Abbey's Road

The stones of a 13th-century Spanish monastery lie crumbling in Golden Gate Park, a forgotten legacy of William Randolph Hearst. Trappist monks now hope to resurrect part of what Hearst tore asunder.

There has been no better place to enjoy this mild December than the eastern end of Golden Gate Park. Unseasonably warm weather has continued to coax every sort of fragrance from the park's seemingly endless fern groves, redwood glens, and landscaped botanical gardens. The park's legions of gardeners are making good use of the winter respite, busying themselves with projects that, by spring, will make the park look and feel grander still.

At the main entrance to the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, for example, stonemasons are cutting ancient blocks of limestone to fashion a fountain, walkway, and raised planter bed that will become the Library Terrace Garden. At the National AIDS Memorial Grove, workers have been laying fluted limestone beams to form an attractive, durable border along the pathways that meander across the hillsides sloping up from the grove's central meadow.

The old limestone being used for these undertakings is about as perfect a landscaping stone as exists, with a wavy, multihued, pockmarked grain and a rough, porous surface. The stone is soft, easy for gardeners to cut into accurately shaped building blocks. It's lighter than a rock like granite, and thus much easier to move around a giant garden such as the park.

Amy Douglas
Amy Douglas

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RELATED LINKS

Chapter House of Santa Maria de Ovila
The Abbey of New Clairvaux posts photos and text related to the chapter house reconstruction project.

S.F. Department of Recreation and Parks
Submit your feedback on the fate of the chapter house stones to Rec and Parks via the Web.


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"That stone is easy to work with. You score it with a saw and they break true," says Kevin Shea, a park supervisor.

During the past several months, park workers have been excavating the limestone with a backhoe from a hill behind the Asian Art Museum, laying the blocks out on the muddy ground, and inadvertently creating the appearance of a squat, disorganized Stonehenge. Gardeners from various areas of the park occasionally take stones from this erstwhile quarry for landscaping projects.

But these aren't just any stones, and they are not the park's own. They were originally quarried in Spain, and carved by guild masons almost 800 years ago. For hundreds of years, they stood as a Trappist monastery 90 miles northeast of Madrid, a richly detailed edifice that took 30 years to build.

The hubris of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst brought the stones to San Francisco nearly 70 years ago. But when his plans for them fell through, the stones wound up decaying in the mud of Golden Gate Park, where they have now become a treasure trove for the park's gardeners. The months-old flurry of activity -- digging, hauling, cutting, and stacking the stones -- has gone on completely unnoticed outside the insular world of Golden Gate Park's caretakers. But it represents an internationally momentous event just the same.

The stones once comprised a particular type of medieval architecture characteristic of Benedictine monasteries common during the first centuries of this millennium. They arrived in Golden Gate Park in 1931, as part of Hearst's aborted plan to use the stones in the construction of a castle on one of his estates.

The descent of gardeners upon this limestone trove is the latest chapter in an 800-year tale that has seen the stones pass through permutations as a 13th-century Trappist abbey, a 19th-century Spanish hay barn, an abandoned vehicle for Hearst's vainglory, and, in the end, curbing stones. As if on a magical journey through the zeitgeist of the centuries, these coarsely veined blocks have traveled through man's grandest attempts to express the divine, the profane, the banal, the optimistic.

The abbey built from the stones was brought to life in the early 1200s to house and symbolize the prayers, sacrifices, and moments of contemplation that make up a Benedictine monk's lifetime pursuit of spiritual grace. It was dismantled and brought to the United States in the 1930s as the ultimate expression of Hearst's quest for ostentatiousness. It lay wasting away in Golden Gate Park for half a century as a result of bureaucratic aimlessness on the part of San Francisco officials. Now, as many as two-thirds of the stones are being used as landscaping ornaments.

According to one Italian expert consulted by SF Weekly, Golden Gate Park caretakers may be committing one of the worst instances of desecration of a medieval European monument in the past 50 years.

"I have never encountered an example like this. Nowhere. In the past, they did many bad restorations of monuments. But landscaping? Never," says Soroush Gharamani, who earned his doctorate in the study and restoration of monuments from Rome University La Sapienza, and has spent the ensuing 15 years working on historical restoration projects. "It's really a crime."

Lee Miller, the museum curator charged with overseeing the stones, says she was not aware that the gardeners had been excavating and utilizing the limestone, and none of the park supervisors SF Weekly contacted could say who gave the Park Department permission to do so. Park spokeswoman Becky Ballinger said she did not know who gave the arboretum permission to cut the ancient stones and assemble them into a fountain. It seems the gardeners simply decided to take them.

But just as the stones have lived their past 800 years as a parable for the ages they've occupied, they enter the new millennium as a symbol of hope.

As it happens, a small Trappist monastery near Chico has salvaged enough of the stones to at least partially rebuild one portion of the original monastery. Around one-third of the stones were hauled 150 miles north of here to the monastery five years ago, after the monks scraped enough money together to rent a flatbed and a crane.

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