Mission Revival Architecture: Characteristics & Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many ways in which architectural styles can be revived. In this lesson, we'll explore the unique style of Mission Revival, and see how it relates to the history of architecture.

The Mission Revival

Throughout the 19th century, a lot of things were changing in the world. Empires were expanding, the Industrial Revolution was spreading across Europe and the Americas, and young republics like the United States were growing quickly in size and power. A lot was changing, so many people started looking to glorious eras of their past for comfort, inspiration, and justification of their role in the changing world.

The result was a series of revival movements, which drew upon elements of former architectural styles but incorporated them into modern structures.

  • England and France looked back to their medieval past
  • Other parts of Europe looked to ancient Rome
  • Different parts of the United States sought to consolidate their own histories

For some places, like California, that meant embracing a past outside of the USA, and thus the Mission Revival style was born.

San Diego railway station in the Mission Revival style

The Mission in California

In California, Mission Revival architecture is not based on the palaces or castles of the past, but on the churches of Spanish priests in what is now the American Southwest.

Long before it joined the United States in 1848, California was part of the Spanish colony of New Spain. Franciscan priests would set up small churches inside mud-wall compounds in the remote corners of the colony as a way to bring Christianity to pagan Amerindians and begin importing Spanish culture. These churches were called missions, and over time they became ubiquitously dispersed across the Southwest.

Mission church in California

The mission took on special significance in California, where Spanish (and later Mexican) citizens felt pretty isolated from Mexico City. They developed their own identity as Californios, and the mission church was a symbol of their unique place and heritage in the world.

Fast-forward to the late 19th century, after California joined the United States and its population boomed. The revival movements of the century, as well as a growing Arts and Crafts Movement in the United States that stressed the use of local styles and designs, encouraged Californians to think about their heritage.

Then, in the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago (a world fair-style exhibition), California architect Arthur Page Brown designed his state's entry after the Franciscan missions that were becoming very popular with tourists. The California State Building of the 1893 exposition inspired the entire city of Santa Barbara to embrace this aesthetic set the tone for Mission Revival architecture.

The California State Building of Arthur Page Brown

The heyday of the Mission Revival style, however, occurred between roughly 1900 and 1939. Many cities in California began designing new public buildings in this style, and it spread into domestic and business architecture as well.

The Santa Fe Railway company saw it as a good expression of the Southwest, and began building train stations across this entire region in the Mission Revival style. Hotels and other companies of the Southwest that largely catered to Eastern tourists followed suit. This makes the Mission Revival one of the only architectural styles in America to have been established on the West Coast, and then spread east.


So, now that we understand the history a little better, what defines the Mission Revival style in terms of design? Mission churches were originally built in the Spanish frontier, far from major cities, so they were relatively simple, solid, and austere. These characteristics define the Mission Revival as well.

Mission Revival structures are modeled after a typical mission church, with generally unadorned stucco or adobe walls, the visible presence of wood beams, and a jutting portico or porch that resembles the entrance to a mission church compound.

California train depot in the Mission Revival style

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