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California Romantica

Diane Keaton delves into the enchanting world of Spanish architecture in California, lingering on filigreed railings, fountains and pillars.

One summer, Mom and Dad drove us kids to the San Juan Capistrano Mission to see the swallows come back. I remember standing, late in the afternoon, in front of what looked like an endless row of arches and feeling an ache. It seemed to come from my heart. A few months later, our family spent a weekend at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara. Mom said we were going to sleep in a 1920s Spanish building—a place where movie stars such as Cary Grant used to stay. Even though it was long ago, I remember the dark, wood-beamed ceiling in the lobby. It looked like it reached the stars and beyond; that’s how high it was. I remember the coolness inside set against the heat outside. Shadow and light. Inside and out. It was a world of opposites; a perfect world.

That was the summer it came to me: the idea that beauty could be felt from standing in the glow of afternoon light reflected on the colonnade of a mission. That’s when I came to understand the ache of romance living within the walls of our Spanish heritage.

Ten years ago, there was an old Spanish Colonial Revival house for sale on Roxbury Drive, north of Sunset Boulevard. The broker called it a “tear down.” I saw neglect but felt its beauty.

I bought it. I restored it. My family and I lived in it. A few years later, I found another Spanish home. We bought it, restored it and lived in it. The ache of a girl had become the obsession of a woman.

As with most obsessions, I had many expectations. I knew I wanted to share the magic I’d felt within the aura created by the presence of Spanish architecture in Southern California. I knew I wanted to help articulate a different way of appreciating what Wallace Neff referred to as “California Homes for California People.” I wanted to capture the romance of an empty room. I wanted to focus on details: a fountain, a staircase, a doorway. I wanted to highlight the genre’s disjointed symmetry and informal, abstract appeal. I wanted the drama of light to reveal secrets hidden beyond
the facades. I wanted “Old” and “Spanish” to stop being code words for demolition. I wanted to give renewed vitality, and even a refined Modernism, to the historic dream of living in a perfect California Spanish home.

Maybe what’s so appealing about the imperfect world of the California Spanish home is its startling juxtapositions. Such a house unveils an evocative past while offering the promise of a hope-filled future. This is wonderfully seductive. One is at once assured of security in cool shaded patios, and yet, set against the vast expanse of an uncertain world, one is kept on one’s toes. Dense archways guide us to shadowed arcades that lead to blinding light. Courtyard living underscores the intensity of black iron grills that frame white stucco walls topped off by red tile roofs. And out of this alluring opposition comes a fantasy of heaven.

The promise of heaven in a home lies somewhere out there, almost within reach. It resides in a place mapped by the history of our longings. When I think of home, I see a giant bulletin board thumbtacked with hundreds of thousands of photographs, plastered across the panorama of my mind. Over the years, the images that refuse to disappear are those that center on the beauty of Spanish architecture. They remind me of something I’ve long known but haven’t always acknowledged; something sensed deep down and from as far back as the day I felt that ache standing in front of the San Juan Capistrano Mission 50 years ago.

Today, the ache doesn’t come from the heart of the girl who used to be me. It isn’t driven by longing. It isn’t propelled by a desire to own a home from the perfect world. Today, the ache hovers above an encroachment of loss. Believing our Residencias De Grande will endure as long as there are people left to inhabit them doesn’t go far in the world of action. Proving California’s indigenous Hispanic architecture conforms to a modern lifestyle isn’t enough; to be an effective advocate takes more than that. Somehow, somebody or something has to jumpstart our community into making an effort to save from extinction the legacy of George Washington Smith, Wallace Neff, Lillian Rice, Joseph Plunkett, Arthur Kelly, Paul Williams and their less recognized architect colleagues.

So, here they are: homes from the perfect world for you to see. Here they are, presented with love and respect in anticipation that you too will feel the ache of their romance. Here they are, in honor of California’s rich Arts and Crafts tradition. Here they are, offered in tribute to the owners and collectors and designers and architects who brought them into the light of our gaze. Here they are, with their stories, their magic, their whims, their charm, their mistakes and their essence intact. Here they are, our Mission, Andalusian, Monterey, Hacienda, Land-grant, Estancia, Rancho, Spanish homes. Here they are, offered in hopes that they will fulfill that secret wish for the ambiguity of dreams, the dark side of romance and the bittersweet lie of perfection.


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