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Index by Medium

Southwestern Style

As we've studied architectural styles the past few months, we've looked almost exclusively at the eastern United States, as if the frontier west of the Mississippi didn't exist. It's time to correct that. One of the reasons we've neglected this area is not that distinctive architectural styles didn't exist in the West (they did); but because they weren't applied to any great extent to private homes until well after the Civil War. Before that, western houses were either too crude to reflect any distinctive styling, or simply imitative of the eastern styles we've discussed. As easterners migrated west, they took their plan books with them and tried to recreate that which they'd left. It was only in the 1880s as a second generation of native Texans and Californians in particular began building homes, that they were influenced by native South-western styles. Thus in the Southwest, there began to be felt the strong Spanish architectural heritage.

To make matters complex in this case, we're talking about not one but four distinctive South-western styles. The earliest we call the Mission style. Think stucco, think red tile roofs, think the curvilinear tops of Spanish missions in Texas and California. Remember what the front of the Alamo looks like? That and their red tile roofs are the most distinctive details of the Mission style. They can become very large and in their purest manifestations, quite Baroque, or sometimes look almost like a mission church.

The second style we call Spanish Eclectic. It's the most common. Again, you'll see lots of red tile roofs, but this time more likely stucco over adobe brick, or just adobe brick. The design is always one story, usually in an "L" shape with a porch, featuring low-pitched roofs with little or no overhang. The occasional use of arched windows, doors, and porches is about the only architectural enhancement to this style. It is a no-nonsense ranch type dwelling ideally suited to the South-western environment. Larger versions are fairly rare and may borrow lightly from the Mission style, but even at that, there's a tendency toward plainness in this style.

The third style is such a minor variation of the Spanish Eclectic it's almost not worth mentioning. It develops as one moves from southern to northern California. It's called the Monterey Style and it's basically a two-story rendition of the Spanish Eclectic with a cantilevered balcony in front over the entry. Its only other difference is that it may be somewhat more often built of brick or wood than its southern cousin.

And the forth style is maybe the least Spanish of them all. Perhaps more accurately we might call it South-western Native American. Architects prefer Pueblo Revival. We all have some idea in our minds what a Pueblo looks like, right? Very well, simply transfer, translate, and improvise that image into that of a private home. Of all these, this is the most recent development. Few (other than authentic Pueblos) existed before 1900. They are often tan stucco made to look like adobe with cylindrical rafters extending beyond the walls, which may or may not actually support their always flat roofs. These two elements, and their rounded edges, are their most distinctive traits. Because they are so practical and well adapted to the harsh, hot, arid climate of the Southwest, they've remained popular through most of the twentieth century and are still being built even today.

For those keeping track of such things, we've now covered all the American housing styles having their roots in the nineteenth century and overseas. We're done with revivals. From this point on, while there may be a little "neo-eclectic" flavouring to what we see, everything else is "modern." Of course that's a horribly ineffectual term to apply to architecture because it's been widened to the point almost anything can fit inside its broad understanding. In architecture, it means only twentieth century. It says nothing about style except for the revivalism it excludes. During the next few weeks, now that the twentieth century is effectively over, I'll try to give its distinctive styles shape and form; though please, don't expect it to be as colourful or diverse as those resulting from our great, century-long search for a comfortable "American" housing style.

contributed by Lane, Jim


29 October 2000

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