What Is Spanish Colonial Architecture?

White-walled Spanish colonial house with a xeriscape garden and palm trees

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In This Article

Known for their white, stucco walls, red, clay roof tiles, and rustic appearance, Spanish Colonial homes are extremely popular throughout the American Southeast, Southwest, and California. Long before this style came to North America, however, it had a long, varied history in both Spain and Mexico. Although some elements of Spanish Colonial style have changed over the centuries, today's Spanish Colonial homes have retained many of the traditional elements and features.

The History of Spanish Colonial Homes

Spanish Colonial-style homes are a classic architectural style found throughout Florida, California, and Southwestern states, like Arizona and New Mexico. Although Spanish Colonial homes have an even longer history in Spain and Mexico, they first appeared in North America between the 1600s and mid-1800s, when Spanish settlers arrived and began building their homesteads.

Because Spanish settlers arriving in North America chose locations with climates similar to Spain—like Florida, California, and Southwestern states, as previously mentioned—they were able to execute their style of traditional home building with the resources available, like adobe (made of clay and straw) with a stucco finish for interior and exterior walls, and clay for roof tiles. In fact, a key element to the Spanish Colonial style is the fact that the home lends itself to the surrounding environment.

Although the Spanish Colonial period in America ended in the mid-1800s, the architectural style remained popular. Later, in the 1900s, Spanish Colonial style was swept up in the Colonial Revival—and homebuilders chose to build with adobe and clay, rather than using the materials out of necessity.

Today, you'll find marked differences in Spanish Colonial homes across the country—thanks to regional styles, and the tools and materials available to the original settlers—but most share traditional characteristics of the style.

Must-Have Elements of Spanish Colonial Architecture

Although Spanish Colonial styles have changed over time and geographically, most Spanish Colonial homes have retained key elements from the original designs. Some of these key elements include:

The interior of a Spanish Colonial home.

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  1. Thick, white, stucco walls: Thick, white walls are ideal for a very warm climate. During the day, the thick walls can retain cool air; at night, when the temperature drops, they slowly release warmth absorbed from the sun into the home. Stucco is typically used because it was the finish available to Spanish settlers.
  2. Very few and very small windows: Having only a few small windows allows a cool breeze into the house but doesn't allow direct sunlight, which can make the space warmer. Traditional Spanish Colonial homes typically didn't have glass window panes—opting for iron bars instead—but today, it would be rare to find a home without glass panes. (Thanks, climate control!)
  3. Red clay roof tiles: One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Spanish Colonial style is the low-pitched roof made with red, clay tiles. In some regions, Spanish Colonial roofs are completely flat, while others are slightly pitched—but all use the same distinctive tile.
  4. Wooden support beams: Because adobe walls aren't commonly finished with trim, wooden beams are often used to support the interior walls and ceiling. You'll often see wooden beams jutting out from the roof's exterior, too. It doesn't hurt that these beams add warmth and rustic character to the home, either, right?
  5. A courtyard: Exterior or interior, most Spanish Colonial homes have some kind of courtyard. Traditionally, courtyards were placed in the center of the home, so its inhabitants could cook inside or outside—and release some of the heat produced by cooking. Today, many Spanish Colonial homes have courtyards to the side or rear of the house.
  6. Little or no decoration: Traditionally, Spanish Colonial homes have a simple, white exterior with very little decoration. Some modern Spanish Colonial homes, however, may have stone or tile work around exterior doorways and passageways.
A Spanish Colonial Revival house with tile.

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Spanish Colonial Home Maintenance

Because adobe walls are best-suited for warm climates, you'll often find them in the Southeast, Southwest, and California. Adobe is highly susceptible to cold, damp conditions, and can swell when exposed to too much water. This, in turn, can cause the stucco finish to crack and fall apart.

Clay roof tiles are extremely durable and require little maintenance, but the low-pitched or flat ceilings found on Spanish Colonial homes can often leak. This demonstrates—again—that Spanish Colonial homes are ideal for warm, relatively dry climates.

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  1. Fu, Albert S. Materializing Spanish-Colonial Revival Architecture. Home Cultures, vol. 9, no. 2, 2012, pp. 149-171. Informa UK Limited, doi.org/10.2752/175174212x13325123562223

  2. Preservation of Historic Adobe Buildings. National Park Service