Spain authorized the establishment of Roman Catholic missions in Alta California with the intent that these missions would become the nucleus for new cities inhabited by loyal Spanish citizens. In many cases cities did grow up around the missions, but there are few places where a modern visitor can get a sense of what those towns looked like in their early years.
The historic city of San Juan Bautista is one of those rare places where a visitor really feels as if they have been transported back in time.
San Juan Bautista has a mission that looks much as it did 200 years ago. It also has a historical district that preserves significant 19th century buildings that share the city’s plaza with the mission. But most significantly, little in the rest of the historic downtown has changed very much over the years either. The entire downtown feels like a movie set for an old-fashioned Western.
(National Park Service photograph via Wikimedia Commons)
The designated historic district and the smaller San Juan Bautista State Historic Park both include the city plaza (the mission also had a plaza of its own inside its walls) and a selection of buildings along its periphery.
The plaza is a key feature here, as it’s the only Spanish-era plaza left in California. Rather than the pretty, landscaped park we might expect today, the plaza remains an unimproved open space suitable for temporarily confining livestock, setting up a market, conducting military training, or putting on a festival.
(This plaza may also be unique in being located along both a fragment of the original Spanish roadway and a rift that marks the San Andreas Fault!)
As expected in a city with Spanish origins, the church is located along the plaza, although the founding of the Mission of San Juan Bautista in 1797 predates the formation of the adjacent city by about a decade.
The mission itself is among the most authentic in California, having never been abandoned or dramatically altered. With the exception of a companario built in 1976 to house the church bells, today the church and former padre’s quarters look very much as they did when completed in 1812.
(Until 1867 the exterior of the church looked much as it did when completed in 1812.)
(A New England-style steeple was added around 1865 and destroyed in 1915.)
(A stucco bell tower was added in 1929, but was removed in 1949.)
(The current companario was added in 1976 to house the bells and make the church look more like other mission churches in California.)
Although a city began to develop around Mission San Juan Bautista by 1814, it didn’t take on its modern appearance until after the Mexican government secularized the mission in 1835. At that time a former soldier named José Tiburcio Castro was given responsibility for distributing the mission’s land (most of which went to his friends and family). Those new landowners got to work building the city we see today.
The first significant building to be constructed was (not surprisingly) the Castro House, which was built in 1841 to house Castro’s son and to serve as the center of government for the region.
The home didn’t stay in the Castro family for long. In 1848 the Breen family – survivors of the Donner party’s tragic trek through the mountains – used money from a son’s successful attempt at gold prospecting to purchase the Castro house where they lived until 1933. Today the house is open to the public and furnished to reflect the Breens’ life here around 1870.
(The Castro-Breen house was in bad shape by 1934.)
In those days before the railroad arrived in California, San Juan Bautista was a booming place.
The nearby Plaza Hotel was built in 1858 to serve the increasing number of businessmen, travelers, and fortune-seekers arriving in town.
(Drinks are still served in the hotel’s saloon.)
With seven stage coach lines serving the city, the hotel wasn’t the only business that came into being to serve the needs of travelers.
The Plaza Stable sits just around the corner from the Castro/Breen house. Built about 1861 to handle the needs of the stage coach lines and other wagons that served the booming town, today the stable serves as a museum.
The Zanetta House/Plaza Hall is located next to the stable and directly across from the church. It also came into being as we see it today during the heady days of 1868, but its history goes back farther.
When Mexican businessman Angelo Zanetta bought the property it already had a building on it. That building probably served initially as housing for the mission’s unmarried Indian women. Zanetta reused the adobe bricks from that existing building in the construction of his new building. Although the main floor of the new building became the Zanetta home soon after completion, it was built to serve as the courthouse. Unfortunately for Zanetta, another city became the county seat, so there was no need for a courthouse in San Juan Bautista.
The railroad came to this part of California in 1876, but it didn’t come to San Juan Bautista. As business followed the railroad, San Juan Bautista’s boom slowed and then ground to a halt in the final decades of the 19th century. The result is a 19th century town that generally looks much as it did a hundred or more years ago.
San Juan Bautista State Historic Park is located just off Highway 101 between Gilroy and Salinas. The area includes about 30 historic buildings, several of which (the Plaza Hotel, Zanetta House/Plaza Hall, Plaza Stables, Castro-Breen Adobe, a blacksmith shop, and the historic jail) are open daily. There is a good descriptive brochure available on the park website. The city of San Juan Bautista also has an informative website.
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