Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 17, 2018

Ultimate Mission Revival in Los Angeles?

I’ll go out of my way to see interesting buildings. My personal taste runs to modern architecture, but I’ve plenty of time chasing the structures of antiquity, from ruins of ancient Rome, mighty cathedrals or prehistoric stone walls in the desert.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4187 (640x247)

Here in Los Angeles, where we have none of the above, my practice when we venture into any less-than-familiar part of town is to study the respective section of An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, to see if we’ll be passing near any notable buildings. There’s usually something worth seeing, and many of the results have ended up as blog posts here.

A few weeks ago, we were headed to see a movie in the eastern portion of Long Beach, only about a thirty minute drive away, and not completely unknown territory for us. Still, I checked the guide. We’d been to that theater — set in a sprawling shopping mall — a few times before. I’d never noticed a Guidebook listing right next door to the theater. Here’s what Gebhard and Winter had to say about it:

“A wonderful version of California’s Mission Revival.”

Apparently I’d missed an architectural gem. Very well, we’d take a look.

“Mission Revival” imitates the architecture of earliest colonial California, about 1769 – 1833, when the area was first settled by the Spanish. They established 21 Catholic “missions,” which were not only churches for the conversion (read “subjugation”) of the native population, but also served as fortresses, farms, factories, mills and military outposts. Using native stone and adobe brick, the missions varied in details, but had common traits. The Mission San Juan Capistrano is a good example.

Mission Capistrano Brad Nixon 8407 (640x480)

As our own architectural heritage, “Mission Revival” has been an ongoing theme of California architecture, and there are countless government buildings, churches, schools, commercial establishments, residences and restaurants and hotels from kitchiest to ritziest in a dizzying array of Mission Revival adaptations. So, I didn’t know exactly what version to expect, but I knew what sort of ballpark.

What I found was a perfect demonstration of Gebhard and Winter’s approach to architecture. They’re determined to classify everything, and sometimes go to surprising places to find examples. The 470 pages in their guidebook painstakingly parse each one of the thousands of buildings therein, assigning a style to each one. Studying the book, one learns a great deal, for example, about the distinctions between modernist, post-modernist, Bauhaus, International, Brutalist, etc. For the authors, just because a building’s not “significant” in terms of innovative design doesn’t mean it does not signify.

There, facing a large empty swath of asphalt parking lot, I found this building.

El Torito Brad Nixon 2799 640

This is where my authors were being a bit ironic. It’s a theme restaurant, built about 1976-7, about 200 years after those intrepid Conquistadors ventured into savage lands.

El Torito Brad Nixon 2800 640

Yes, it was a Mexican restaurant. Was, because it’s now shuttered … literally. Good thing they had the foresight to equip it with shutters, eh?

El Torito Brad Nixon 1340 640

The restaurant chain, founded in California in 1954, touted itself as “a pioneer in the California full service Mexican casual dining restaurant segment.” It’s been acquired several times and some restaurants still carry the brand, although not at that location. Well, the Spanish had a longer run with their missions, but they’ve changed owners a few times and had their own travails along the way.

Still, it IS Mission Revival. For the student of architecture, it’s a viable case study in how originals “enter the vernacular” and become commonplace, even mundane. Professional architects require a wide vocabulary of styles to meet a client’s call for a building of a particular type. What are the salient traits? What materials? How are doors and windows treated? What about walls, floors, roofs?

Here, for the authors of the Architectural Guide, is Mission Revival as effectively executed for a restaurant as it might be at a grandiose luxury hotel. I simply didn’t expect a 1976 chain restaurant.

It’s Father’s Day. I have the good fortune to look forward to spending it with my father. Among countless other things, I owe my interest in and a good deal of my appreciation and understanding for architecture to him and his formal training in the field, not to mention the years I spend working with him, constructing buildings, for some of which he drew the plans. Thanks, Dad. Not just for architecture, either.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Quotation © David Gebhard and Robert Winter, An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, Gibbs Smith, 2003, p. 110.








  1. If only our chain restaurants were so interesting. If this popped up in my neighborhood, I’d be more than willing to give it my business, just to see the inside.

    It’s wonderful that your father still is with you. Mine died over 35 years ago, but I appreciate him more every year. He was the one who nurtured my curiosity and eagerness to explore.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent pictures, you really love to explore your city. It is always interesting to see Spanish Colonial Californian Architecture.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Tread carefully within guidebooks!


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