multishaped, multicolored, delicate shingles and siding of the Painted Ladies.

The proportions of many exterior elements were also different. Mission Revival style looked to the thick adobe walls of the missions, as well as the simple, almost naïve plaster detailing. Rather than delicate classical columns, Mission Revival architecture is stout and simple. The standard Tuscan columns, whose proportions are roughly one-to-seven (column width to column height), were replaced with the heavy one-to-four proportions of Mission Revival architecture.

Santa Barbara Looks to Its Roots

Crocker Row House
One of five iconic Crocker Row houses on Garden Street on
Santa Barbara’s Upper Eastside. (Marc Compton photo)

In Santa Barbara, Mission Revival had a strong presence in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Santa Barbara train station, 209 State St., is a good example with its long arcade, Mission gable, and trefoil (an interesting change from the usual quatrefoil).

A similar shift happens in residential architecture. Crocker Row, a five-house Mission Revival development on Santa Barbara’s Upper Eastside, testifies to the style’s strong and lasting presence in the city.

Another great example of Mission Revival architecture in Santa Barbara was the Arlington Hotel. Built in the location of the current Arlington Theatre, the hotel stood until it was damaged by the 1925 earthquake. It was a powerful example of Mission Revival, and the influence the style had in the early 1900s.

Mission Revival architecture played a key role in shifting Santa Barbara from a Victorian-style town, to one that recalled its early Spanish roots. This shift helped set the stage for what was soon to become the predominant architecture style of Santa Barbara’s downtown: Spanish Colonial Revival.

Train Station
The Mission Revival-style Santa Barbara train station. (Marc Compton photo)