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Archdiocese May Raze Cathedral : Buildings: Cardinal Mahony is expected to announce plans to replace St. Vibiana's with a larger church. Quake damage is reportedly a factor in the fate of the Downtown landmark.

January 05, 1995|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Church leaders are expected to announce plans Friday to keep the Roman Catholic Archdiocese's headquarters at its current Downtown site but are seriously considering the demolition of the 119-year-old St. Vibiana's Cathedral and replacing it with a new structure, city officials said.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has scheduled a Friday morning news conference to discuss the future of St. Vibiana's, an archdiocese spokesman said, declining to elaborate further about the fate of the cathedral at 2nd and Main streets.

But knowledgeable sources said the cardinal is expected to detail large donations--as much as $25 million--for dramatic physical changes at the cramped cathedral, which was damaged in the Northridge earthquake. The church's former next-door neighbor, the Union Rescue Mission shelter for the homeless, finished its move last month, opening up room for church expansion. The archdiocese is in escrow to purchase the shelter buildings for $2.75 million, according to city officials.

"The church has assessed (the earthquake damage) and determined it's more cost-effective to build a new cathedral than to repair it," said Deputy Mayor Michael Keeley, who is acting as Mayor Richard Riordan's contact on the project. Asked if that meant demolition of the old church, Keeley replied: "Yes, that's my understanding."

Acknowledging that a struggle with preservationists may be ahead, the deputy mayor said such issues "will come to us in time."

Other officials said no final decision on the cathedral's fate had been made. Demolition of the Spanish-style cathedral is one option being studied, said Don Spivack, operations director of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which helped finance the Union Rescue Mission's move to another part of Downtown. Demolition of the cathedral, a city-designated landmark, "is one of the things they are looking at," he said.

City officials reported that the archdiocese had considered keeping the 1,200-seat church as part of a new and much larger Cathedral Square. Such a complex would include a conference center and a 3,000-seat nave more befitting the nation's most populous archdiocese. But that plan has been rejected in the wake of the cracks St. Vibiana's 83-foot-high bell tower and barreled roof suffered in last year's Northridge quake, some said.

USC architecture professor Robert Harris, who met twice recently with Mahony, suggested that various possibilities are still under discussion.

"At one end of the continuum is demolition of everything and at the other extreme is conservation of everything. I bet neither of those occur," said Harris, who is a vice president of the Los Angeles Conservancy preservation group and was chairman of the redevelopment agency's planning committee for Downtown.

Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said she hopes Mahony is willing to study incorporating the existing building into a larger plan.

"I think they have a very ambitious program which is wonderful for Downtown. Our role is to see if their mission can be accomplished and save the building," she said.

Other sources suggested that an expected large donation from the Daniel Murphy Foundation is contingent on construction of a new cathedral. Foundation officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Another influence, observers suggested, is the recent opening of the Episcopal Diocese's new headquarters in Echo Park, a facility that Mahony reportedly toured and admired.

Because St. Vibiana's was declared a city landmark in 1963, the city's Cultural Heritage Board must review any plans to demolish or substantially change the building. Under city rules, the board and the City Council can delay demolition by a year.

Completed in January, 1876, when Los Angeles was a town of about 9,000, St. Vibiana's was modeled after the Church of San Miguel del Mar in Barcelona. It contains the relics of St. Vibiana, a 3rd-Century martyr.

In 1922, the church's facade was remodeled and its brick exterior was clad with Indiana limestone. The 1971 Sylmar quake weakened the bell tower and the bells were moved to a new, low structure in the garden.

Although it is rarely filled on normal days, the cathedral has long been considered inadequate for such special occasions as Mahony's 1985 installation as archbishop and Pope John Paul II's celebration of Mass there in 1987. (The Pope stayed for two nights in St. Vibiana's rectory, where the cardinal lives.)

Roman Catholic leaders unsuccessfully pushed twice in the last 90 years to build a cathedral elsewhere as Los Angeles spread far out of Downtown. In 1945, then-Archbishop John J. Cantwell compared the cathedral to "worn-out garments" and wanted to build a new one on Wilshire Boulevard.

The recent move of the Union Rescue Mission has eased many of the site's drawbacks. Most of the homeless people are gone, including those who slept on the cathedral's front steps.

Mahony was out of town at a bishops' retreat and unavailable for comment Wednesday, according to a spokesman.

Asked about speculation that the building might be torn down, the official replied: "Up until the cardinal makes an announcement, anything is just a rumor."

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