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The Reign of Spain

An author, who will lecture in Santa Ana, takes a look at how architects and developers used Andalusian designs to help sell California land.

September 14, 1996|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

he 1920s in Southern California were a time of silent films and glamorous stars such as Dolores Del Rio and Rudolph Valentino. It was a time when there were acres of open land that had been carved from once-vast ranchos. It was a time ripe for development. Architects built romantic houses using the Spanish Colonial Revival style that combined the fascination with the hacienda with all the allure of a movie set. Twenty-one of these homes are featured in "Casa California" (Rizzoli, 1996, $50), written by Elizabeth McMillian with photographs by Melba Levick. All the featured houses are grand, but never grandiose. McMillian, editor of Architectural Digest from 1982 to 1992, is presenting a series of design lectures examining the California Decorative Arts from 1890 to 1940 at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art beginning Thursday.

"This architecture had some of its beginnings at the turn of the century when it was decided that the Spanish style was going to be good for selling land in California and enticing people to settle here," McMillian said. "They used the Mission style at first, since it was the only one the developers knew."

Architects living here who had been trained on the East Coast and had been on grand tours of Europe created the Spanish Colonial style for California, she added.

"They decided that the Andalusian architecture found in southern Spain was perfect for California because it fit the climate, the landscape and it was also primarily a residential style."

This residential aspect was important because the Mission style was used mainly for larger buildings, including hotels. It wasn't as successful for homes.

The Spanish Colonial Revival style began in Southern California in the '20s, when the architects discovered they could easily incorporate courtyards, grillwork, fountains and plantings within the residences they were creating.

"Bertram Goodhue went to San Diego to design the San Diego Exposition buildings in 1915 and that really set off the revival style, even though it's prior to 1920," McMillian said.

Though these Spanish-style homes were built primarily for the rich, there were "high" and "low" styles.

"Instead of searching for something out of Spain, as those architects did out of Andalusia, we already had, indigenous to the area, ranchos," McMillian said. "These were in the Mexican-style and were intertwined with traditions that people brought from New England, England, France or wherever they were from."

Added to the look were the missions work done by local Indians who used rough sketches as plans for the buildings and then decorated them.

"Even though some of these designs were crude, they had a lot of vitality to them that didn't come out of the more refined style from Spain," McMillian said. "When the Indians had a hand in it, they created the kind of richness we have here in California."

One of the houses in "Casa California" that has a Spanish pedigree with a lot of California and European character thrown in is Casa Pacifica, named by former owner Richard Nixon, and now the San Clemente home of Ninetta and Gavin Herbert.

Both San Clemente and Casa Pacifica are built on land originally called Rancho los Desechos or the "leftover land." The land changed hands many times until, in 1834, through the last Mexican governor of California, all mission lands were taken from the Catholic Church.

There were many owners until 1906, when Cornelio Echenique formed a partnership with Max and Herman Goldschmidt and became half owner of 10,500 acres consisting of a large part of the old Rancho los Desechos and the present site of San Clemente. In 1920, this land was divided, with Echenique taking the part toward Capistrano and the Goldschmidt brothers taking the coastal land.

In 1923, the Goldschmidts, who were vintners, had financial problems due to Prohibition, and the land went to a syndicate headed by banker Hamilton H. Cotton. On a visit to Spain, Cotton and his wife fell in love with a home in San Sebastian. Cotton bought the blueprints and built the traditional Spanish home in 1926 on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Casa Pacifica (House of Peace) was born.

It continued to have an interesting history. When Cotton lived there, Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived by train to play poker. Casa Pacifica was also the site of the signing of the SALT II treaty in 1979, when it was used as Nixon's Western White House.

"Casa Pacifica is basically a compound," McMillian said. "Very little has been changed from the original courtyard, although Cotton was responsible for some Art Deco additions."

The property contains six acres, but the main house is relatively small, so the Herberts added a pool and small house for guests and entertaining.

"Gavin and I feel as if we're caretakers of this property, and we want to keep its charm and integrity. We want it to be authentic but also comfortable," Ninetta Herbert said. "Sometimes we feel like detectives, sorting out stories and trying to find out what is true or false.

"There are disadvantages to living in a historical house like this. There's very little closet space, no storage, and you have to go out of the bedroom and through the courtyard to get to the kitchen."

Because the Herberts own Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach, the grounds of the property are tended well. "I counted 420 rosebushes," Herbert said. "We also have a mini-farm here with chickens and vegetables."

Tickets for McMillian's four 90-minute lectures at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art are $10 each. For more information, call the museum at (714) 567-3600. The museum is at 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana.

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