Mission Style

With their red-tile roofs and white stucco walls, their lush groves and gardens, the missions have become central to our collective notion of what California looks like.

According to art historian Norman Neuerburg, it’s no accident that these evocative buildings are a crucial element in the Golden State of our imaginations.

“The only pieces of architecture of significance before the American period were the missions and the chapels of the presidios,” he points out.

They have long been a favorite subject of photographers as well. In the late 1870’s and early 1880’s famed nature photographer Carlton Watkins “did mammoth photographs of the missions, just as he did of Yosemite,” Neuerburg says.


Times photographer Frank Wiese chose to use a 4-by-5 format camera to shoot these memorable images of the Mission San Fernando.

Savored by studio and fine-art photographers, the large-format camera maximizes the shooter’s control, particularly over focus. Weise says he hoped to capture “the heart of the mission,” especially its iconic Convento, and to distance such modern distractions as local traffic and overhead power lines.

In this century, the mass media continue to keep the missions before our eyes. Given its industry-convenient setting and its lovely Convento, it’s not surprising that the Mission San Fernando has long been a popular location for movies and television. It has appeared in some 150 films and TV shows, starting with the silent “Captain Courtesy” in 1915.

Director Lois Weber, who enjoyed shooting on location, unlike most of her peers, took full cinematic advantage of the mission’s ravaged but still photogenic church. (Not yet restored in 1915, it had no roof.) At one point, Captain Courtesy gallops into the church on horseback, soaring through one of the loftier windows to make an unforgettable entry.

The mission also appeared in an episode of Jack Webb’s classic 1950s TV series, “Dragnet.”