Spirits of the City

Spirits of the City: Mission Dolores Basilica

By Gary Kamiya & Paul Madonna

Illustration by Paul Madonna
The union of the 18th century Mission Dolores and the adjoining 20th century Mission Dolores Basilica is one of the odder visual collisions in San Francisco. The old adobe mission is simple, squat and unadorned, with its plain whitewashed walls evincing an austere piety. The basilica, by contrast, is the opposite of austere. With its riotous ornamentation, it is exuberant, over the top and more than a little showoffy. One building is authentic, the other a modern imitation of a florid old style. Yet the juxtaposition is charming — proving that jarring architectural encounters can be pleasing.

Nearly everyone knows something about the old Mission Dolores. Built by California Indians between 1782 and 1791, it’s the most historically important building in San Francisco. Thousands of native people are buried in its cemetery, along with pioneers, leading Californios and other important early San Franciscans. The basilica, on the other hand, is not well known. Yet its story is intriguing as well.

The basilica is one of the finest examples in the City of a Spanish Revival architectural style known as California Churrigueresque. The original Churrigueresque was a baroque style named after one of its leading exponents, a Madrid architect named José Churriguera (1665–1725). Churrigueresque buildings were characterized by elaborate detailing and ornamentation, especially above the entrances. The style was associated with an emboldened Catholic Church, asserting its worldly power with spectacular buildings that rejected classical restraint and made uninhibited appeals to the emotions.

The Churrigueresque style flourished in Europe and Latin America from the late 16th to the early 18th century, then faded out. Then, in the early 1900s, it had a most unexpected revival in California — thanks to a little-known exposition in San Diego.

In 1915, San Francisco (population of about 450,000) beat out San Diego (population approximately 40,000) to host the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. But San Diego promoters decided to hold their own fair, the Panama-California Exposition, anyway. The fair’s architects, Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow, chose Spanish baroque as their design theme — a major departure from previous U.S. fairs, which mostly featured Beaux-Arts architecture. The rococo style of the fair’s buildings, inspired by an eclectic grab bag of influences, was wildly popular and was given its own name: Spanish colonial revival. Tapping into an upsurge in nostalgia for California’s romantic Spanish past, Spanish colonial revival became the state’s most popular vernacular historical style.

Spanish colonial revival swept the state (many movie theaters were built in the style), and in its Churri­gueresque form inspired the Mission Dolores Basilica, which was completed in 1918. Another fine example of California Churrigueresque in San Francisco is Mission High School, built between 1925 and 1927, and just a block away from the basilica.

There is a touch of his­torical irony to the fact that a heavily ornamented monument to 20th century California’s nostalgic mania for the vanished “days of the dons” stands next to the unassuming building that was built when California really was a Spanish colony.

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