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American Latino Heritage
San Juan Bautista Plaza Historic District
San Juan Bautista, California
Five striking adobe buildings sit at the historic center of San Juan Bautista, California. They face an original Spanish-era plaza and help illuminate the Spanish, Mexican, and early American heritage of central California. The San Juan Bautista Plaza Historic District is a National Historic Landmark that celebrates this history and provides an intact example of traditional Spanish-Mexican colonial architecture that dates from between 1813 and 1870.
The district includes the San Juan Bautista Mission Church (1803-1813), the Castro-Breen House (1840-1841), the Plaza Hotel (1858), the Plaza Stables (1861), and the Zanetta House/Plaza Hall (1868). The restored historic buildings offer visitors interpreted displays and reimagined interior spaces. As both a nationally registered historic place and an official California State Historic Park, the San Juan Bautista Plaza District represents one of the nation’s most spectacular collections of publicly accessible Monterey-Colonial style buildings.
During the mid to late 1700s, Spanish land holdings in the New World began to shift northward–up from New Spain (today Mexico). A series of military and religious endeavors eventually led to the establishment of a chain of 21 Spanish-Catholic missions along the western coast of California. Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen founded the 15th of these, the San Juan Bautista Mission, on June 24, 1797.
The padre chose the area because of its proximity to a large American Indian population, and soon over 1,200 native people were living, working, and worshiping at the San Juan Bautista Mission. The original adobe church was small and soon insufficient for the booming mission, which led to the construction between 1803 and 1813 of the church that is still there today. Even after its initial completion, work continued to expand and beautify it by tiling and painting the interior and adding altar statuary throughout the mid-1800s. The largest of the 21 original Spanish mission churches in California, the building is still in use as a Catholic Church that has been in continuous operation since its opening in 1812.
After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, a new law provided for the secularization of all the California missions. In 1835, José Tiburcio Castro, a former Spanish soldier, became the civil administrator of the San Juan Bautista mission’s land. Castro divided his new, extensive landholdings and auctioned most of his land off to friends, neighbors, and relatives. Built in 1839-1841 for Castro’s son, José Antonio Castro, the José Castro House, which still sits on the plaza today, served as the judicial and administrative-headquarters of a district that included the entire northern half of Alta California. José Antonio Castro would eventually serve as acting governor of Alta California and commandante general of the Mexican army during the Mexican-American war.
In 1848, the Breen family purchased the house. The family arrived in California as survivors of the ill-fated Donner Party – the expedition over the Sierra Nevada Mountains that was stranded in blizzard conditions without supplies for 111 days. Ancestors of the Breens owned and occupied the house from its purchase until 1933 when it became part of the California State Historic Park System. The house known today as the Castro-Breen House has interior accurately furnished in the style of the original Breen tenure.
The 1850s through mid 1870s were a time of great economic prosperity for San Juan Bautista. The California hide and tallow trade was booming as well as the mining industry due to the discovery of gold and silver in the mountains. San Juan Bautista was en route between the major hubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and was a primary supply center for travelers from Hollister, Watsonville, Monterey and Santa Cruz. The Plaza Hotel (1858), Plaza Stables (1861), and the Zanetta House/Plaza Hall (1868) were all constructed during this period to meet new demands on the small city.
Seven different stage lines ran coaches through San Juan Bautista, bringing traders, business-folk and travelers through the town in great numbers, daily. Angelo Zanetta, a seasoned Mexican businessman, constructed the new buildings on the plaza, the last of which, the Zanetta House, housed his family on the ground floor. The upper story consists of a long, open hall built over 30-foot-long redwood beams. Noted early on for its excellent "spring," this floor became a popular dance venue. The Plaza Hall hosted many grand balls, events, and gatherings over the years.
San Juan Bautista’s boom days were numbered. In 1876, the railroad bypassed the town and its prosperity quickly dwindled. Luckily, each of the five original buildings on the plaza survived. Carefully restored in recent years, they are now open to the public as a California State Historic Park.
SAN JUAN BAUTISTA PLAZA TODAY
The five buildings surrounding San Juan Bautista Plaza are all regularly open to the public for tours offering interpretive programs suitable for all ages. Visitors can explore them on their own or take interpreter-led tours making advanced reservations with the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park by calling 831-623-2753.
The mission church is open daily and offers educational displays about the building itself and the historic artifacts housed within. While inside, note the original tile floor – it contains animal prints captured in the clay when the tiles were first set out in the sun to dry. The church contains a small museum that once was the padre’s living quarters. At one time, the gift shop served as temporary living quarters for the Breen family that bought the José Castro House. The historic church is still in use as a sacred place of worship to be enjoyed in a respectful manner.
Outside, along the northeast wall of the church, is the mission’s original cemetery that contains the graves of more than 4,300 converted American Indians and European colonists. Beyond the cemetery’s lower stone wall is a small section of California’s famed Camino Real, where visitors can still glimpse deep wagon wheel ruts in the compact earth.
Restored to their appearance in the 1870s, the Plaza Hall and stable are across the plaza. The stable houses display an assortment of carriages and wagons along with harnesses and other historic items. Behind the stable is a blacksmith's shop with many of the tools used in the wagonwright trade. Both the Plaza Hall and the stable are open to the public and contain interpretive displays with guided tours available.
Recently restored and reopened, the Castro-Breen house’s interior is a museum with period rooms featuring 1870s-style furnishings. A historic garden is also open and interpreted at the house’s rear. The Plaza Hotel next door contains Victorian furnishings and still serves drinks in its interior saloon. All of the buildings are a particularly popular destination during Living History Day, a history festival held on the plaza the first Saturday of every month. For more information about special events, see the California Historic State Park website.