Soul on a Mission

California Missions of the Central Coast

When I was in college … some time ago … I wanted to study art history. At the time, my very practical Dad said, “How will you ever make a living?” He made me think about my future, which was such an annoying habit of his! So instead of art history, I studied journalism and became a writer. The irony of making a living as a writer vs art historian has not been lost on me throughout the years, but I’m pleased to report I have managed to support myself and that made my Dad happy. Something worthwhile in-and-of-itself.

I never, however, lost my fascination with all things old, from paintings to ceramics to furniture to architecture, and all genres of art in between. As a lifelong Californian, I’ve made it a point to soak up more than just the California sun; to study and absorb the artistry of my State. California is known for more than just the influence Hollywood has had on the cultural scene!

The fourth grade was my official introduction to California history and one of my earliest fascinations – the aesthetic beauty of California’s missions. The Spanish influence is so prevalent here, and no where more so than in the architecture of those adobe buildings. The beautiful warm patina of the exterior plaster, complemented by the mahogany-colored roof tiles, set against arched corridors around a garden patio, to me at age nine, was exotically lovely.

It is, of course, well-documented that mission life for the indigenous people was not lovely, but harsh and unfavorable. That certainly must be stated and acknowledged. The remaining mission buildings do, however, represent the oldest and richest historical legacy of California and one of the best known historic elements of the coastal region. Sadly, all of the missions fell into serious states of disrepair once the Franciscans abandoned them in the mid-1880s. And there they languished until restoration efforts took off, propelled largely by a revival of interest in the artistry of our Spanish heritage.

This interest created an architectural movement, The Mission Revival Style, in the late 19th century which influenced the design of residential, commercial and institutional buildings, from homes to schools to train depots. There isn’t a neighborhood in California that doesn’t have its share of mission-inspired buildings. Some neighborhoods even have actual missions.

If you’re on a mission to see any or all of these historic landmarks, you couldn’t have a better starting point than the Central Coast. We have five between the counties of Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito: Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, Old Mission San Juan Bautista, San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and San Antonio de Padua.

My fourth-grade fascination propelled me to see all 21 missions. They are all distinctly different yet markedly the same. Now, they are filled with schoolchildren on field trips, visitors and tourists, those looking for a place for some quiet reflection, and are for me a place of gratitude for my very practical Dad.

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