The Spanish Mission Style, as its name implies, derives from the Spanish padres who were commissioned to convert ‘heathen’ American Indians in the late 1700s. Spanish government was dominated by the Church, so everything was named after martyrs, saints, etc. The king hadn’t had much interest in California until it was rumored that the czarina had forces nearby. Then, he decided it was time to develop California. The problem was, there weren’t many Spaniards interested in venturing so far away, so he gathered the padres who only thought of the glory of God and their country.
Initially, the idea was to colonize the natives (after converting them, of course), then allowing the natives to retain guardianship of the land—in the name of Spain. It was the Franciscans who established the missions because the Jesuits had been booted out of the Spanish Empire for gaining too much power. Good thing, too, or San Francisco would be called San Jesus or something similar. Junipero Serra was the first to establish missions. There is no written history of this time from the viewpoint of the Indians, which is a shame. Most natives died from diseases the Europeans had brought with them to the New World. The Indians who survived assisted in the building and caretaking of the missions under the impression that they would eventually retain ownership. Sadly, that never happened and with the fall of the Spanish dominance in America, the Indians were left caught between two worlds.
Back to the missions. Missions were sprawled over several acres of land. There was the building in which to worship, but there were also other structures such as tanneries and soldiers’ barracks. If a mission was large enough, it had sub-missions called asistencias, which dealt with a single purpose—such as a sanatorium. The padres had to use material that was on hand—such as adobe bricks—and conform to the California environment. The walls made of the adobe had to be stout and the arches short in order to support themselves. The long eaves, overhangs and rounded roof tiles, all trademarks of the Mission style, were necessary to protect the adobe from the elements.
The churches were the focus of the missions, of course. They were a mixture of Spanish culture and local color—the latter, especially on the insides of the churches. The padres would have liked to build grand cathedrals as there were in the Spanish Empire, but this was an impossibility due to lack of resources and to the fact that all they had was adobe. Since the padres couldn’t replicate the cathedrals in Spain, they created the illusion of cathedrals, instead. Mere facades which masked the simple Indian buildings inside. The padres couldn’t make four-sided bell towers, so they only built one wall and arched spaces in which to hang the bells. The facades and one-sided bell towers, campanarios, have become trademarks of the Mission style. The rest of the cathedral look, alcoves and balconies for instance, were simply painted on.
The missions went to wrack and ruin after secularization. In the late 1800s, interest in the missions revived, mostly to the detriment of said missions. Restoration was actually restructuring at first, a meld between old (Mission style) and new (wood, lots of wood) which ill-suited the missions. After time, however, the restoration process went much more smoothly