Digging Deeper: The Historic Architecture in California

This month’s ArtSmart Roundtable is all about architecture, and I decided to give you a little overview of the architecture of California since there’s more history to be seen here than some might imagine.

Because California is one of the westernmost states and had such a strong influence on 20th century culture, many people don’t realize the history that exists here. Like the rest of the U.S., California was once inhabited by Native American tribes. Europeans began exploring the coast of California in the 1500s, with the first being Portuguese explorer João Rodrigues Cabrilho. In the mid-1700s, the Spanish extended their colonization of Mexico into present-day California and built missions along the California coast. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain, and California became part of Mexico until 1848 when Mexico lost the Mexican-American War. At the same time, gold was discovered in Northern California, and the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s resulted in new cities and populations in California.

Historic Architecture in California | This Is My Happiness.com

Click on the map for a Google Map of the places mentioned in this post.

When you visit California, you can see historic architecture from these times. Let’s see a bit about 18th-century Spanish architecture, mid-19th-century Gold Rush architecture, and the Victorian and Neoclassical architecture of the later 19th century.

Spanish architecture in California

The Spanish created a series of missions that stretch along El Camino Real (the King’s Road) from San Diego north to Sonoma. The second was Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo (or Carmel Mission) in the town of Carmel, built in 1770. It is one of the largest and most striking missions; its architecture is straight out of Spanish colonial days, reminding visitors of this part of California’s past.

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

But there are 20 other missions in California, each with a different expression of this type of historic architecture. San Diego has California’s first mission.

Historic California Architecture | This Is My Happiness.com

The San Diego Mission. Photo credit: Brian-m on Flickr.

Spanish architecture can also be found in some California towns. Probably the best known is Carmel, which is filled with Spanish architectural details reminiscent of the Moorish influences in Andalusia.

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

The tile roofs, adobe walls, and iron decorations can be found even where you least expect it. This building is in the center of the town of Napa.

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Monterey became the first capital of California in 1846, but the Spanish landed here as early as 1602. Monterey has some of the state’s oldest buildings in the Monterey State Historic Park.

Historic California Architecture | This Is My Happiness.com

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

Gold Rush architecture in California

The Gold Rush of the mid-19th century brought change to California quickly after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. Over 300,000 people came from all over the U.S. and even from other countries in search of gold. Most of the places where gold was found are in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, east of Sacramento.

Towns like Columbia and Bodie show what a Gold Rush town really looked like at the time, with wood and/or brick structures. The entire business district of Columbia has been preserved and is a state historic park.

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

The Wells Fargo bank in Columbia, where gold was weighed and sold during the Gold Rush.

Bodie was abandoned and is now a ghost town, national historic landmark, and state historic park.

Historic California Architecture | This Is My Happiness.com

Bodie State Historic Park. Photo credit: Terry Feuerborn on Flickr.

Soon after gold was found, small towns like San Francisco and Sacramento became important centers of business. The former business district of Sacramento is now a state historic park. Old Sacramento has more than 50 historic buildings that have been restored and reflect the wealth and development that came after the Gold Rush.

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

Some of the common architectural details from this time include decorative wrought-iron balconies, Victorian details…

Historic California Architecture | This Is My Happiness.com

large shutters, arches, colorful facades on brick buildings, and covered plank sidewalks.

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

Victorian and Neo-classical architecture in California

After the Gold Rush died down, California continued to develop. The wealth and power that California gained in the late 1800s is still visible in the state’s Victorian and Neoclassical buildingsMany cities in California, including San Francisco, Ferndale, Sacramento, Alameda, and Eureka, have beautiful Victorian architecture.

Victorian houses in San Francisco. Photo credit: Brandon Doran on Flickr.

Victorian houses in San Francisco. Photo credit: Brandon Doran on Flickr.

Historic Architecture in California | This Is My Happiness.com

An exuberant example of Queen Anne Victorian style: the Carson Mansion in Eureka, built 1884-86. Photo from Wikipedia.

The Capitol building in Sacramento is an excellent example of Neoclassical architecture in the United States. Completed in 1871, the building showcases features of this style, from its large dome and Greek-style sculptures to the Corinthian columns.

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

Private residences of wealthy families also reflected the architectural styles of the time. A style influenced by Italian villas and the decadence of the Victorian period, “Victorian Italianate” style can be seen in the Crocker Art Museum and Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento.

Historic California Architecture  | This Is My Happiness.com

Historic California Architecture | This Is My Happiness.com

Leland Stanford Mansion, Sacramento. Photo credit: Ray Bouknight on Flickr.

Have you seen architecture from any of these periods in California? Where have you seen interesting historic architecture in the U.S.?

For more about architecture around the world, see the other ArtSmart Roundtable posts:

Brunelleschi the Architect: More Than Florence’s Duomo  from Daydream Tourist

Putting on a good face: Renaissance facades in Florence from ArtTrav

Gaudi’s Barcelona from Art Weekenders

For more about travel in California, try these posts:

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