115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Zorro and Southern California's Mission Revival Movement

William Russell Sype, Independent Scholar

This paper argues that Johnston McCulley’s Zorro was inspired by southern California’s Mission Revival movement.  Newspaper accounts and picture-postcards contemporary with McCulley’s residence in southern California suggest that the architecture and landscapes of southern California inspired both McCulley’s pre-Zorro Captain Fly-by-Night and Zorro’s 1919 premiere in The Curse of Capistrano. 


This paper looks at the sociohistorical context for Johnston McCulley’s Zorro in The Curse of Capistrano.  While the literary and historical antecedents of Zorro have been well-explored, this paper argues that McCulley’s Zorro was deeply intertwined with southern California’s Mission Revival movement.  Citing contemporary newspaper accounts, picture-postcards, and other documentary evidence from the time of McCulley’s residence in southern California as a newspaperman, I suggest that the architecture and landscapes of San Diego, Riverside, and Los Angeles provided McCulley with his inspiration for both the pre-Zorro Captain Fly-by-Night and Zorro’s 1919 premiere in The Curse of Capistrano.  This argument provides a counterpoint to Ovnick’s (2008) “The Mark of Zorro:  Silent Film’s Impact on 1920s Architecture in Los Angeles” (California History86(1), 28-64).

As early as 1908, McCulley visited San Diego to obtain local color for a serial story, stating that, “San Diego has two virtues.  It is one of the most beautiful places in the country, and it teems with romance.”  McCulley’s 1916 novel, Captain Fly-by-Night, set in San Diego during California’s Mission period, presages the dual- and mistaken-identity plot of The Curse of Capistrano, and introduces the key architectural and spatial elements inherent in the Zorro stories:           the presidio, the mission, the rancho, and the pueblo. 

As a newspaperman in southern California in the early 1910s, McCulley witnessed the development of the Mission Revival movement, particularly during his term as editor of the Riverside Enterprise in 1912-1913.  Jackson (1955) introduced a revised edition of Yellow Bird’s Joaquin Murieta saying, “… as the first two decades of the twentieth century wore along, Californians began to become newly conscious of their past” and were hunting for “every hint of romance in their past.”  In San Diego, a popular tourist attraction was drawn from Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona.  In Riverside a romanticized vision of colonial California had become popular, and public buildings in the Mission Revival style were the pride of the city, including Riverside High School, the Carnegie Library, and the newly completed Mission Inn.

Gebhard (1967) points out that “one of the unique qualities of this regional architecture is that it had little, if any, real roots in the historic past of the area.  The Spanish Colonial Revival, from its Mission phase on, was almost totally a myth created by newcomers to the area.”  So, too, Zorro, the quintessential swashbuckling hero of Old California, was created by a newcomer, a prolific writer of pulp fiction.  McCulley recognized this growing popularity of the colonial past and met it with a tale firmly rooted in the arroyos, missions, and ranchos of Old California’s mythic history.

While Ovnick argues that the constraints and conventions of silent film sets, beginning with Douglas Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro in 1920, influenced southern California’s residential architecture, this paper suggests that this influence was a two-way street, with the Mission Revival architectural movement providing the inspiration for McCulley’s Zorro.

Gebhard, David. 1967. “The Spanish Colonial Revival in Southern California (1895-1930)” (Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May 1967), pp. 131-147.

Jackson, Joseph Henry.1955. “Introduction.” In Yellow Bird (John Rollin Ridge), Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta: Celebrated California Bandit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. P. xxxix.