A time to gather stones

After a long and turbulent journey, building blocks that once stood as part of a medieval Spanish monastery find peace in Vina

The remnants of a medieval Spanish monastery are destined for rebirth.

The remnants of a medieval Spanish monastery are destined for rebirth.

Photo By Richard Ek

As the computerized table saw sliced through the soft limestone piece from a 13th-century Spanish monastery, master stonemason Oskar Kempf reveled in his task: using modern high technology to reshape pieces of the medieval past so a structure “dead” for 165 years, so to speak, might live again in the 21st century.

The stone and 900 others like it represent all that’s left of what was once the chapter house of the Cistercian, or Trappist, Monastery of Santa María de Óvila in Spain. Kempf, who learned the now-dying trade in Germany from his father, bears the responsibility of putting in place these building blocks. While original to the monastery, many of the stones must be cut or trimmed to substitute for lost, destroyed or broken chapter house pieces.

To complete the job, at least another 900 stones of the closest match in hue, density, and strength must be imported. Letters seeking bids have gone out to quarries in Texas, Sicily and Spain, and work with them will begin in June.

“Those medieval stonemasons with their hand tools could never have imagined even in the most wild dream that these stones would be cut again centuries later by an electrically powered blade four feet in diameter with a computer mind of its own and diamonds in its teeth,” Kempf chuckled as he watched over the operation in a barn at the Trappist Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, located 20 miles north of Chico.

It’s an exacting job that requires following a master drawing created several years ago by genteel, silver-haired Margaret Burke, a prominent Bay Area medieval-art and architectural historian and the definitive expert on the monastery. No other living person could have laid out the plan for each stone.

But making sure the structure develops as it should is up to Kempf and his assistant, Ross Luthard, who learned the trade in New Zealand. The biggest challenge of the job, Kempf explained, is that, in Gothic and Romanesque architecture, a single mistake in measurement or placement of individual stones ripples through the entire structure.

The renowned architect and art historian Margaret Burke, shown here in 1994-95, made notes and attached them temporarily to many of the stones as she created the master drawings for reconstruction of the chapter house. The ornate, chipped stone she is examining will need to be patched. As the stone masons work, any building question that arises is documented with words and photos and e-mailed to an architect in Spain whose Ph.D. study at the University of Madrid centered on the Monastery of Santa María de Óvila. He and Burke then consult, and Burke makes the final call.

Photo By Richard Ek

While the chapter house when finished will become a part of the abbey grounds, its few remaining original stones have experienced a long and troubled—indeed, tragic might be a better word—journey from the centuries-old Spanish monastery site on a bluff overlooking the Tagus River to their present location. The restoration of these remnants should bring peace to what has been called the nation’s most disestablished monastery.

The monastery of Santa María de Óvila, one of several—along with forts—built during the 13th century by King Alfonso VIII of Castile to mark the border of his Christian lands reconquered from the Moors, served to attract settlers to an isolated region 90 miles northeast of Madrid, far from well traveled roads and as a place of refuge in case of raids. It prospered for several centuries.

Disaster struck in 1835-37, when political events led the clergy to take sides in the Carlist civil war. María Cristina, the wife of deceased King Ferdinand and the mother of their daughter, Isabella, ruled as regent for the child queen. In a move that asserted the primacy of crown over church, María Cristina signed the Disestablishment Act that suppressed and deconsecrated all Catholic Church properties when the clergy sided with the followers of Don Carlos (thus Carlists), brother to Ferdinand (Isabella’s father), in his efforts to usurp the Spanish throne.

During anti-clerical mob riots, many church properties suffered extensive damage before being put up for sale. A grandee purchased for a pittance a somewhat-damaged Santa María de Óvila and turned it into a hotel for nobility visiting the mineral baths at nearby Trillo. Profligate heirs, however, allowed the property to deteriorate badly before it finally defaulted in the 1920s to the Bank of Spain for debts.

In 1931 Arthur Byne, an American art dealer living in Madrid, alerted famed American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst to the availability of the monastery. Ever the free-spending art collector, Hearst bought for $50,000 what was by then largely a ruin; farmers were sheltering equipment and animals there, the refectory was being used as a manure pit, and small trees were growing out of some floors, walls and vaulting.

Under the direction of Walter Steilberg, chief assistant to Julia Morgan, the famed architect who planned and built Hearst’s renowned San Simeon retreat, 100 stonemasons, carpenters and unskilled workers toiled for a year on the dismantling and moving job that cost $750,000.

Steilberg recognized that not all of the monastery was exportable, so he singled out key pieces such as vault ribs, crossbeams, columns, arches, capitals, integral cell and arcade stones, doorways, various decorative pieces, and a lot of the best exterior-facing stones to rebuild the church, refectory and chapter house. He expected that new stone from American quarries would complete the structure.

This blade, four feet in circumference and turning at 900 rpm, is bathed in heat-dissipating water as it makes a cut that leaves a smooth stone face. Many of the original stones brought to Vina were not part of the chapter house but were brought because they were sound and could be cut to fit in various places. The computerized saw is so efficient that its trimmings use all but about 6 or 7 percent of the original stone. Most of the trimmings are used for repair work

Photo By Richard Ek

Before dismantling work began, Steilberg devised a dye-index marking system to identify each of the 9,000-plus stones and make reassembly simple. Using all the excelsior in Spain, workmen then crated the stones and moved them to the seaport town of Valencia, where they went into the holds of German freighters for the trip to Haslett’s San Francisco waterfront warehouse. The stones rested there for almost 10 years at a rent of $1,000 per month.

Hearst originally planned to rebuild the monastery at Wyntoon, a 70,000-acre barony he owned on the rushing McCloud River near the Northern California town of McCloud. But his free-spending habits brought him to the brink of bankruptcy as the Great Depression deepened, and in July 1941 he gave the stones to San Francisco, the city of his birth, in exchange for settlement of accumulated storage fees plus drayage fees to move them to Golden Gate Park for reconstruction.

When the publisher announced his plans, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, a friend of the clergy who was not in power when Hearst moved the stones out of the country, formally asked for the return of the treasure to Spain, a request the newspaper magnate publicly refused during the gifting ceremony at city hall.

No one knew at the time, but what had been a 10-year reconstruction delay under Hearst ownership was to become a 55-year delay and disaster under city ownership. Two problems immediately arose.

First, the wooden crates of stones were stored for economy in stacks 35 feet high in the eucalyptus grove behind the Japanese Tea Garden. It was a poor location choice: The ground cover of oily leaves played into the hands of vandals and arsonists who set at least three of the five fires that ravaged the monastery pieces during the next 22 years. Firemen tumbling the stacks with wire cables, hacking into them with pickaxes, and playing high-pressure cold water on the infernos cracked most of the hot stones and washed away the dye markings essential for rebuilding. A three-alarm fire in 1959—the worst of all—left a desolate scene of debris strewn about the quiet glen. Aging Walter Steilberg moved among the stones, tapping each with a steel-tipped cane. A dull clunk meant a cracked stone; Steilberg pronounced fully 80 percent of the scattered building pieces unusable.

Second, a self-canceling statement in the transfer agreement spelled endless trouble. It stipulated that museum trustees “shall forthwith set about obtaining public subscription as well as municipal and federal monies for the purpose of erecting and restoring said monastery in a suitable location in Golden Gate Park.” But then the agreement inexplicably nullified this charge by noting the gift was not contingent upon completion of the construction goal.

The Hearst-Fleishhacker forces—Herbert Fleishhacker, chairman of the de Young Museum board, was a close friend of Hearst’s—sought through the museum board to rebuild in Golden Gate Park near the museum.

Julia Morgan, Hearst’s famed chief architect, made this drawing of the original monastery in the early 1930s. Arrow 1 shows location of the chapter house under monks’ second story business and office area that also stored objects of historical importance. Arrow 2 indicates one of the arcade walkways. Arrow 3 indicates the church.

Photo By Richard Ek

Almost immediately a group of civic notables calling themselves the Federated Arts Group stepped forward to challenge the Golden Gate Park location. These folks wanted the monastery rebuilt on Sutro Heights overlooking Seal Rocks and the wide sweep of beach leading to the Golden Gate. Such a view would suggest the original location overlooking the Tagus River as well as that of The Cloisters medieval art museum in New York City overlooking the Hudson River.

These opposing forces never resolved what early on became a bitter quarrel that later involved ineffective efforts by city and county government to break the stalemate. Further, the fight hurt fund-raising, and while the Catholic Archdiocese in San Francisco approved of the project, it said no church money could be used for a once-secularized monastery. Fickle boards of supervisors forever flirted with a construction bond issue they never put on the ballot.

Finally dismayed, the museum board in May 1969 announced the abandonment of all reconstruction efforts. Park workmen used many of the stones—now considered expendable—to mark pathways and construct birdbaths, retaining walls, and pond linings within the park. Truckloads went to Oakland to use in a small children’s playground near Lake Merritt.

Father Thomas X. Davis, abbot of the Abbey of New Clairvaux, first saw the stones and learned their story when he arrived in San Francisco en route to his assignment at Vina in 1955. He resolved at the time to someday “bring the stones home” to Cistercian soil at the abbey, a mission sharpened over time by stories he heard about their disposal within the park. He made his first such effort in early 1982.

“One of the brothers had contacts within the de Young Museum, and we received permission to come and take those stones we wanted because those remaining were to be removed,” the abbot recalled.

Using the five-ton ranch truck, the brothers drove to the city, where park personnel used heavy equipment to load the most ornate pieces. Father Thomas drove home, his mind alive with visions of the stones in door arches and the new guesthouse he was planning. Among the brothers were a stonemason and other skilled workers who he knew could handle such projects.

But it was not to be. Before work could begin, the abbot received a phone call from Margaret Burke, who was associated with the de Young Museum and who had received a small grant in 1980 from the Hearst Foundation to draw up plans for possible restoration of the monastery chapter house. She had culled what was left of the chapter house stones from the rubble, encircled them with a 6-foot-high cyclone fence, and drawn plywood templates for the entry portals.

Dr. Margaret Burke with the chapter house stones in 1983. The plywood template can be seen at her left under the arch stones. Facing stones lie nearest the park enclosure fence.

Photo By Richard Ek

It turned out the monks had taken some stones essential to Burke’s plans. “She came with a truck and carted back the ones she needed. Obviously, there was a communication breakdown in the park, with the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing,” Father Thomas recalled. The monks ended up with 58 pieces Burke didn’t need.

By 1981 Burke had constructed a scale model of the chapter house for public display in the de Young Museum as a possible money magnet. The museum trustees’ long-dormant interest in the stones, reawakened by the Hearst seed money, led them to take the position that the remaining stones represented a valuable property and that the model would attract some private donor or donors who would complete the project within the museum itself. But no financial “angel” swooped down; further, the Hearst Foundation let out the word that it would not come down with any more money.

Although over the years it appeared increasingly probable that restoration funding wouldn’t materialize, Ian White, director of the fine-arts museums of San Francisco until 1986, and Harry Parker, his successor, both rebuffed Father Thomas’ plea to give the chapter house pieces to the abbey. Then the abbot asked for just the chapter house entrance portal pieces on permanent loan. No response, even though the monastery remnants were becoming publicly characterized as the white elephant in the park; one wag mixed figures of speech by suggesting the trustees were playing dog in the manger with the white elephant.

Delay, now a palpable presence, hovered over the stone remnants, prompting Father Thomas to muse that it was almost as though the dead hand of the past had reached forward to lay itself upon the present.

Still, the abbot remained quietly optimistic: “We look as a group to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3: ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.’ Our time to gather will come.”

Meanwhile, a compelling new complication arose. Someone unknown placed a bullet-shaped traffic barrier about four feet tall in the glen behind the Japanese Tea Garden. A curiosity, the plug was formed from granite rather than the customary concrete. It gradually took on the aura of a religious shrine, and crowds of New Agers from around the world trekked to the phallus-like object to pray, meditate and make offerings. Worshipers dragged nearby monastery stones to the traffic plug for seats and, like the ancient Druids, fashioned a Stonehenge-like rock garden out of others. Some pilgrims considered the shrine a manifestation of the god Shiva and credited it with miraculous healing powers.

When park officials in November 1993 said “Shiva Linga” had to go because they could not legally allow an openly religious shrine in the park, one of the Linga’s earliest worshipers decided to fight the action in federal court. It appeared for a time the chapter house might become mired in the litigation, but the legal scare abated when devotees moved the plug out of the park into a private residence and the suit was dropped. But the incident served as a catalyst.

Stonemason Oskar Kempf shows how original broken stones are repaired by using pins that go through holes drilled in the pieces. For the joint in such pieces as well as for chipped stones and damaged stones that need patches, Kempf and Luthard use a mix of very fine sand called silica with a pure white cement that includes a bonding agent made from a formula kept secret by the Dutch company that makes and sells it.

Photo By Richard Ek

Early in 1993 a figurative angel swooped down to answer the prayers of Father Thomas. Al Wilsey, a wealthy Bay Area patron of the arts closely associated with the de Young Museum, stepped forward to break the impasse by calling a meeting with the abbot and Parker to forge an agreement.

At the meeting, Parker dropped key conditions: First, that the pieces be fully insured so the museum and the city had no liability, an impossible stipulation because no insurer would underwrite such coverage except at astronomical cost. Second, that a construction inspection take place every five years to check for satisfactory progress. Third, that a review of the loan agreement be conducted every five years. Finally, that the chapter house stones must go to the abbey on conditional loan. Parker argued that Hearst’s gift to San Francisco could not in turn be legally given away. Now it developed that Hearst’s “gift” had instead been a swap for accumulated storage and drayage fees.

Father Thomas, who objected to the trustees’ seeking to impose conditions upon the abbey when their reconstruction efforts over the years had failed, signed an agreement with Parker on Sept. 12, 1993, giving the stones outright to the abbey with the promise the chapter house would be accurately restored and the public would have access three times a week for 10 years. The abbot set a three-year construction goal, which the prescient Margaret Burke said at the time was off the mark by some 10 years.

The following year, some anonymous benefactor with ample means paid for heavy flatbed trucks and their loading to move the 900 stones in 19 trips from Golden Gate Park to Vina, a distance of 185 miles. Father Thomas is still vague on the wealthy donor’s identity, but rumor mill whispers always named Wilsey.

As the loading and moving work progressed, New Age Druids watched their handiwork disappear and followed the trucks as far as they could run, laying curses on the project and all connected with it.

Later, in a pensive moment, Father Thomas sighed as he thought of the deconsecration of the monastery, its damage from mob violence, its descent into ruinous disrepair, its uprooting from the native soil it had stood upon for 700 years, the intrusion of the Great Depression, the devastation of the fires, the indecision and neglect of well-meaning people, the secular uses and scattering of the stones, the opposition of museum officials, the New Age shrine among the ruins, and the destructive moisture of the San Francisco climate on the limestone pieces.

“Somehow it will work out,” he said. “Remember,” he continued, citing Proverbs, “'Surely there is an end and thine expectation shall not be cut off.'” He thought of the movement sweeping Europe to conserve and restore monastic sites, and a Spanish chapter house at an American abbey would be unique. His back straightened as he felt a new surge of strength and resolve.

This picture was taken just before dismantling of the monastery began. Note extensive damage, much of it from mob violence in late 1830s. Corbels jutting from the face of the wall originally represented the ends of interior wooden-beam roof supports that were not present when dismantling began. Scavengers and peasants took them, just as they did wooden interior door and window frames.

Courtesy Of de Young Museum

Indeed, planning and fund-raising efforts have born fruit, and there now appears to be no doubt the stones will survive their misfortunes and bugaboos to form the heart of a new working Cistercian chapter house.

Father Thomas originally estimated the chapter house rebuilding cost at $1 million—twice that amount has already been raised—but he now says another $4 million will be needed over the next three years to build a new church as well as an arcade, or cloister, which is composed of four 33-meter walkways forming a square with arched, ribbed ceilings. One of the walkways would be attached to the chapter house. The church and arcade would use “a new version” mix of limestone and masonry.

“We’re going to do this because a chapter house is always joined to a cloister. We don’t want it [the chapter house] sitting out there by itself,” the abbot said. The cloister will enclose a garden and paths, which also is traditional. A new church, built of the stone and masonry mix, will be constructed on the site of the present church, which is “too far gone” for renovation.

The church will need to be blessed by a Cistercian bishop, Father Thomas noted, but the chapter house will not because its function is that of a place of business—the abbot meets there with the monks each day to give them instruction—rather than a place of worship.

“We’re not sure yet, but we will probably hold a dedication ceremony for the chapter house and cloister,” Father Thomas explained.

It is also uncertain at this time what activities will take place in the chapter house when the monks have not closed the doors for meeting. When the stones arrived in 1994, the abbot had mentioned possibly holding weddings and other selected functions there, but such uses are not being mentioned now.

One thing is certain, Father Thomas said: The chapter house will be open to the public forever, not just for the 10 years specified in the gift agreement with the museum and San Francisco.

The monks welcome donations of any size. Givers should call (530) 839-2243 or (530) 839-2161 or write to: Abbey of New Clairvaux, P.O. Box 80, Vina, CA 96092.