The final part of this trilogy of articles discussing the colonial architectural styles of the North Americas focuses on the legacy of the first medieval nation to explore, and later conquer, the Americas, the Spanish. They may have concentrated their colonial activities in Southern and Central America but they still made their mark to the North and leave behind a strong cultural presence.
The Spanish style of colonial architecture would have been, and still can be, found in the areas originally conquered and colonised by the conquistadors in the 16th and 17th centuries; areas in the US such as Florida and the south western states (California, Mew Mexico, Arizona) bordering Mexico as well as of course Mexico itself. There were effectively two strains of Spanish colonial architecture: that of the common homestead and that of the public building, in particular churches.
The oldest and original colonial homes in these territories would have been single story, single room houses with thatched and/or flat roofs. With their characteristic lime mortar whitewashed adobe walls they would have been very reminiscent of the ‘peasant’ homes back in Spain. The Spanish building styles and techniques originated in climates very similar to those subsequently encountered in the New World and so their features were well designed to deal with the heat experienced there. Cooling porches were built to provide shelter from the most extreme of the weather and the temperature within the buildings would have been regulated through the use of the thick adobe or stone walls and wooden shutters on the windows. As the buildings developed, and the settlers became more prosperous, they would have taken on second stories with porches and balconies and even ornamentation on their stucco walls.
Public buildings such as churches carried much grander and elaborate ornamentation on a far larger scale to reflect the catholic churches and cathedrals of the Spanish homeland. In contrast to the functional homesteads they were built to dominate and inspire the local inhabitants and advertise the power and authority of both the Spanish and the mother church. They therefore reflected the latest European styles of the age, principally Baroque, but also Neo-Classical and Renaissance and were complete with colourful and extravagantly decorated internal spaces.
Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of Spanish building however was the popularisation of the idea of organised town planning. The idea of laying out streets in predefined grids with open public spaces, such as central plazas, and prominent public buildings.
Towns were planned meticulously to give the key public buildings pride of place as well as to provide space for key social, communal and military functions within the town. Guidelines were even prescribed by the monarchy so that the town’s layout and its buildings therein would all work together to meet these aims. At the heart of these planned towns would be the impressive, dominating and awe inspiring churches and cathedrals that the Spanish built to spread the messages of their mission in the New World.
North America is, in every sense, a melting pot of cultural influences and this can be seen very clearly in its architectural styles. Influences may have travelled across the seas from the Old World of its European settlers but they have evolved and taken on characteristics of their own to suit both the demands of the new environments and the fashions of the inhabitants.