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Red Tile Roofs and Southern California Culture

Red Tile Roofs and Southern California Culture

A scholar analyzes how a historical fascination with the Spanish-Mexican past became a catalyst for the region’s architecture and a civic narrative that still serves to marginalize Mexican and Indian residents.

(February 23, 2009)


"California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place,”

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( – Phoebe S. Kropp, author of “California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place,” will give a free public talk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5 at the Riverside Mission Inn about the rise of a Southern California architectural style that echoes Spain and Mexico.

Ironically, Kropp points out, the fascination Southern Californians had with red tile roofs, stucco homes and other elements of Spanish colonial style architecture fostered a fantasy version of the past, but did not include a recognition of the Mexican and Indian people living in Southern California.

Kropp, who teaches 19th- and 20th-century American cultural history at the University of Pennsylvania, will be speaking as part of UC Riverside’s public history program.

Southern California architecture, including areas like downtown Riverside, is not typically the authentic adobe and tile structures left over from the mission and Mexican periods in the early 19th century. Instead, it is an early 20th century phenomenon created by Anglo transplants, who capitalized on the romantic images of the earlier historic periods while at the same time dismissing the Indian and Mexican population.

“Phoebe’s work looks at a long span of Southern California history in order to say, okay, when we drive through Southern California or go around downtown Riverside, we see a lot of red tile roofs, a lot of references to what we call Spanish colonial architecture,” said Catherine Gudis, an associate professor of history and director of UCR’s public history program. “How did we get to this point, where it defines the region’s architectural appearance?”

Kropp uses case studies of several Southern California “built environments,” which refers to not just the design of new buildings but the preservation or repurposing of historic venues, to explore the collective nostalgia of the Anglo boosters against the reality of the Mexican and Indian experiences.
The ubiquitous red tile roofs took root at San Diego’s World Fair in 1915, the Panama-California Exposition, where the main buildings were designed in a fanciful Baroque architecture of the Spanish colonial period. The style caught on and spread quickly to domestic architecture.

But the region’s embrace of the past did not extend to the present. Kropp points out that in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe, built in the 1920’s, architecture was restricted to Spanish style and deed restrictions prohibited selling or renting property to non-Anglos.

Some chauffeurs, domestics and gardeners were allowed to stay on the property but those who labored to build the roads and homes had to live outside the city.
Another example from her book is Olvera Street, the quaint Mexican village near downtown Los Angeles across the street from Union Station, where Mexican immigrants were routinely rounded up, herded onto trains and repatriated during the depression.

“My interpretation in the book is about how the fanciful romantic image of a quaint Mexican village plays into how they see modern-day Mexicans as not part of the modern-day community,” Kropp said.

Kropp included a chapter on Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel “Ramona,” about a part-Indian orphan raised in Spanish California society who married an Indian named Alessandro. The novel inspired “The Ramona Pageant,” an outdoor play staged annually in Hemet.

Even though Jackson intended to expose the plight of the Indians much like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did for African-Americans, people saw it as a kind of a romantic tragedy instead of a call to action, Kropp said.

UCR’s Public History program is designed to take history outside the framework of the university and aims for a wider public audience. “It’s one of the earliest and most well regarded public history programs in the United States,” Gudis said.

The lecture will be held in the Galleria, next to the St. Francis Chapel. Parking is available behind the Mission Inn on the corner of 6th and Orange streets; at Mission Inn Avenue and Market Street; and on Orange Street between Mission Inn and University avenues.

The lecture is sponsored by: UCR’s Department of History; the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs; Carlotta and Knox Mellon and the Friends of Public History; the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, and the Mission Inn Foundation.



The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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