December 16, 2002
Crumbling missions await repairs, but help uncertain
State budget woes tarnish chance to polish historical jewels
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
It was at the entrance to California's historic San Gabriel mission
– right where visitors light candles before a statue of Jesus – that
a termite-infested ceiling beam came crashing down.
The accident, which happened one night in October, tore the left
hand off the statue. It illustrates just how badly California's 21
missions – the state's most visited historical landmarks – need
Preservationists from San Diego to San Francisco had high hopes
that legislators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., might
provide money this year for fixes, but politics and budget
problems have made uncertain what once seemed likely.
"The missions started our California history, and to ignore these
crown jewels and to let them lapse into even more decay is, I
think, obscene," said Richard Ameil, president of the
Sacramento-based California Missions Foundation, a nonprofit
group trying to raise money to help with at least $50 million in
mission repairs. "I think it's all about politics up here, and it's
Efforts to provide an unprecedented amount of government
money for the missions – efforts that seemed promising earlier
this year – are at a standstill.
In Sacramento, Sen. Bruce McPherson, R-Santa Cruz, had hoped
to provide state money for the missions, but when the budget
ran deep into the red, the idea tanked.
A $2.6 billion parks bond that voters approved in March
includes $267 million to preserve historic places in California.
Mission preservationists hoped to get some of that money this
year, but a tug of war between Gov. Gray Davis and lawmakers
over who would distribute the money held things up.
"It was probably about (Davis) having control over how (the)
money was spent – about using the money for his friends and
allies," said McPherson spokesman Adam Mendelsohn.
Davis spokesman Russ Lopez said the governor will outline in his
January budget how the bond money should be spent.
"To be fair . . . we know there's going to be so much more demand
than there is money," Lopez said.
The governor, however, recently began handing out some of the
bond money meant to preserve California's history: $4 million
to a Sacramento museum, $5 million to create a state Indian
museum, $150,000 to a Redding church and $35 million to the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, among others.
There is only $125 million left for historical projects, and Davis'
office has not responded to inquiries about money for missions,
"And he's honorary chair of our (fund-raising) campaign," Ameil
said. "I guess we're not a squeaky wheel."
San Diego's state lawmakers, led by Sen. Dede Alpert,
D-Coronado, will meet at the Oceanside mission in coming weeks
to devise a plan for getting some of the money.
In Washington, California lawmakers are trying to get $10
million for the missions from the Interior Department. But
Congress' failure to complete work on the federal budget stymied
that effort. Lawmakers no longer expect to get money for the
current fiscal year, and practically speaking, they may not get it
until October 2005, said Judy Lemons, a consultant working for
the Missions Foundation.
California's missions attract 5.3 million people each year,
including schoolchildren who study mission history as part of
the state's fourth-grade curriculum.
It will cost at least $39 million to repair crumbling adobe walls,
termite-damaged wood, fire hazards and plumbing problems,
according to preservationists. An additional $5.8 million is
needed to preserve Spanish colonial-era paintings, furniture,
priests' garments and fragile documents that the
mission-founding priests brought to California in the 1700s. The
missions also are requesting $5.2 million for extra parking
spaces, ramps and bathroom stalls for disabled visitors, and
security systems to prevent theft of artifacts.
Many missions are under state orders to make their buildings
earthquake-proof. But the missions' modest income – mainly
from private donations, retreat fees and the sale of cemetery
plots – often prevents compliance.
Such is the case at the 204-year-old Mission San Luis Rey in
Oceanside, where adobe walls are cracked, an antiquated
electrical system presents fire hazards and plumbing problems
sometimes send water from the second floor to the meeting
rooms below. Those fixes could cost $1.5 million, said mission
development director Pete Litrenta. Earthquake retrofitting will
no doubt climb into the millions of dollars.
"It was one of those unfunded things; we had to come up with the
money, but we can't even afford the engineers to determine how
much it would cost," Litrenta said of the retrofitting.
The Mission San Diego de Alcala in Mission Valley needs roof
repairs and money to preserve artifacts and documents.
At the Mission San Francisco Solano, beetles are eating away at
the hand-carved redwood beams holding up the structure. The
beetles have caused at least $1 million in damage.
At the Mission San Gabriel, where the beam fell, the walls need
stabilizing so the plaster doesn't fall off. And the place
desperately needs termite treatments.
"It would be great to get the repairs done," said Alfred Sanchez,
the mission's business manager. "But until I see something in our
hands that we can use for the mission, all I can do is keep our