Monday, August 13, 2007

Monterey Colonial

This was written from a room in the Motel 6 in Auburn, CA. Well, something occurred to me recently. Many of the old 19th c. houses from Mexican California have a common structure. They are two-tiered, but in lieu of interior hallways, they have a covered walkway and a line of railing running along the upper level with doors opening out onto it (see this picture from historic Monterey, on the top). They are made of stucco and tile, and usually adobe. Rancho Los Cerritos, in my hometown, is a beautiful example of this architectural style, and is one of the few remaining structures of its type in the state. Developed by Thomas Larkin in the first half of the 19th c., the style known as “Monterey Colonial” blended Mexican and American architecture to create a style that was uniquely Californian.

Now, as a part-time resident of New England, where wood and red brick prevail, I’ve noticed that Californians almost instinctively turn to stucco and tile when building anything from garages to strip malls. There is a deep-rooted affinity for these two quintessential materials of California’s Mexican past. In the same way, Californians seem to turn to the two-tiered, porched style of rancho architecture, the Monterey Colonial style. I see it being used for private residences, shopping centers, and office buildings. And, interestingly, almost every Motel 6 in the west, or perhaps the country. See the image on the bottom, from Tucson, AZ.

Motel 6 was founded in 1962 by William Becker and Paul Greene in Santa Barbara. Since the 1920s, Santa Barbara has made a very conscious effort to preserve the architectural flavor of its hispanic heritage. The first Motel 6 that was built, which is actually still running, followed a Monterey Colonial structural template. Subsequent Motel 6 buildings throughout California and the rest of the country, until very recently, continued to follow this style. I find it fascinating that this indigenous Californian architectural style may have so worked its way into the psyches of Becker and Greene that the birth of America’s first chain of budget motels was infused with such wonderful regionality.

As more and more Motel 6 buildings take inspiration from the architecture of the luxury hotel instead of the rancho, the older buildings with their regional specificity may eventually go the way of the original 19th c. Monterey Colonial ranchos. Whether or not we designate these motels historic landmarks like Rancho Los Cerritos is, perhaps, a matter of debate.


sharleen higa said...

Hmm... I'd like to tie this post in to the conversation we had a few months ago about the Californian desire for both privacy and community. The architectural style you're describing here works well with this mentality. One communal building with separate, individual living spaces. The outside hallway connecting the two.

The mega-hotel structures seem much more like a collection of individual spaces without the accompanying sense of communal living. I think I'm much more likely to smile at someone I pass outside a Motel 6 room than in a carpeted inner hallway. Your thoughts?

Stephen Higa said...

Yeah, you're right. A willingness to smile at a stranger outside rather than inside may connect to the Californian pioneer mentality we talked about, where rugged individualism vies with the need to stick together for survival. A stranger in your house (and the mega-hotels become your temporary homestead) is something to be feared. Somehow, they have gotten past the barriers you've had to construct in order to survive.

A stranger safely outside your door, however, can be safely sized up and, perhaps, welcomed with hospitality.

It is, perhaps, significant that most of New England's early Anglo settlements consist of buildings that loosely surround a common green where everyone can gather, locals and visitors alike. The buildings of our early Anglo settlements, on the other hand, huddle side by side flanking roads, where inhabitants can stand outside their doorways in order to cautiously inspect visitors as they pass by.

Just my rambled musings...