Rocks of Ages Monastery: Chunks of a 12th-century Spanish structure are at the heart of a rebirth, and a battle, in San Francisco.


VINA, Calif. -- The Rev. Thomas X. Davis slaps his hand against a pile of limestone blocks stacked on the mud at the Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux, his monastery three hours northeast of San Francisco. "Here they are," he says.

Here they are indeed, blocks 800 years old, once the sacred walls and soaring archways of the 12th-century Spanish monastery Santa Maria de Ovila -- and later the property of the brazenly wealthy American William Randolph Hearst.

"I feel like I've rescued them," says Father Davis, abbot of New Clairvaux. "Oh, certainly, yes."

This is not the final destination that the swaggering Hearst envisioned for these medieval blocks, not here on flat, remote farmland far from wealth and splendor. He hadn't intended the stones to be rebuilt by monks who grow walnuts and prunes and run a religious retreat.

Hearst had a more secular purpose when he bought Santa Maria de Ovila in 1931: He simply wanted another castle -- something very old -- to add to his collection of grand buildings.

He ended up buying this austere Cistercian monastery, which he had taken apart and shipped to San Francisco. But once he had it, he didn't do anything with it, ultimately losing it.

Father Davis knows what to do with it. After years of negotiating with San Francisco officials, the abbot, 63, has brought the stones to his monastery. He has big plans for these cream-white blocks. If he gets his miracle (read: about $2.5 million in donations), he and the 30 Cistercian monks who live at New Clairvaux plan to reassemble part of the old Spanish monastery -- the chapter house -- for the monks and visitors to use.

"I don't think people think it can ever be put back together," Father Davis says. "But we know what we're doing."

A few San Franciscans are not delighted that the blocks have a new home. With all due respect to the holy men at Vina, the naysayers want the stones back.

"San Franciscans need to be educated about what they've lost," says Walter Biller, 37, a historian who's trying to organize a protest. He's dubbed his movement, which he acknowledges numbers just 12 to 15 people, the Knights of the Spanish Abbey. And he intends to crusade for the return of the blocks.

Biller says the abbey got the stones illegally. The city museum, which signed the deal to send the stones to Vina, did not have the authority to do so, Biller says. By his reckoning, only city supervisors did, but the issue never went before that body.

Father Davis, of course, says the transfer was public and legal. Under his deal with the museum, he has 10 years to begin assembling the stones into a structure open to the public. The monks are working with John Bero, a New York preservation architect, who has drawn up plans.

"It will be very significant once it's rebuilt," says Father Davis, wearing jeans and a hooded sweat shirt against the winter rain. "It will be important for architectural studies."

The American chapter of the saga of Santa Maria de Ovila begins in the Roaring Twenties, when nouveaux riches Americans were buying all manner of things European.

Hearst, fascinated with castles since his youth, wanted one more -- perhaps to use as a museum, or maybe yet another residence. His chief architect and the designer of San Simeon, Julia Morgan, supervised his planning.

Hearst sent his people off to the Continent to search. In 1931, when they couldn't find just the right castle, Hearst instead bought Santa Maria de Ovila. The monastery -- comprising a chapel, refectory, a cloister, a chapter house and assorted other structures -- was home to Cistercian monks beginning in 1180, when the monastery was founded on the Tagus River, about 80 miles from Madrid.

Spain was headed toward civil war, and Hearst took advantage of the governmental disarray.

"Today, the Spanish government probably wouldn't allow it to leave Spain," says Pamela Forbes, spokeswoman for San Francisco's M.H. de Young Memorial Museum. "And no responsible museum would accept something that was spirited out of another country."

But early in the century, rich Americans rationalized they were saving old buildings from ruin.

"It's kind of desecration, in a way," Father Davis allows. "A person like Hearst today could never do that."

Relocating a relic

Hearst had the monastery taken apart, each stone carefully numbered for easy reassembly, a gigantic puzzle to amuse a millionaire. ("You may think this is unusual," says a de Young Museum spokeswoman. "But Hearst did this kind of thing all the time.") Witness San Simeon, full of remnants of other buildings.

Santa Maria de Ovila, a relic that had been sold by the church to a rich Spaniard, cost Hearst about $100,000, according to Biller's research. But that was just the start. Hearst had to pay 65 laborers for nine months to dismantle the monastery, crate it up and move it. That, plus shipping, cost another $900,000.

Hearst's workers took the most important elements -- columns, capitals, doorways, decorativepieces and the best of the exterior stones. They left behind the parts of the monastery that were damaged or crumbling.

The blocks were loaded onto rail cars, floated by barge down the Tagus River, then toted by ox-cart and train to Valencia. There, they were nestled in crates cushioned with excelsior and shipped in 11 freighters to San Francisco.

Then, Hearst lost interest. From 1931 to 1941, the millionaire paid warehouse the blocks as he toyed with ideas for Santa Maria de Ovila but busied himself with other projects.

In 1941, with his fortune dwindling, Hearst sold the monastery to the city and county of San Francisco for $30,000 -- about what he owed the warehouse that had stored the stones.

The crates were moved to Golden Gate Park, where the de Young Museum stands, and parked under eucalyptus trees. And as city and museum officials discussed what to do with them, the stones waited in the park -- for more than five decades. That's where Father Davis spotted them, on his first day in San Francisco.

L "Sept. 15, 1955," he says. "This is where the story begins."

Born in Indiana and trained in the seminary there, Father Davis had been sent to live at Our Lady of New Clairvaux. His superior met him at the airport and, before starting the three-hour drive to Vina, took him through Golden Gate Park. "He said, 'There's an old Cistercian monastery there.' It was neatly stored in crates with eucalyptus trees around them. I never forgot that."

New Clairvaux is the only Cistercian abbey in California. Father Davis thought it would be fitting to move the old Cistercian limestone there. Over the years, he checked on how the stones were faring. They were not doing well.

Five fires burned through the crates and excelsior over the years, fueled by the eucalyptus oil that dripped from the trees. The cold water that firefighters poured on the blazes cracked some of the limestone.

Brambles grew up around the exposed stones. Park officials helped themselves to the damaged blocks for traffic barricades and ornamental garden borders.

Children climbed on the stones. Families picnicked among them. Druids and Hindus borrowed a few to worship.

In the early 1960s, the de Young Museum used some of the stones to reconstruct a 16th century portal from a monastery chapel in the museum's Hearst Court. The rest of the blocks remained in the park.

Biller says most park visitors had no idea what the stones were. But a Ph.D. in architectural history, Margaret Burke, knew, and was determined to put Santa Maria de Ovila back together.

In 1981, as a volunteer at the de Young and with grants, appropriately, from the Hearst Foundation, Burke began an inventory. "It was an excavation project," she says, "because by then the stones were overgrown by brambles and tree roots and everything."

For weeks, she and her crew worked with picks and shovels. "The more I got into it, and the more I worked with the stones themselves, the more I became intrigued with the master mason," the 12th-century Spaniard who had directed the carving.

The architecture, Burke says, is starkly beautiful. "Cistercians were a reform order. There was scarcely any decoration at all. The capitals on the columns are very plain. The lines are very, very simplified." The curves and scrollwork catch the sunlight and cast shadows that deepen the lines.

Using Hearst's diagrams, Burke tried to piece Santa Maria de Ovila back together. She couldn't reconstruct all the buildings, but she identified about 60 percent of the stones for the chapter house, about 31 feet by 46 feet, where monks would gather daily for readings and work assignments.

Meanwhile, every few years, Father Davis renewed his request to move the stones. "The city intended to restore it," he says. "But I was pretty much aware by then that it would never get restored unless by some miracle."

Finally, a new museum director agreed. In 1992, Father Davis signed a deal with the museum: He could take the stones to Vina.

That's where they sit now, looking like so much building material.

But Father Davis can tell the stones apart -- which sat at the base of pillars, which were set in walls. He can show you scrollwork that will be pieced together in soaring archways and small crosses cut into the white stone, marks carved in the 12th century by the monastery's master mason.

Hearst's architectural advisers drew up stone-setting diagrams and numbered each block in indelible ink. Father Davis points out the red-and-black marks -- "V61, V62, V70, V73" -- still bright 65 years after they were etched.

"It's modular," he says.

Father Davis figures rebuilding the chapter house will cost about $1 million. The price rises when he adds a cloister and an archival room, where visitors could trace the history of the building and of Cistercian architecture.

The 580 acres on which the abbey sits once belonged to Leland Stanford, the railroad baron and financier. It's in one of Stanford's brick barns, where he used to make brandy, that Burke and Father Davis have begun fitting together some of the archways, laid on their sides on plywood patterns that Burke has drawn.

"The beauty of the architecture comes from the beauty of the light playing on the lines. It's a spiritual building. It shows that good architecture has a certain spiritual dimension," Father Davis says.

The opposition

It sounds like a happy ending -- except for the unhappy few back in the city, led by Walter Biller.

In his cluttered apartment near Golden Gate Park, Biller has stacks of documents, books and photographs that follow the history of Santa Maria de Ovila. Biller can talk for hours about monastery minutiae: the reputation of Hearst's architect, the daily wage for Spanish laborers in the 1930s, the crates that held the stones.

And he insists that the museum trustees acted without authority when they gave the stones away. Biller says Hearst sold the stones to the city, not to the museum. He says the city should be the home to the chapter house.

"It's a true Gothic building. It made me really mad when I found out we weren't going to have it."

Forbes, the museum spokeswoman, disputes Biller's account. She says the museum in good faith tried to devise plans to reassemble the stones. When all efforts failed, "we went through what was required legally by the city and professionally by the museum.

"Our position is it's better to have this being assembled by the monks than have it sitting here overgrown by blackberry bushes."

But Biller says he liked strolling past the overgrown stones. "It was kind of covered in weeds, and it was safe. It's three generations now who loved those stones."

In his living room, he has a souvenir, a 30-pound block that he hauled out of the park one day. "This is a piece of one of the vaults in the sacristy," he says. "It was up near the ceiling."

The stone is smudged with black, scorched by one of the fires. And it bears the mark "S4" in red ink, carefully put there by an architect who supervised the dismantling in Spain 65 years ago.

Biller doesn't apologize for helping himself to a stone.

"I knew this stone wasn't buildable," he says. "It's too damaged. Also, I felt I needed a specimen for the time being to show people. And, I felt the sacristy will never be rebuilt. And, I considered it a loan. And, it belonged to me."

The residents of San Francisco, he says, have the right to the monastery. Father Davis may have wonderful plans, Biller says, but the transfer was illegal.

But at Vina, Father Davis says the stones have found a proper home. In Spain, the monastery was home to Cistercian monks. Here, it will be again.

"The monastery thinks it can do it," Forbes says. "I was at the trustees meeting where Father Davis came down. The press asked him afterward where he expected to raise the money and he said, 'Well, we're going home to pray.' "

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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