With a history dating back nearly 400 years, Spanish architecture—otherwise referred to as Spanish mission architecture—has been a popular building style for centuries. Before it was adopted by homeowners across Florida, California, Texas, and the Southwest, however, Spanish architecture was reserved for the beautiful, ornate churches constructed by Spanish Colonial missionaries in the early 1900s.
Although many Spanish missions shared similar features—like white stucco walls, red clay roof tiles, small windows, and exposed beams—the stylistic and decorative touches were generally chosen by the founding priest.
Spanish mission architecture has retained many of the classical building elements throughout the years. Blending influences from Spain, Mexico, and Indigenous cultures, this simple and rustic, yet beautiful architectural style has become a popular choice in warmer climates across the United States.
History of Spanish Architecture
When Spanish settlers began to arrive in the Americas between 1600 and the mid-1800s, they brought with them traditional building styles from Spain. Because these settlers built their homesteads in areas like Florida, California, and the Southwest—locations with comparable climates to Spain—they were able to utilize their traditional building techniques. Because Spanish architecture drew inspiration from Mexican and Indigenous cultures across the country, you'll see marked differences in the stylings of Spanish-style homes in the Southeast and Southwest.
Like many architectural styles, Spanish architecture was heavily influenced by the building materials available. In the Spanish settlers' case, they were able to use adobe (made from straw and clay) for interior and exterior walls; red clay for their iconic red roof tiles; and wood for supporting beams and beautiful exposed beams.
The Spanish Colonial period ended in the mid-1800s, but Spanish architectural techniques and styles grew in popularity. Two events had a major impact on the spread of Spanish architecture:
- The 1884 novel Ramona, which told the story of a young Indigenous girl living in California in the early 1900s. It completely romanticized the idea of California, and fully enraptured the American public.
- The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, where each state designed a structure to showcase items produced within the state; California's structure was built as a traditional Spanish mission.
By the 1920s, there was a major boom in homes built using Spanish mission-style architecture. It remains an extremely popular building style today, particularly in warmer, drier climates in the United States.
Must-Have Elements of Spanish Architecture
As previously mentioned, Spanish missions often had distinguishing characteristics—based on the founding priest's decorative preferences. There are, however, some common elements shared among the Spanish missions across the country:
White Stucco Walls
Not only was adobe an excellent—and abundant—building material for Spanish settlers, but finishing it with white stucco offered some protection from hot, sunny days, too. Here's how it works: During the day, thick stucco walls retain cool air, and prevent it from escaping to the outside; at night, when temperatures drop, it releases the warmth accumulated throughout the day back into the home.
Red Clay Roof Tiles
Another building element that arose from availability, red clay roof tiles are one of the most well-known characteristics of Spanish architecture. Shaped like half of a tube, these clay tiles were able to capture and retain cool air. Roofs were typically low and slightly pitched, with eaves that extended beyond the roof line. This was added protection from the elements.
Asymmetrical Facades With Towers
Unlike Spanish Colonial architecture, Spanish mission-style structures often had asymmetrical facades. Large, square pillars and bell towers typically flanked the structure.
The cloisters, or covered walkways in Spanish missions, usually featured decorative archways. Walls were generally adobe and finished with stucco, but the archways could be finished with various stones, hand-made tiles, or mosaic glass.
Resembling a flower with four petals or a four leaf clover, these windows were commonly built in Spanish missions. Adding a decorative element to an otherwise simple facade, many modern Spanish-style homes utilize quatrefoil today.
Where to Find Spanish Architecture
You'll find the largest collections of classic and modern Spanish mission structures where the Spanish colonists originally settled—like California, Florida, and the Southwest. Although many Spanish-style homes share common elements, you'll see distinctive variations between regions, due to influences from Indigenous cultures and the building materials available.
What's more, Spanish-style homes were built with adobe—which is highly susceptible to serious damage under cold, damp conditions—so you'll find most Spanish-style homes in warmer, drier climates.