Building Design

The master mason designed each mission church within the context of current practice and the desires of the missionaries who would use the building. In practice, this probably meant that the Father President of the province outlined the requirements of each church, the maestro worked out an initial design, perhaps in consultation with the missionary acting as guardian of the mission at the time, and the Father President reviewed it for suitability. When the Father President approved of a design, the maestro probably made final drawings of the plan and elevation, including a plan of the facade and its fine-carved decoration and any other carved details on the interior or exterior of the church. These drawings apparently remained at the mission to serve as a guide for the construction over the years required to complete the building, even if the maestro left for one reason or another.

Whether such drawings were ever made for the missions of Texas has been argued for decades. The strongest argument against the existence of architectural plans for the buildings has been the lack of any available examples. However, the general context within which the churches were built makes it unlikely, if not impossible, for their construction to have taken place without detailed plan drawings. So far, no drawings have been found for the San Antonio missions, even though the detailed plans for the facade of Valero were still being consulted some 34 years after they were prepared. Such plans have apparently gone the way of other missing documents, either destroyed or stored in some unsuspected repository in Mexico or Spain

A master mason was needed for such work because it was complex and required careful planning of foundation thicknesses and depths, wall thicknesses, buttress locations and cross-section, the size, shape and location of stones for the ribs, vaults, domes, and fine details such as the carvings of’ the facade and pilaster capitals on the interior. If any of these elements were executed incorrectly, the building could easily fall. For anyone to attempt the construction of such a major project by calculation in his head alone would have been not only impossible, but criminal. It had been standard procedure for masons to make drawings since at least the 10th century, and was certainly standard in Mexico in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It would be surprising if a maestro changed his standard methods when he went to work on the frontier.

Throughout its life, the mission always supported certain essential activities. The construction and maintenance of the acequia and the fields it watered were of first importance. Next in order of priority were the construction of a permanent church; housing, offices, and kitchens for the fathers and staff of the mission; housing for the Indian neophytes; workshops; storage facilities for goods and later to store the produce of the fields; corrals and stables, facilities for livestock herding, pasturing, care and branding; and the maintenance of the supply trains to and from the mission, which brought the many items not available on the new frontier.

Edited excerpts from the original work “Of Various Magnificence” by Jake Ivey, NPS 2007
Chapter 2: Development and Construction of a Mission on the Texas Frontier

Last updated: December 22, 2016

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