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Artifacts to Move From St. Vibiana's

Church: Archdiocese says action will protect statues and stained-glass windows. Preservationists say it could violate city rules.

May 18, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Holy relics, 50 stained-glass windows and immensely heavy marble statuary will be removed starting next week from earthquake-damaged St. Vibiana's Roman Catholic Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, archdiocese officials announced Friday.

They said the move would protect the artifacts as the fate of the landmark is considered during planning for a new cathedral complex. The church has been closed to the public for a year because it is seismically unsafe.

Fearing that the action foreshadows demolition of the 120-year-old church, preservationists protested the window removal and suggested that it might violate city rules on such designated "historic cultural monuments." But church leaders and their consultants said that a formal permit is not required and that the items would need to be stored temporarily elsewhere even if the original structure is fixed as part of a larger, new cathedral.

Most important to the faithful, the remains and sarcophagus of 3rd century Italian martyr St. Vibiana will be stored in the Calvary Cemetery mausoleum near the tombs of the first two archbishops of Los Angeles, John J. Cantwell and James Francis McIntyre. "She will join that illustrious company until she can be returned to the new cathedral," said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Wearing a hard hat, the cardinal spoke at a news conference inside the cathedral at 2nd and Main streets. Behind the large marble altar, scaffolding already was in place for removal of four life-size statues that engineers estimate weigh about 2,000 pounds each. Among them is a statue of St. Emydius, considered a protector from earthquakes.

"His statue has been bounced around quite a bit," the cardinal joked, pointing over his shoulder to the marble figure in a small grotto about 10 feet above floor level.

Mahony said he wants all the items being removed, including the pulpit, lamps and candlesticks, to be used in some way in the new and much larger cathedral complex planned for the same site. Even if the windows and statues do not fit into the new cathedral itself, they might be placed in an adjacent rectory and conference center being contemplated, Mahony said.

The stained-glass windows will be carefully documented and removed in pieces by the nationally known Judson Studios of Highland Park. Among the 50 windows are 14 very large ones that tell New Testament stories of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Walter Judson of the studios praised the windows' artistry, saying: "They are right at the top of the form."

Attending the news conference was Nabih Youssef, a noted structural engineer whose report last year warned that the existing St. Vibiana's had been badly damaged in the Northridge earthquake and would require more than $20 million to stabilize. Youssef on Friday said the 1,200-seat church and its 83-foot-high bell tower might not withstand even a moderate quake.

He and the cardinal escorted reporters outside to the church's south wall where crumbling bricks with no supports could be seen beneath cracked plaster. "It isn't the cracks, it's what's behind the cracks that is really, really scary," Mahony said.

Sparking preservationists' protests, archdiocese leaders last year said the old church would be razed. More recently, the cardinal has said he would listen to the new project's architect on whether parts or all of the existing building can be incorporated into the new $45-million complex. The architect is expected to be chosen by June 1.

Experts for the Los Angeles Conservancy have estimated that the old church could be made seismically safe with less than $5 million of bracing. On Friday, the conservancy urged the archdiocese not to remove the fixtures until a full plan is prepared for their fate and submitted to the city's Cultural Heritage Commission for approval.

Barbara Hoff, the conservancy's director of preservation issues, said that next week her group will study more closely the issue of whether a formal building permit is needed to remove the stained-glass windows. She suggested that the archdiocese representatives may have sought the most narrow interpretation of the code that allows window repairs without a permit. A permit request for a historic property would trigger review by the Cultural Heritage Commission, which can delay major alteration or demolition for a year.

"I would question whether the exception was meant to apply to a cathedral the same as to a typical homeowner who needs to reglaze a broken window," she said.

City Building and Safety Department engineers, who requested anonymity, said Friday that a permit would not be required as long as the window frames are not removed with the stained glass. "If they do anything more than take out the glass, then they do need a permit," one said. Mark Brown, the deputy city attorney who advises the Cultural Heritage Commission, said he would defer to the Building and Safety Department.

"We are sure we are not doing anything illegal," said Jeff Dunn, a top planner for the new cathedral.

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