Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Spanish Colonial in San Diego—and Chazy

Chazy Central Rural School, 1919
The Chazy Central Rural School building which stood from 1916 until 1969 was unusual in many ways. Most rural schools (or urban schools, for that matter) did not have swimming pools, film projectors, or marble-topped cafeteria tables. Also unusual was the choice of architectural style: a blending of Mission and Spanish Colonial elements. Why did William H. Miner and his architect, Frederick Townsend, choose this style—associated with the American Southwest and Mexico—for a school building in the far north of New York State?

Neither Townsend nor Miner seem to have left any definitive statement on the matter, so we’ll probably never know for sure, but one influence may have been the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. The Panama-California Exposition was one of two world’s fairs held that year to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The other, in San Francisco, was much larger, but San Diego found ways to differentiate its exposition from its northern neighbor.

Promotional pamphlet made by the
San Diego Board of Supervisors
At the time of the fair, San Diego had a population of about 40,000, making it the smallest city ever to host a world’s fair. But city boosters saw this as an opportunity to shape San Diego’s public image and attract future residents, investors, and tourists. The exposition’s architecture and landscape design would demonstrate that the city and region had a rich history, while the exhibits would show that it was forward-thinking in technology, industry, and agriculture. Perhaps the city’s biggest selling point was its climate: this would, it was proudly announced, be the first “All-the-year-round” exposition. As one promotional pamphlet exclaimed, “Nowhere else but in this land of favored climatic conditions could such a fair be possible. Here is perpetual Springtime. Here is a climate that couldn’t be more delightful if it were made to order.” By opening the fair on January 1, organizers made the most of the contrast between winters in Southern California and other parts of the country.

The Varied Industries building and gardens
Floods of promotional material about the San Diego fair began to appear several years before it opened, as organizers, the city’s chamber of commerce, and railroads began to drum up interest. Naturally, much of their focus was on the new buildings being constructed in Balboa Park beginning in the summer of 1912. Unlike most world’s fair structures, a number of these were always intended to be permanent additions to the site—and indeed the whole complex proved to be so beloved by the local community that others were also kept and re-used for other purposes, including another fair in 1936. Instead of the classically-inspired architecture that had become the standard at previous fairs, organizers chose the Spanish Colonial as a distinctive and versatile style. The unified design scheme, along with the strong historical and regional associations of the style, would help San Diego’s fair distinguish itself from San Francisco. For many Americans living in the northeast and midwest, this was probably their first real exposure to Spanish Colonial and Mission architecture, and the San Diego fair led to a surge in its popularity. 

Originally the Indian Arts Building,
rebuilt in 1996 and now home to the
San Diego Art Institute
The fair’s Director of Works, Frank P. Allen, Jr., wrote that the Spanish Colonial was an ideal choice for exposition architecture not just because it was regionally appropriate but because it encompassed a wide range of styles, from “the ornate and whimsical extravagance of of Churriguersque and Plateresque, down to the simple lines and plain surfaces of the California mission buildings.” While being unified in material and inspiration, the buildings would also show an interesting variety. Art critic and curator Christian Brinton, writing in The International Studio, praised the fair’s buildings as “a distinct step forward in American architecture. Architects who have visited the grounds are enthusiastic over the genuine renaissance of the glories of Spanish art and architecture which they feel will follow the San Diego Exposition.”

Visitors and critics alike agreed that the Exposition’s vision of “Old Spain” in California was a success. However, it also raised some questions about the uneasy place that the Spanish and Native Americans occupied in Anglo Americans’ conception of national history. It was generally acknowledged that the unique qualities of Spanish Colonial architecture came from the combination of Spanish design with Native American materials and labor. This was something to be proud of, something that set the buildings of the Americas apart from their European counterparts. At the same time, most writing about the fair also produced the clear impression that Spanish and native contributions were part of the past. Exhibit material stated in no uncertain terms that while there once had been great indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica, the great days of the Maya were long past by the time the Spanish arrived. Present-day Indians were described as “living just as they have lived and their ancestors have lived for centuries.” 

Zuni women making pottery as part of the
“Painted Desert” exhibit
Similarly, while the Spanish were given credit for starting the process of Christianizing and “civilizing” the southwest, it was also made clear that Anglo-Americans were now taking on that mantle—bear in mind that since 1898, the United States had also acquired many of Spain’s former colonies. Early 20th-century racial and evolutionary theories presented this sequence of events as inevitable: just as Native Americans had been conquered by the superior Spanish, so too were the Spanish ultimately supplanted by the superior Anglo-Americans. Adopting the Spanish Colonial style (and, it was strongly implied, improving it) was a way to symbolize this transition.

CCRS under construction, 1916
For William Miner and Frederick Townsend, the Spanish Colonial may have seemed like a good choice for Chazy Central Rural School because it was both traditional and up-to-date. It would certainly have stood out as something unique among the other buildings in the village, making clear that this school was different from the old rural school in every possible way. It also could be constructed with modern building materials, such as hollow brick and cement. Although the original school building did not stand for as long as Miner probably anticipated it would, it seems safe to say that it made an impression on everyone who saw it, and it is still fondly remembered today. 

You can still visit many of the Panama-California Exposition’s original buildings in Balboa Park, as well as others that were rebuilt in the 1990s.


Panama-California Exposition Digital Archive

Frank P. Allen, Jr., “San Diego Exposition: Development of Spanish Colonial Architecture,” Fine Arts Journal 32, no. 3 (March 1915), 116-126.

Christine Edstrom O’Hara, “The Panama-California Exposition, San Diego, 1915: The Olmstead Brothers’ Ecological Park Typology,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 70, no. 1 (March 2011), 64-81.

Hal K. Rothman, “Selling the Meaning of Place: Entrepreneurship, Tourism, and Community Transformation in the Twentieth-Century American West,” Pacific Historical Review 65, no. 4 (November 1996), 525-557.

Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, “Spanish Origins of American Empire: Hispanism, History, and Commemoration, 1898-1915,” The International History Review 30, no. 1 (March 2008), 32-51.

Abigail A. Van Slyck, “Mañana, Mañana: Racial Stereotypes and the Anglo Rediscovery of the Southwest’s Vernacular Architecture, 1890-1920,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 5 (1995), 95-108.

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