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World Heritage Site – the San Antonio Missions

Our home of San Antonio has a rich and diverse cultural history, growing out of the confluence of the early mission establishments, trade along the “Camino Real”, a blending of Spanish colonials with a multitude of immigrant cultures drawn to a new country and state that created a unique metropolis on the frontier.

The siting of our city was born out of the relocation and establishment of a series of Spanish missions to the San Antonio River basin,  where each would become a community serving as an outpost of the Spanish culture that these missioners came from.

Last year, these missions received an honor that had been long in the making, with their recognition as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of twenty four across the world selected in 2015.  They were considered to be of outstanding universal value as a cultural property due to their representation as collectively the most complete extant example of the Spanish Crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize, and defend its empire, while also acting as a persistent and vibrant testimony to the interweaving of European and North American cultures.

Mission San Francisco de la Espada

Map of the San Antonio Mission Trail

The five missions and the supporting ranch are a unique example of the concept of a mission complex, each established as independent communities that transitioned to robust secular settlement, despite their close proximity to one another.

This first of these missions to be establish was that of Mission de San Antonio de Valero, dating from 1718 when Father Antonio de Olivares start construction on his mission.

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An early map indicating Valero Map de Aguayo, 1730

Never completed as designed, the carved stone façade and entry portal only hints at what might have been. The delicacy of detail that read through event today is a tribute to the craftsmen that originally carved this at such a remote outpost.


details of stone façade and entry portal

This mission would gain its greatest fame in the Texas Revolution for Independence when the Battle of the Alamo, and the mission would become the last stand of those fighting for their freedom from Mexico.  The buildings at this time did not have the iconographic parapet that we today identify with the building.

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Daguerreotype from 1849

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The Alamo today

Originally established in East Texas in 1716, Mission Concepcion was relocated to San Antonio in 1731 when the Franciscan friars established a new mission near the confluence of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek.  The compound today is marked by the church and convent, where the main façade is a fine example of the late baroque style of New Spain with its twin bell towers.  Its complex also contains a convent and granary, as well as remains of supporting residential structures.

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Mission Concepcion

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Stairway at the Mission Concepcion

Unique to Mission Concepcion is a significant amount of the remains of plaster and decorative painting on both the exterior and interior and have allowed for studies of the polychromatic fresco decoration that once adorned the mission.

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Nave and Altar of the Mission Concepcion

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interior at Conception showing remnants of polychrome detailing

Mestizo face revealed in a convento room ceiling

Mestizo face revealed in fresco at convento room ceiling

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Concepcion’s exterior facade “restored by light” as a part of the World Heritage festivities

Mission Concepcion is still home to daily mass, it sands much as it originally did, standing as the oldest unreconstructed masonry church in America.

Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo, established in 1720 to meet the growing needs of area, with the new church that stands today constructed in 1786.  The largest of the missions, it includes the church, convent barracks, and granary from the original colonial area, as well as later structures that surround the central plaza.

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Mission San Jose


San Jose entry portal

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Interior of San Jose

A unique aspect of this compound, is the still functioning grist mill that works as a part of the mission’s water works.

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Water entering the waterwheel below the mill at San Jose

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Grist mill, still operable today

While the smallest and most rustic of the missions, Mission San Juan’s exterior is defined by its simple buttressed massing and the ornamental bell tower wall.  Established at its present location in 1731, it was in a much more rural setting which created the need for an elaborate water works to support the surround farmlands.  Its distance from the others also made it more susceptible to Indian raids which limited its growth.

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Mission San Juan

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Interior of San Juan

Mission Espada actually had the deepest roots of the Texas missions, originally founded as San Francisco de los Tejas in 1690 in east Texas, it was moved to San Antonio in 1731 and is the southernmost of the chain of missions that dot the San Antonio River.

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The Chapel at Mission Espada

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Interior of Espada

Its unique espandana – bell tower wall – was added in the 1790’s, about the same time as that of Mission San Juan.  The brickwork exposed today depicts the handiwork of its parishioners, as this was the only mission to make its own brick.


The bells of mission Espada

Another unique aspect of this mission is the Rancho de las Carabas, built as the ranch of the mission in the 1750s for their cattle after the early San Antonio residents were complaining about their fields being trampled.  While ruins of this had always been present to the south Texas ranchers, archaeological work one in the 1970’s confirmed the layout of the complex and discovered its connection to the mission.

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Archaeological work at Rancho de las Cabras

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Objects found on the ranch including jeweled crucifexs

Another aspect that merited recognition, are the substantial remains of the missions Acequias, or water channels.  This water distribution system carries the San Antonio River’s waters to the farm fields of the mission compounds, and stands as a testament to the exchange of technical knowledge adapted from the Arab irrigation practices found in southern Spain, that were imported by Spanish settlers and implemented and maintained by the local indigenous populations.  Some of these seven original water ways have portions still in uses today, while few only have fragments remaining and others have disappeared all together.

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Remnants of the Alamo Mardre acequia on the grounds of the Alamo

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San Jose aqueduct at Grist Mill

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Espada Dam

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Espada Aqueduct

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Espada acequia

The influence of these buildings  can be felt far beyond San Antonio, as the interest in Spanish Colonial Revival architecture would spread across the country, specific examples of this lineage can be seen in the details of Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner Building built in 1897, where the window surround detailing on the upper level was taken directly from the rose window at Mission San Jose.


San Jose Rose Window and the Examiner Building

As a young intern just out of school, I had the opportunity to work various restoration projects on each of these missions, getting to know the feel and experience of all of them as living, working buildings that serve the public and the church.  I am thrilled to see them recognized as a World Heritage Site.  This will both help ensure that the use and character of these structures are saved and shared with future generations, and that hopefully development around them will be thoughtful.