Archive for the ‘Mission Period’ Category

San Fernando Valley was “discovered” on August 5, 1769 by Don Gaspar de Portola and the members of the Spanish Expedition. Leaving the Los Angeles and Westwood area, they headed north towards the Santa Monica Mountains, following an Indian trail up Sepulveda Canyon. According to Father Juan Crespi’s diary on the expedition, they “saw a pleasant and spacious valley and descended to it. [They] stopped close to the watering place, which is a very large pool with a nearby village of heathen” (Robinson, 1). They named the land the “Valley of Santa Catalina de Bononia de los Encinos” (the valley of St. Catherine of Bononia of the oaks). The expedition stayed near the watering hole, still visible at Los Encinos park. “Here the ancient springs of water still gush forth and here old Indian village [land] until recent years has yield its relics.” (Robinson, 2)

On December 8, 1797, the San Fernando Mission was established in the Valley by the Spanish Padres. The San Fernando Mission completed a chain of missions that stretched from the San Diego Mission, founded in 1771, to San Buenaventura Mission, founded in 1782 and located in Ventura. Seeking good land, abundant water and Native Americans to serve as laborers, the missionary fathers chose a place in the upper half of the San Fernando Valley, formerly called Los Encinos Valley. “We found the place quite suitable for a mission,” Father De Santa Maria had reported, because it has much water” (Robinson, 3).

The friars wanted to capture the available, abundant water and bring it to the San Fernando Mission. They followed a trickle of water from the foothills and found a large swamp (cienega) with several natural springs about a league (an hour walking distance) from the mission site. The friars began their aqueduct by building a settling basin, “the intake,” to catch water from the natural springs. The basin was made of mission masonry, which consisted of burnt-brick and rock mortared with concrete and then covered with limestone. “The square-like basin, whose inner dimensions are 11 feet square and 5 feet deep, is in excellent condition today, considering its age” (Pauley, 203). A catchment inside the basin filtered mud and other sediments before water entered the aqueducts. The water flowed by gravity to a masonry dam. Pipelines then carried the water over the dam to the mission. The dam constructed in 1808 across the Cienega Wash, located half a mile northeast of the mission site, created Cienega Lake. “Smaller pipelines and zanjas (ditches or trenches) led the water to the orchards, the olive groves, the two vineyards, and the cellar” (Pauley, 204).


Pauley, Carol and Pauley, Kenneth. San Fernando Rey De Espana. Spokane, WA: The Arthur Clark Company, 2005.

Robinson, W. W. The San Fernando Valley, A Calendar of Events. Los Angeles, CA: Title Insurance and Trust Company, 1951.

The San Fernando Mission's old water system.

The San Fernando Mission's old water system.

The filtering basin "the intake" of Mission San Fernando's water system.

The filtering basin "water intake" of Mission San Fernando's water supply system.

Seations of pipes that carried water from the wells to the mission.

Sections of pipes that carried water from the wells to the mission.

Image Reference:

Pauley, Carol and Pauley, Kenneth. San Fernando Rey De Espana. Spokane, WA: The Arthur Clark Company, 2005.


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Carey McWilliams book, Southern California an Island on the Land, charts the life of the Native Americans from before the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the 1683 to the period when Anglos began moving in large numbers to Southern California. The chapter entitled, “The Indian in the Closet”, begins by describing the typical lifestyle of Native Americans in Southern California before this period. According to McWilliams, Native Americans lived in pockets across the region. They were separated by the mountainous topography and their diet consisted primarily of acorns. The arrival of the Spanish changed this. They set up missions, pueblos and presidios where Native Americans once lived. The San Fernando mission played an important role in upsetting Native lifestyle. The goal was to make Native Americans “civilized” by teaching them how to create settlements, converting them to Catholicism, and by giving and enforcing Spanish law. Native Americans began to associate missions with death because their numbers in California decreased from a total of 130,000 in 1769 to 1,250 by 1910. Some of the major factors of death were disease, forced labor, sexual practices, bad sanitation, and diet (they were fed just enough to live). Some Native Americans fled eastward and into the mountains. For those that stayed, they were forced into hard labor and were paid in beads. Many were whipped and all were forced to go to church. Some were allowed to escape their camps, but were followed and ultimately led the Spanish to capture more slaves. Along with being undernourished, they were kept ignorant to be more easily kept in subjection. After the Secularization Act in 1833, many lands were sold and Native Americans were freed, however, most became indentured servants on Ranchos where they remained for the rest of their lives.

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The San Fernando Mission

The Mission San Fernando Rey de España exists today as one of the oldest buildings in the San Fernando Valley. The Mission was established in 1797 by Father Fermín Lasuén. Like many built before it the mission was one of three primary architectural components used to establish permanent ground in order to successfully begin colonizing the surrounding area. The presidio, pueblo, and mission made up that infrastructure. Having only the mission in San Fernando Valley, it was primarily used to become self sufficient; cultivation and farming was its main goal in order for it to thrive.

Construction of these massive earthen buildings was relatively simple and efficient. Using sun baked blocks to construct its adobe façade, the interior space inside stays at a relatively cool temperate feel. The adobe blocks absorbed much of the outside heat. Adobe was the most suitable building material for areas where there is minimal rainfall and excessive hot heat weather. The Mission San Fernando Rey de España was considered to be one of the very first permanent built structures in the San Fernando Valley. Housing shelters like these and many more to come were built with materials and construction methods typically known as ‘Vernacular Architecture’, that is – virtually all materials used to make this building are literally taken locally or even derived from the very earth and soil that it sits on. The idea of vernacular architecture is especially important today as we pay particularly close attention to things such as low impact products on the environment and low carbon output when dealing with today’s architecture. Through its early and innovative use of local materials, this building became the ultimate in green and sustainable architecture before its time.


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The Changing Face of the San Fernando Valley

Kotkin and Ozuna give a compelling insight on the current socio-economic condition of the San Fernando Valley using empirical data via surveys and statistics taken in this geographic area. From its beginnings during the Rancho Period, the early Spanish settlers established presidios, pueblos, and missions; infrastructure to house the Spanish migrant population. These major architectural components that made up much of the Spanish’s living inhabitance required a laboring workforce that was mostly made up of Native Americans. Many attempts to colonize and convert Native Americans failed, resentment and hostility caused many fights to break out. Civil unrest began to diminish the Native American Indian population. Most Indians were killed off due to the spreading of diseases that they were unable to fight off. As time went on, the need for cheap labor was a still a necessity; unable to keep up with the demand of this workforce, the Mexican worker became the Native American’s substitute.

Kotkin and Ozuna explain the dynamics of the San Fernando Valley in the 1920’s. Mostly white middle-class, the valley was laid out on a grid and was systematically designated as a home-owners’ landscape, huge plots of land were subdivided into a highly repetitive cookie cutter format, consisting of a front yard, garage, home, and backyard. Affordability was only deemed to mostly White Americans due to special government incentives or just relative household income that gave them the ease to finance and pay for these new pieces of land. Legal zoning regulations of the time also deterred minorities from being able to own homes in specifically designated areas – a legal practice known as ‘Red Lining’.

The 1950’s was a time when the San Fernando Valley underwent a transformative cultural shift. At a time when 90% of the San Fernando Valley’s population was typically White Americans, the Post War Era saw an incredible transformation to a more diverse cultural population. Mexican workers made up most of the manual labor being done in the San Fernando Valley, lack of oversight and the ease of attaining cheap labor allowed American homeowners the luxury of hiring extra hands to do household manual work such as mowing lawns, servicing pools, and even small scale construction. With mobility and accessibility available to the valley; many immigrant workers were able to find employment. Another factor attributing to the shift was the steep increases in living expenses in the more affluent areas of the inner city; gentrification is a socio-economic factor that causes low-income families to sprawl away from urban city centers due to trends and changes in the housing market.

Images Courtesy of LIFE Publications

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