Saying that it wants to save a piece of the past for future generations, a state preservation group plans to raise $50 million to restore and repair California's historic missions.
California Missions Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit organization that funds and oversees the restoration of California's 21 missions, is leading the statewide campaign -- the first major appeal in nearly a century -- to preserve the historical integrity of the fragile structures.
"These are 2-century-old buildings that are not only old, but expensive to maintain and repair," said Richard Ameil, the foundation's founder and president. "But I think we will be successful in our capital campaign."
Age, natural deterioration and neglect have taken a toll on the missions that shaped the state's history, transit routes and culture, officials said.
Scattered across California's landscape from San Diego to Sonoma, the missions need preservation and seismic work to restore their antique beauty and bring them up to modern safety standards.
Additionally, some missions have paintings, statues, manuscripts and other artifacts that need to be restored, officials said. Others require visitor-related improvements such as expanded education programs, wheelchair-accessible restrooms and security systems.
To help the foundation meet its fund-raising goal, which has no set deadline, U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have introduced legislation to provide $10 million that would be administered during five years under a federal Department of the Interior grant program. The foundation would have to match all federal grants with private and state funding.
"Until recent efforts by the California Missions Foundation, little had been done to preserve the missions' structures and art," Boxer said. "Because of this long-term neglect, many of the missions are now in dire need of structural attention and major rehabilitation."
At San Gabriel Mission, a termite-ridden beam fell from the ceiling in October, said Al Sanchez, business manager of the 232-year-old mission. An exterminator won't be brought in until enough cash is raised. In the meantime, scaffolding has been erected to ensure safety.
Sanchez estimates the mission would need $250,000 to resolve safety issues, beautify the site and install automatic sprinklers. "That money would be huge for us," he said.
Vibrations from trains rumbling past Mission San Miguel have weakened the building's structure and repairs could cost $7 million to $10 million, officials said.
"The mission was in danger of being permanently closed, but [San Luis Obispo County] paid for emergency repairs," said Ameil, president of the California Missions Foundation. "We are scrambling to find money to begin permanent structural repairs so that it won't close."
Although the San Buenaventura Mission in Ventura is in good shape, $100,000 in federal funds would go a long way to pay for restorative work to paintings, including a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe, said the Rev. Msgr. Patrick J. O'Brien.
Likewise, San Fernando Mission officials said they could use $150,000 to $200,000 to preserve Spanish colonial artwork, said the Rev. Msgr. Francis Weber, director of the facility in Mission Hills.
Any federal funds received by Mission San Juan Capistrano would go to complete a $12-million restoration of the Great Stone Church on its 10-acre grounds.
"It's one of North America's most enchanting ruins," said Jerry Miller, the mission's administrator. "It's been called the American Acropolis."
The structure -- home to returning swallows each spring -- was completed in 1806 and severely damaged by an earthquake six years later. The 125-foot-high bell tower crashed through the nave, killing 40 Juaneno Indian worshipers. During the next two centuries, the mortar behind the stones turned to sand, leaving little to support the 50-foot-high walls.
Mission officials said they have spent nine years rehabilitating the building, the only stone church among the California missions. They have used mostly private donations, along with some government grants.
The World Monument Fund, an international nonprofit group, put the Great Stone Church on its list of 100 most endangered sites, calling it a "fragile and unique architectural treasure."
Getting the federal funds would be "exceedingly good news," Miller said. "The missions are one of the most notable landmarks of California history."
Times staff writers William Lobdell, Andy Olsen and David Pierson contributed to this report.