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Once bought, some things simply cannot be returned. But thanks to one of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst's art-collecting binges, the remnants of an abandoned 10th-century Spanish monastery are being pried from the mud in Golden Gate Park (where they once were part of a Hindu shrine -- more on that later) and reassembled by Catholic monks just outside Chico.
"This is the closest we've ever been to properly and respectfully displaying these stones," says Harry Parker, director of the de Young Museum. "I consider this a happy chapter. Somebody is getting the job done."
The modern history of the Cistercian Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila began in 1931, when Hearst paid $1 million for its three buildings:a refectory, a chapter house and a gallery, plus pieces of the cathedral. The complex had stood abandoned for 100 years in a valley north of Madrid; trees grew through gaping holes and scavengers had toted away all the buildings' woodwork.
The acquisitive millionaire Hearst was well practiced in the art of purchasing European antiquities: His coastal castle at San Simeon, still under construction then, was brimming with them. He commissioned architect Julia Morgan (also San Simeon's designer) to incorporate the Spanish stones into plans for an eight-story chateau near Mt. Shasta. Under Hearst's order, the abbey was dismantled and shipped in 10,000 crates to San Francisco.
There, the 3,000 tons of limestone petals, vaulting and bricks languished in a park workers' dump behind the Japanese Tea Garden after Hearst canceled his chateau. Eventually, much of the collection scattered as laborers used the available stones to shore up Stow Lake and build retaining walls in the Arboretum.
Recently, however, a group of Cistercian monks near Chico reclaimed the chapter house -- the only salvageable abbey structure -- with plans to reconstruct the vaulted 30-feet-by-45-feet building on the grounds of their orchard monastery. As soon as weather permits, workers hired by the Cistercian Abbey of the New Clairvaux in Vina, California, will retrieve the last of the muddy, gray, breadbox-size blocks needed for the project.
"It's like a puzzle and we're trying to sort out the pieces," says Father Thomas Davis, abbot of the 25-monk monastery. "We have plans to use it for the same purpose it served in Spain, as a place where the abbot spoke to the monks and as a community room."
Julia Morgan had sketched the chapter house stones into a grand entryway to Hearst's chateau. Pieces from the cavernous cathedral were to enclose a swimming pool and ladies' dressing area. Even the bowling alley was to have ribbed vaulting.
The design was the easy part. Dismantling the 800-year-old monastery and shipping it out of Republican Spain was downright operatic. Up to 100 men worked around the clock filling railroad carts with the heavy stones and sending them to the nearest river on tracks laid down directly into the buildings. Torches lined the riverbank, inspiring one of the workers to write, "It was all quite dramatic and gave the impression of the Crossing of the Styx." The stones filled 11 ships.
Hearst abandoned the project, calculated in 1933 to cost $50 million, soon after the cargo arrived in San Francisco. Sold to the city for $25,000, the stones were moved behind the Japanese Tea Garden. The only piece of the transported abbey ever reconstructed was its 16th-century portal façade, which was placed around a door in the de Young Museum in 1965.
But the eroded and neglected Ovila stones were far from forgotten. Former de Young director Ian White hired architectural historian Margaret Burke to conduct an inventory of the pieces, which revealed that while much of the complex was gone, most of the abbey's chapter house -- the monks' common room and the abbey's most beautiful building -- was still behind the Tea Garden.
"It was extraordinary that all the intricate, carved material was still intact," White recalls. "It was a great treasure. You could never get anything like that out of a country now."
White and Burke envisioned a small, cloister-style gallery inside the de Young, opening onto a large tiled room at the front of the museum. "The stumbling block," White says, echoing Hearst's experience, "was money." The reconstruction was listed as one of the museum's priority projects through most of the '80s, but the necessary $2 million never materialized.
In the early '90s, members of a local Hindu ashram began weekly rituals near the abbey stones: The focus of their interest was a four-foot-tall, bullet-shaped traffic barrier park workers had dumped into the pile of abbey stones.
Perched on pieces of the former monastery, the stout cement pillar attracted hundreds of Hindus who recognized in its phallic shape a "Shiva Linga" -- a classic fertility symbol of the god Shiva. Worshipers festooned it with flowers, fruit and incense. More dramatic offerings included colored powder and milk; soon little dolls began to litter a rock-lined circle around the shrine.
"All of this has to do with energy," said the ashram's leader, Baba Kali Das, at the time. "The Shiva Linga is the activation of positive energy and the more people that come, the more energy it has." (Kali Das, a performance artist and organizer of the 1967 Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, also goes by the name Michael Bowen.)