What Is a Spanish Colonial House?

spanish colonial style home exterior with white stucco walls and red clay tile roof and palm trees

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In colonial times, houses were built from whatever natural resources were found in the region. For the British, German, and Dutch settlements along the east coast, as well as in the French colonies of the South, this meant houses of stone and wood. But in the Spanish settlements found in Florida, California, and the expansive Southwest houses were built of stucco, clay, and plaster, creating a wildly different look than all other forms of colonial architecture. In addition to these resources being abundant, they also helped keep homes cool — an essential element in the furiously hot climates of Spain’s colonies. 

What Is a Spanish Colonial House?

Spanish Colonial houses evolved from architecture of 16th century Spain, built from natural materials found in the Spanish colonies of Florida, California, and the American Southwest, They are best known for having white exterior walls, a red tiled roof, and a large outdoor patio or courtyard.

What Makes a House a Spanish Colonial?

Spanish Colonial houses are built on top of an adobe brick or stone foundation, with thick adobe or stucco walls which absorb and trap heat from the atmosphere, and are painted white to help deflect heat from the sun’s rays. To help keep cool air in and hot air out, these homes have slender outside doors and minimal windows, which are specifically positioned to catch breezes and avoid direct sunlight. Wooden shutters were often mounted indoors in order to help regulate the temperature and direct the flow of fresh outdoor air. 

Perhaps the most iconic element of a Spanish colonial house is its red clay-tiled roof. The pitch of the roof will depend on its geography; in rainy regions, roofs will have a slight pitch, and in dry climates, roofs may lie completely flat. Like the foundation and frame, the tiled roof of a Spanish colonial home is meant to absorb and diffuse the heat from direct sunlight, keeping the inside of the house cool. Also contributing to temperature control is the tiled flooring that runs throughout all areas of the home. 

Most Spanish colonial houses were built in an L-shape around a large, manicured patio area; U-shaped and open “box” shaped houses with private, tiled courtyards were also popular, but not as common. These expansive outdoor spaces were originally designed to be alfresco kitchens; by moving the cooking outside, things stayed cool inside. 

Inside the house, common rooms are connected by arched open doorways, while private rooms are closed with traditional wood doors. Ceilings can be vaulted or flat, and are marked with large, dark wooden beams, 

Exterior:

  • Single story
  • White stucco, stone, or brick exterior
  • Red clay tile roof
  • Minimal ornamentation
  • Small, sparse windows
  • Large patio or courtyard

Interior:

  • Tiled floors
  • Arched doorways
  • Exposed wood beamed ceilings

History of Spanish Colonial Homes

As you may remember from your elementary school days, Spanish explorers, led by Christopher Columbus, reached the New World in 1492; one year later, the Spanish founded their first settlement on the island of Hispaniola, building it using the same motifs and construction methods they used back in their homeland. Much of Spain has a hot, humid climate, similar to that of the Caribbean islands, so the existing Spanish architectural styles of the time were well suited for colonial life. 

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León claimed what is now Florida in 1513, and the first permanent Spanish settlement, St. Augustine, was established 52 years later in 1565. The first homes in St. Augustine were simple one-story rectangular structures with 2 to 4 rooms and large outdoor spaces; the core that evolved into American Spanish Colonial style. 

On the west coast, the Spanish did not begin colonizing California or the American Southwest until 1769, and expanded upon the styles first brought to the U.S. more than two centuries before. Though they shared many commonalities with the Spanish Colonials of Florida, these western homes borrowed many building techniques from indigenous peoples, using adobe bricks and other natural materials that reflect the surrounding desert landscape. 

During the Colonial Revival movement of the late 19th century, Spanish Colonial-style houses began springing up in all parts of the country, with architects reinterpreting the original design for a more modern era. Spanish revival houses may borrow flourishes from other popular American housing styles, but retain the naturalistic simplicity that is the heart of a Spanish Colonial home.

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