The Mission System was designed by the Spanish government in the 18th century to provide a network of governmental, religious and military control in the geographic region of present-day California. The size and physical design of each mission was unique and changed over decades of use, but the structures included at least a church, some residential housing and working gardens. Fourth-grade students in California, as well as their parents, are familiar with the history assignment to create a model of a mission. Sugar cubes and clay are popular building materials and most of the models have the familiar Spanish arch over the main entrance. The assignments are rarely graded for historical or architectural accuracy, but it takes only a short time to develop a model that meets both standards using the references at the end of this article.

How to Make a Model of a California Mission

Use the websites below to select a mission to model. The first mission was established in San Diego in 1769 and, with the construction of the last mission at San Francisco in 1823, there were 21 missions within the system. California native groups provided the labor to build the missions.

Select the year to model. The missions were constructed from adobe, and most of them were added to or remodeled over the decades. Earthen walls required periodic rebuilding. Fires and earthquakes destroyed structures, including a quake at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in 1830. The same mission was “renovated” in 1872 with a makeover that included removal of all of the clay tiles, which were replaced with New England-style wooden shingles and siding. Several missions were built and then rebuilt in new locations, such as San Carlos Borremeo, which was constructed in Monterey and then relocated to Carmel. Select a drawing or early photograph of the mission in the year to be modeled.

Locate a list or aerial view drawing of mission structures. The missions were self-sufficient by 1810, and each had residences and manufacturing buildings such as mills and granaries. This information will determine the size of the construction base. Estimate the number of structures and then cut the base from a piece from a cardboard box or from purchased Styrofoam. A basic size of 2 feet by 2 feet will be suitable for the smallest mission. Add inches to each side of the base for larger missions with additional structures.

Build the structures by first determining the relative size for each building. This need not be exact, but building sizes should be relative to each other. (2-foot-by-2-foot bases will use approximately 1-inch-tall structures.) Transfer the building location sketch to the construction base. Cut backs and sides of the structures from the cardboard. Tape all the edges and then cut the structure fronts. Do not attach the fronts until completing Step #5.

Decorate the base and buildings. Begin by spray painting (or use a large brush and light-buff-colored tempera paint) to coat the base and all sides of the structures. Use the same paint to cover the fronts. Decorate the buildings with the permanent colored markers, adding doors, windows and adobe brick markings. Allow the paint to dry. Place the fronts on the buildings and attach with tape or white glue.

Cut thin cardboard to replicate roofing for the structures. Paint the base coat with tempera or spray paint. Allow the paint to dry and add roofing details, such as shingles, straw thatching or clay tiles.

Add details to the base. Ground cover may be drawn in with markers or added using actual dirt and grass. Trees may be made from natural plant materials or constructed from heavy paper or thin cardboard. Paint as necessary.