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The Spanish problem

Posted: December 5th, 2014 | Featured, Homes & Garden, Lifestyle | No Comments

We know one when we see it, but beyond that, nothing is certain

By Michael Good | House Calls

Lately I’ve noticed a sort of odd frustration coming from the direction of my clients when they find out their house has been labeled “Spanish Eclectic.” It is as if they have been dragged to a play, only to be told, in the end, “You know what, we’re not sure who did it.”

This is the age of uncertainty. I know because I read it on the Internet. The economy, the Middle East, any number of wars that we are in the middle of, the absolute uncertainty of Congress, the border, immigration, health care, Miley Cyrus’s love life — are there any more eligible Kennedy males out there? We just don’t know. We’ve got lots of information, but no resolution. No definition. No certainty. So of course when it comes to what kind of house we have, what kind of dog we have, the exact dimensions of our carbon footprint, our exact level of gluten intolerance — we’ve gotta nail that sucker down. Sign it. Stamp it. Download it and put it on the thumb drive.

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Alta Canada: an Andalusian-style apartment complex by architect Allen Hilton
(Photo by Michael Good)

So, anyway, I’m here to help. I think. If not with your anxiety, at least with identifying the DNA of your house. But first, you need to take a breath, get some perspective: The 1920s may have also been an age of uncertainty, but hey, no one cared. They were alright with it. They were OK with not knowing if their house was Spanish Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, Mexican Territorial Revival, or just plain Spanish-Spanish. It was their house, it was modern, it was fun, it was stylish and convenient, they were making gin in the bathtub, they were rolling up the rug and dancing to jazz on the Victrola. Everything was OK.

Not that they were ignorant, however. There were plenty of resources on the subject of Spanish Revival architecture. The local daily newspapers had a good grasp of the origins of the style, and covered it in the real estate pages. And every week, 100 million Americans went to the movies, where they received a romantic revival design tutorial, delivered by Zorro.

If you could get the definition of Plateresque in the home section of the San Diego Union in 1929, you should be able to get the definition of Spanish Eclectic in Uptown News in 2014. So I asked Ron May, one of the historians who has popularized the term, to explain why he uses it, rather than “Spanish Revival.”

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Is it Mission Revival? Is it Spanish Colonial? One thing we know for sure, whatever it is, it’s Eclectic. (Photo by Michael Good)

“Virginia and Lee McAlester, in ‘A Field Guide to American Houses,’ use the term Spanish Eclectic, and I adapted it for my reports to the City of San Diego,” said May, whose company prepares historical reports and Mills Act applications. “Builders in the 1920s simply wrote Spanish. Richard Requa [the principle architect for Kensington Heights and the 1935 World’s Fair in Balboa Park] simply wrote ‘the authentic Southern California Style.’’’

Requa’s term never caught on. Now Virginia McAlester has published a revised version of her style guide, and as May points out, she’s reverted to “Spanish Revival” (although she does so in a section called “Eclectic Houses”). May is unfazed.

“These are just terms used by the profession to explain the varied sources that builders referred to in selecting roof, wall, window, door, and staircase designs from old buildings in Spain, North Africa, France, and the Mediterranean,” he said. “Almost none of the buildings we see today from the 1920s resemble anything in Spain or Old Mexico, as they are vernacular or eclectic designs from the minds of the builders.”

In other words, who knows?

So maybe it’s up to us to decide what makes a house “Spanish” or not Spanish. Either way, let’s nail this thing down, shall we?

We’ll start with the details. First, the obvious: red tile roof and the white stucco walls. Then, the less obvious: red tile actually comes in a variety of shapes, colors and configurations, both barrel and S-curve, tapered and straight. And the white walls were seldom that white, and were even pink or tan.

Spanish Eclectic is eclectic in part because it draws from 500 years of architectural history in Spain, North Africa, the Mediterranean, Mexico and California. That’s a pretty wide window. The details “may be of Moorish, Byzantine, Gothic, or Renaissance inspiration,” according to Virginia McAlester. There can be a large focal window, a carved or paneled front door, iron sconces, three-light casement windows, window grilles of various configuration, arched windows (parabolic or otherwise), little balconies (“balconers”) of metal with tile floors, and Plateresque or Chirrugueresque bas-relief decoration surrounding entrance doors.

With all these influences and details swirling around inside and outside of Spanish Eclectic houses, it’s easy to assume that the builders didn’t know what they were doing. But that’s not the case. There was an eclectic movement in art and architecture during the ’20s. That gave builders license, and an already warmed–up audience, for their imaginative home designs. They weren’t trying to recreate the architecture of a bygone era. They were just trying to create something new out of something old. If only they’d given it a name. But I guess that’s my job.

Spanish bungalow: This is a Craftsman bungalow that has been adapted to the Spanish style. Builders applied the Spanish exterior elements to the basic California Craftsman layout, with the living room, dining room and kitchen on one side of the house, and the bathroom and three bedrooms (divided by a hall) on the other. The porch was replaced with a patio, the Chicago-style living room window replaced with an arched window; the shingle roof replaced with red tile.

Inside, the wood trim was Classical, with some concessions to Spanish. There could be art deco details, arches between rooms, the china cabinet tucked into a niche. Walls were often of rough texture, with rag-rolled, variegated, intensely colored paint treatments. But it was still a bungalow in form. And Spanish in style.

Andalusian Farmhouse: The original Andalusian farmhouse, like the California Rancho, expanded over time in an informal way, with rooms and buildings added organically. It was a cubist creation imbedded in a hillside, hugging the ground. The modern version, without the distraction of applied ornament, requires careful composition and balanced massing.

The Andalusian farmhouse style is less detailed, more modest, insular, with smaller windows and none of the Plateresque, byzantine detailing that marks many Spanish Colonial Revival houses. There was often a shed roof, windows incased by thick walls, a living room that looks like a sanctuary, and the whole assemblage enclosed by a roughly executed wall, reminiscent of the Ranchos of the Spanish Dons in early California.

Spanish Colonial Revival: This is what people think of when they think of Spanish. The basic provincial styles, with a lot of stuff stuck on, based on four continents and five centuries of architectural detail (and a half-dozen photo books of the period, such as “Provincial Houses in Spain,” by Mildred and Arthur Byne, 1927). This highly detailed version of the Spanish house is more boisterous and replete with Moorish and baroque detail, balconies, metal railings, towers, arches, carved low-relief ornament and arcades with decorative columns. It’s Hollywood Spanish. Sometimes the effect is stately, but it also can be a bit overwhelming, like a house that’s trying too hard.

—Michael Good is a fourth generation San Diegan who lives and works in North Park. He can be reached at housecallssdun@gmail.com.

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