Spanish Style Homes in the New World

Mar-A-Lago and More Architecture Inspired by Spain

close view of stucco home, clay tile roofing, arched windows, and iron gate
Spanish Mission Style Home in Phoenix, Arizona. Morey Milbradt/Getty Images

Step through the stucco archway, linger in the tiled courtyard, and you might think you were in Spain. Or Portugal. Or Italy, or northern Africa, or Mexico. North America's Spanish style homes embrace the entire Mediterranean world, combine it with ideas from Hopi and Pueblo Indians, and add flourishes that can amuse and delight any whimsical spirit.

What do you call these houses? Spanish-inspired homes built in the first decades of the 20th century are usually described as Spanish Colonial or Spanish Revival, suggesting that they borrow ideas from early American settlers from Spain. However, Spanish style homes might also be called Hispanic or Mediterranean. And, because these homes often combine many different styles, some people use the term Spanish Eclectic.

Spanish Eclectic Homes

light browh stucco house, red tile roof, arches and columns, amidst palm trees
North Palm Beach, Florida. Peter Johansky/Getty Images (cropped)

America's Spanish houses have a long history and can incorporate many styles. Architects and historians often use the word eclectic to describe architecture that mixes traditions. A Spanish Eclectic house is not exactly Spanish Colonial or Mission or any particular Spanish style. Instead, these early 20th century homes combine details from Spain, the Mediterranean, and South America. They capture the flavor of Spain without imitating any one historic tradition.

Characteristics of Spanish-Influenced Homes

The authors of A Field Guide to American Houses characterize Spanish Eclectic homes as having these features:

  • Low-pitched roof
  • Red roof tiles
  • Little or no overhanging eaves
  • Stucco siding
  • Arches, especially above doors, porch entries and main windows

Additional characteristics of some Spanish style homes include having an asymmetrical shape with cross-gables and side wings; a hipped roof or flat roof and parapets; carved doors, carved stonework, or cast iron ornaments; spiral columns and pilasters; courtyards; and patterned tile floors and wall surfaces.

In many ways, America's Spanish Eclectic houses that were built between 1915 and 1940 look similar to the slightly earlier Mission Revival houses.

Mission Style Houses

typical Mission Revival style, two story stone house, parapets, one story porch across the width of the facade
Elizabeth Place (Henry Bond Fargo House), 1900, Illinois. Jim Roberts, Boscophotos, via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0), cropped

Mission architecture romanticized the Spanish churches of colonial America. Spain's conquering of America had involved two continents, so mission churches can be found throughout North American and South America. In what is now the U.S., Spain's control was primarily in the southern states, including Florida, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Spanish Mission churches are still common in these areas, as many of these states were part of Mexico until 1848.

Mission style houses typically have red tile roofs, parapets, decorative railings, and carved stonework. They are, however, more elaborate than the colonial era mission churches. Wild and expressive, the Mission house style borrowed from the entire history of Spanish architecture, from Moorish to Byzantine to Renaissance.

The stucco walls and cool, shaded interiors make Spanish homes best suited for warmer climates. Nevertheless, scattered examples of Spanish style houses — some quite elaborate — can be found in chilly northern regions. One fine example of a Mission Revival home from 1900 is the one built by Henry Bond Fargo in Geneva, Illinois.

How a Canal Inspired Architects

two towers connected by arched walkway with a landscaped pond in the foreground
Casa de Balboa in Balboa Park, San Diego. Thomas Janisch/Getty Images (cropped)

Why the fascination for Spanish architecture? In 1914, gates to the Panama Canal swung open, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. To celebrate, San Diego, California — the first North American port of call on the Pacific Coast — launched a spectacular exposition. The chief designer for the event was Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who had a fascination for Gothic and Hispanic styles.

Goodhue did not want the cold, formal Renaissance and Neoclassical architecture that was normally used for expositions and fairs. Instead, he envisioned a fairy tale city with a festive, Mediterranean flavor.

Fanciful Churrigueresque Buildings

detailed facade of ornate building in San Diego, California, palm trees
Spanish Baroque, or Churrigueresque, Facade of Casa del Prado in Balboa Park. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

For the Panama–California Exposition of 1915, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (along with fellow architects Carleton M. Winslow, Clarence Stein and Frank P. Allen, Jr.) created extravagant, capricious Churrigueresque towers based on the 17th and 18th century Spanish Baroque architecture. They filled Balboa Park in San Diego with arcades, arches, colonnades, domes, fountains, pergolas, reflecting pools, man-sized Muslim urns and an array of Disneyesque details.

America was dazzled, and Iberian fever spread as trendy architects adapted Spanish ideas to upscale homes and public buildings.

High Style Spanish Revival Architecture in Santa Barbara, California

aerial view of red tile roof, gable and circular, on top of a stucco white building with arched windows
The Spanish-Moorish Santa Barbara Courthouse, Built in 1929 After the 1925 Earthquake. Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images

Possibly the most famous examples of Spanish Revival architecture can be found in Santa Barbara, California. Santa Barbara had a rich tradition of Hispanic architecture long before Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue unveiled his vision of a Mediterranean skyline. But after a massive earthquake in 1925, the town was rebuilt. With its clean white walls and inviting courtyards, Santa Barbara became a showplace for the new Spanish style.

A landmark example is the Santa Barbara Courthouse designed by William Mooser III. Completed in 1929, the Courthouse is a showplace of Spanish and Moorish design with imported tiles, enormous murals, hand-painted ceilings, and wrought iron chandeliers.

Spanish Style Architecture in Florida

house of white masonry siding, red tile roof, Gaudi-like chimney pots, arched windows, palm trees
Home Designed by Addison Mizner in Palm Beach, Florida. Steve Starr/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, architect Addison Mizner was adding new excitement to Spanish Revival architecture.

Born in California, Mizner had worked in San Francisco and New York. At age 46, he moved to Palm Beach, Florida for his health. He designed elegant Spanish style houses for wealthy clients, purchased 1,500 acres of land in Boca Raton, and launched an architectural movement known as the Florida Renaissance.

The Florida Renaissance

large, multi-story hotel, white color, ornate, arched windows
Boca Raton Resort in Florida. Archive Photos/Getty Images

Addison Mizner aspired to turn the tiny unincorporated town of Boca Raton, Florida into a luxurious resort community filled with his own special blend of Mediterranean architecture. Irving Berlin, W.K. Vanderbilt, Elizabeth Arden, and other illustrious personalities bought stock in the venture. Boca Raton Resort in Boca Raton, Florida is characteristic of the Spanish Revival architecture that Addison Mizner made famous.

Addison Mizner went broke, but his dream came true. Boca Raton became a Mediterranean Mecca with Moorish columns, spiral staircases suspended in midair, and exotic Medieval details.

Spanish Deco Houses

stucco siding, red tile slanted roof like a front gable saltbox
The James H. Nunnally House in Morningside, Florida. alesh houdek via Flickr, Creative Common Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0), cropped

Manifesting in a variety of forms, Spanish Eclectic homes were built in nearly every part of the United States. Simplified versions of the style evolved for working-class budgets. During the 1930s, neighborhoods filled with one-story stucco houses with arches and other details that suggested a Spanish Colonial flavor.

Hispanic architecture also captured the imagination of candy baron James H. Nunnally. During the early 1920s, Nunnally founded Morningside, Florida and populated the neighborhood with a romantic mix of Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco houses.

Spanish Eclectic houses are not usually as flamboyant as Mission Revival homes. Nevertheless, America's Spanish houses of the 1920s and 1930s reflect the same enthusiasm for all things español.

East Meets West in the Monterey Revival

corner view of two story house with red tile roof and second story balcony
Norton House, 1925, West Palm Beach, Florida. Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0), cropped

By the mid-1800s, the new country called the United States was becoming homogenized — integrating cultures and styles to create a new mix of influences. The Monterey house style was created and developed in Monterey, California, but this mid-19th century design combined western Spanish stucco features with the French Colonial inspired Tidewater style from the eastern U.S.

The functional style first seen around Monterey was suited for a hot, rainy climate, and so its 20th century revival, called Monterey Revival, was predictable. It is a fine, pragmatic design, combining the best of East and West. Just as the Monterey Style blended styles, its Revival modernized many of its features.

The home of Ralph Hubbard Norton was originally designed by Swiss-born architect Maurice Fatio in 1925. In 1935 the Nortons bought the property and had American architect Marion Sims Wyeth remodel their new West Palm Beach, Florida home in the Monterey Revival style.

Mar-A-Lago, 1927

Exterior view of the south side of the Mar-a-Lago estate
Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida. Davidoff Studios/Getty Images

Mar-A-Lago is just one of the many opulent, Spanish-influenced homes built in Florida in the early part of the 20th century. The main building was completed in 1927. Architects Joseph Urban and Marion Sims Wyeth designed the home for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Architectural historian Augustus Mayhew has written that "Although most often described as Hispano-Moresque, the architecture of Mar-a-Lago may have been more accurately regarded as 'Urbanesque.'”

Spanish-influenced architecture in the U.S. is often a product of the architect's interpretation of the style of the day.

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