Stone Deaf and Blind

In a city full of zealous preservationists, why can't we halt the desecration of a medieval monument?

One day last spring German stonemason Oskar Kempf was minding his own business when his radio dial bumped into a drive-time talk show. That would be trauma enough to the native born. For Kempf, it was an outrage.

"I was flabbergasted," he says. "I thought to myself, "How dare you guys make such a fuss about a dog's head?'"

The citizenry of San Francisco was, at the time, rising up in defense of a 20-times-life-size dachshund head that had once advertised fast food. Helpfully, a few S.F. supervisors went on the air to contribute to the pique.

"I can see this is a very American perspective," Kempf notes.

A very San Francisco one, certainly. Raising a glass in the name of historical preservation seems to be this city's favorite tonic, especially lately. There's the South Van Ness neighbors who claimed the National Historic Preservation Act made it illegal to build low-income housing near their own beautiful homes. In Duboce Triangle neighbors said their battle to sabotage low-income apartment buildings was actually about saving a 40-year-old "historical" funeral home. And there was the Doggie Diner "dine-in," the Doggie Diner petition drive, and radio broadcast promises by concerned supervisors to save the Doggie Diner head.

Depending on how you look at it, this preservationist siege is either the product of a deeply sensitive community aesthetic, or a specious cover for NIMBY bullying. Is it urbane historicism or philistine nostalgism?

Ordinarily, it would be impossible to know for sure; scientific inquiry usually stumbles over themes so abstract as a city's soul.

But imagine for a moment a controlled experiment in which the remnants of a centuries-old architectural landmark stood at risk of being cut to pieces; imagine further that historians agreed that the remains exemplified one of the greatest achievements in architectural engineering in the past 800 years. And, for the sake of our experiment, imagine that saving this landmark could be done without notable public cost.

As it happens, such an experiment is now under way in San Francisco, and it's called the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Ovila. Final analysis isn't yet in, but initial data seems to show our city is inhabited by barbarians.

I got to thinking again about the Monasterio a couple of weekends ago, when the old de Young Museum building held its last-hurrah, all-night open house, before closing for good. I wondered what was going to become of the massive 16th-century baroque stone archway that served as the museum's portal. The arch had once graced the entrance of an ancient Spanish church, which was part of a 13th-century abbey brought to the U.S. 70 years ago by William Randolph Hearst. As it happens, the arch is now destined for either a Trappist abbey three hours north of here, or the University of San Francisco campus -- depending on what the museum decides. Already there's a trove of the Hearst stones at the Trappist abbey in Vina, Calif., waiting to be built into a faithful reproduction of the Spanish abbey's meetinghouse. And USF, well, that's a Jesuit university only a few blocks away from the de Young, and I trust it'd do the right thing.

Either way, it seems, the remnants of Hearst's profane fit of vainglorious piracy are destined for good hands.

That is, until you realize that many of the old abbey stones -- stones that medieval archaeologists tell me are precious examples of key innovations in Gothic architecture -- are sitting in Golden Gate Park, waiting to be cut into kitschy gardening retaining walls.

"That's kind of the anti-preservation," notes Tim Kelley, a historian who is vice chairman of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board.

"It's barbarism and mutilation, and there's no way I could condone it," says Virginia Jansen, a UC Santa Cruz art history professor who specializes in Gothic architecture.

Notes Kempf, who has spent the past year helping with the Vina abbey restoration project and photo-documenting the stones still left in Golden Gate Park: "We're talking about a city of highly educated people here. In 60 years, few people had any idea the stones were lying there. Archaeologists were spending millions of dollars going overseas and digging up other people's culture, and these stones were lying there. The whole city of San Francisco got together to save that dog's head at the same time I was trying to save the stones in Golden Gate Park."

Kempf, who runs his restorative masonry business out of his San Rafael home, first became interested in the monastery remains a year ago, when he read a cover story in SF Weekly about how they were being cut into gardening stones by the grounds crew at Golden Gate Park.

Hearst had originally transported the 800-year-old monastery to San Francisco in 1930 with the idea of using the stones to fashion a medieval-style mansion in the Mount Shasta foothills even grander than San Simeon. He ran out of money just as he got the stones stateside and eventually bequeathed the whole lot to the city; except for the de Young archway, they sat for decades in the mud near Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden. Every once in a while, a park gardener would excavate a few to cut into retaining walls, curbstones, walkway guides, and such.

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