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ARCHITECTURE : Don't Rush to Demolish St. Vibiana's

November 05, 1995|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the state librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. His "Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California" will be published next month by Oxford University Press

The seismic engineering report on the cathedral of St. Vibiana, recently issued by Nabih Youssef & Associates, brings Los Angeles to a new plateau of understanding and dialogue regarding the fate of the 119-year-old Downtown landmark. For some time now, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, has been saying that he cannot, in conscience, spend the millions of dollars necessary to disassemble and reconstruct the cathedral to meet minimal standards of seismic safety. The Los Angeles Conservancy--and this writer--have advanced an alternative: the seismic reinforcement of St. Vibiana's by incorporating it into the new Spanish Revival complex proposed by the archdiocese on the site where the old cathedral is located.

According to the Youssef report, St. Vibiana's is in such precarious condition and rests atop such an intense confluence of faults that it would inevitably sustain heavy damage, and possibly collapse, should an earthquake the magnitude of Northridge's strike nearby. In effect, the report contends that St. Vibiana cannot be preserved in its present integrity and continuity and meet seismic safety standards. Instead, the cathedral must be nearly disassembled, given entirely new foundations of steel, then further reinforced with the wholesale application of pneumatically applied shotcrete. At that point, the reconstructed shell could be reinstalled with the restored and seismically anchored windows, chandeliers, sconces, statuary and altars of the previous structure and repainted in its old colors and patterns. Estimated cost: $22 million.

Should Los Angeles, especially its Downtown, require of the archdiocese--which Los Angeles really has no legal right to do, anyway--that it invest $22 million into what would essentially be a replication project, without regard to what would be lost as a consequence?

For starters, the archdiocese does not have an endless supply of money. Backers of the cathedral project, the Dan Murphy and Dorothy Leavey foundations, are insisting on a new, not a replicated, structure. Second, money poured into a replication project, even if the archdiocese considered it an option, would of necessity be taken from social-service and education programs essential to the inner-city constituency of the church.

Then there is the question of the Downtown. Mahony retains the option of leaving St. Vibiana's behind, a condemned wreck, and building his new cathedral elsewhere. He would be fully within his legal rights to do so. But, to his credit, he has never threatened to leave. His commitment to Downtown has been steadfast. His cathedral is there. He has chosen to live there himself, although he might have long since rusticated himself in some Westside parish.

The Los Angeles Conservancy, for its part, believes that what Youssef & Associates did for the Coliseum following the Northridge quake--saving it from demolition, then repairing and strengthening it--the engineering firm can do for St. Vibiana's. Indeed, it is the Coliseum model that gives the conservancy hope that the old cathedral can be preserved. While the figure of $22 million can be extracted from the Youssef report, the conservancy admits, a less intrusive technique, also building upon the report's recommendations, could bring the cost of seismic retrofitting down to as low as $3 million--especially if the retrofitted St. Vibiana's is incorporated into the structure of the new cathedral complex.

The conservancy's lower cost estimate, in fact, assumes that the existing St. Vibiana's would be incorporated into the new complex. That way, a less intrusive restoration becomes feasible. To the conservancy, this incorporation model represents a win-win situation for both the preservationist community and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The 1876 landmark structure would be saved, and, at long last, the archdiocese would get a cathedral complex worthy of the largest archdiocese in the world.

In January, the conservancy and the Yellin Co., representing the archdiocese, will begin a three-day workshop to explore all alternatives. Invited by both sides, recognized experts--architects, engineers, site planners, cost estimators, preservation consultants, historians, liturgical consultants and clergy--will be involved in the dialogue. In addition to discussions of the alternatives--from demolition to rehabilitation and incorporation--the workshop will explore the possibility of acquiring the entire block surrounding the St. Vibiana site so as to leave room for both the preserved cathedral, the expanded cathedral and the other buildings of the complex.

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