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Stone Deaf and Blind 

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

Wednesday, Jan 10 2001
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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.

"I contacted Father Thomas and said I wanted to be involved," says Kempf, referring to Thomas X. Davis, abbot of the Abbey of New Clairveaux, where the monastery reconstruction is taking place.

At the time the article was written, Italian medieval restorationist Soroush Gharamani was using computer modeling of the original monastery buildings to determine where the stones, many of which had been damaged over time, should be placed.

"There were all kinds of people trying to do it on the computer, but for some reason they couldn't finish it. The budget wasn't there," Kempf says.

Kempf suggested using more traditional restoration techniques, partially assembling the stones in a sandbox, to determine which stones were missing, and where previously unclassified stones might be placed.

Kempf and a friend scoured the park, finding and photographing more than 300 ancient limestone blocks from the Monasterio Santa Maria de Ovila.

But Father Davis, who had sought since the 1950s to obtain the stones for a restoration at Vina, wasn't comfortable with Kempf's campaign. People close to both men say the abbot asked Kempf to back off, for fear of falling afoul of park or museum officials and putting the monastery restoration project at risk.

"I just want to note how grateful we are to the museum and the park for the stones," Father Davis told me last week. "I'd just like to know what it is Oskar is talking about."

Kempf is talking about the odd truce that has been negotiated among the park, the museum, and the monastery regarding the disposition of the stones. For nearly half a century the park's gardeners had access to their own private quarry of ancient limestone to use for building retaining walls and other landscape decoration. Gardeners I interviewed resented that the monks had made off with "their" stones.

The Park Department has already used some of the best stones for a decorative rock wall built in front of the library at Strybing Arboretum.

The sculptor hired to build the wall said in a letter that he cut the ancient stones using antique tools and utmost respect for the artisans who went before him.

And Scott Medbury, the Park Department official responsible for the wall, says the arboretum will use more of the monastery stones as landscaping elements as such occasions come up.

"We think the wall that we constructed outside the library is the most sensitive use yet. Our sculptor was trained in France. He has revealed all of the original stonemason's marks," says Medbury. "I know the stonemason who's working with the monks finds this an abomination. But it is here, and we think it's very appropriate."

Kempf indeed finds it an abomination.

"Their attitude is, "We have so much of this stone that it must be like garbage,'" Kempf scoffs.

Kelley, the preservationist historian, goes so far as to say the wall is tacky even as a piece of decoration. "It's completely at variance with the architecture of the library, which is a fairly nice piece of modernist architecture. Now it's got an ersatz medieval patio attached to it," Kelley says.

Jansen, the UC Santa Cruz professor, is appalled about the Park Department's handling of the stone. She describes the solid, star-shaped "springer stones" that had just come into use the year Santa Maria de Ovila was built: These stones were used as keystonelike joints where all the ribs supporting the inside of a Gothic stone roof would join at a peak. Previously, these ribs had been joined by several stones that had been plastered together into one joint. At around the time the Santa Maria de Ovila monastery was built, European stonemasons started getting the idea to make these joints from a single piece, so that they might support much more weight.

"It's a real devil to carve," says Jansen. "To imagine people without computer analysis or any kind of calculation tools to figure out the different angles that have to be cut in order to seat the next rib stone onto it to create the arc, at all different angles -- across, diagonal, ribs going at different angles -- to encompass all that into one stone is a masterpiece of building analysis and construction."

The invention of the solid springer stone allowed masons to build Gothic structures stories higher -- a revolution akin to the introduction of the structural steel skyscraper in more recent times. Trappist monks were at the forefront of medieval architecture, a fact that can be divined by examining the Ovila stones.

"It represents an incredible jump in technological virtuosity," Jansen says. "It was a stroke of technological genius."

Though such artifacts are well known to students of medieval architecture, they are rarely seen in the classroom; springer stones don't often show up in museums.

But you can find one stuck into the garden wall at Strybing Arboretum.

Indeed, Medbury freely boasts that the springer stone was cemented into the wall.

"That wall has a lot of stories in it if you know where to look," says Medbury, adding that "that piece was what they used as a keystone."

While it's unlikely the Strybing wall will ever be disassembled and placed in a museum where it belongs, there's still time to save the other 300 or so stones still in the park. If citizens told their supervisors they were outraged by the arboretum's actions -- which Italian medieval restorationist Gharamani calls the worst act of desecration of a medieval monument during the last half-century -- our elected officials might take action. They might order the Park Department to give the stones over to a more appropriate curator.

In doing so, they might show that as a city, San Francisco really does care about respecting history, and that historical preservation isn't just an excuse neighbors sometimes use when they don't want buildings blocking their windows.

"It's the public of San Francisco who should care about this," Kempf says. "But nobody does. That's what's so fascinating. How come we have all these highly educated people, and nobody seems to recognize these things?"

About The Author

Matt Smith

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