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A Church's Resurrection

St. Vibiana's Cathedral in downtown L.A. is reopening as an arts center 10 years after it was closed because of earthquake damage.

November 12, 2005|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

The altar that held the prayers, hopes and dreams of Angelenos for more than 100 years is gone. So, too, are the pews that seated city pioneers, laborers, business executives and even a president.

But the vaulted ceiling, with its Corinthian-style columns -- painted to look like marble -- has been retrofitted and restored. Ornate stencils line the building.

After being closed for years, the carved wooden doors of Los Angeles' original cathedral are again open.

From its perch at the corner of 2nd and Main streets downtown, St. Vibiana's Cathedral has witnessed majesty and despair, care and neglect, earthquakes, court orders and the burgeoning of Los Angeles from a sleepy pueblo into a bustling metropolis.

Built in 1876 -- when 10% of the city's nearly 10,000 inhabitants could fit inside its nave -- the Spanish-Baroque structure was once the city's primary Catholic church, the home of its archbishop and the headquarters of the region's Catholic community.

But after it was severely damaged in the 1994 Northridge quake, the cathedral became the center of an epic preservation battle that marked a beginning to the revitalization of the district. The Los Angeles Archdiocese fought to raze the building and build a new cathedral on the site; when preservationists blocked it at every turn, it was decided to abandon the church altogether in favor of building a new one on a site several blocks away.

Now, the former cathedral is about to begin a second act, as Vibiana Place -- a community center at the heart of downtown's revitalization. After three years of public battles and six years of planning and renovation, the newly retrofitted and restored building will be unveiled this evening at a gala, $350-a-head fundraiser for the Los Angeles Conservancy, the preservation group that mounted the fierce campaign to save it.

Making the former cathedral into an arts center, said Tom Gilmore, the developer who bought St. Vibiana's in 1999, has been a lesson in "extreme preservation."

"Initially, the challenge was getting the archdiocese not to tear it down, but to sell it," Gilmore said. "Then, it was to come up with an economically viable plan. Then it was working with the state and other agencies to convince them that this was an asset worth saving. And then it got hard."

A worker was still painting part of the ceiling in preparation for the gala as Gilmore and conservancy Executive Director Linda Dishman gave a tour of the site. And two other men were installing a brass railing on the balcony that overlooks the former nave.

In preparation for the party, furniture, rugs and tables were scattered around the area where a side altar once stood. The building's new light fixtures hadn't yet arrived, so similar ones had been borrowed from a movie prop house.

But the building was awash in light. Gilmore said he had feared when he bought the building that some of the windows were plexiglass, but he was pleasantly surprised to find out they weren't.

With the pews and many of the religious items removed from the church, it had the appearance of being a clean slate, an airy space ready to be transformed by those who walked through its doors and onto the gleaming hardwood floors.

The major portion of the restoration work can't be seen by the naked eye; it involved tying the original building and a 1922 addition together and creating what Gilmore called "a box within a box" under the roof, floor and walls so that if there is another temblor, the parts of the building would shake together.

Only a few years ago, St. Vibiana's, which was named for a little-known 3rd century Italian martyr, had been left for dead. Bricks were crumbling, the courtyard was overgrown with weeds, and gaping holes where stained-glass windows once hung were covered with plywood and plastic.

The cathedral's decline had begun even before the 1994 quake deeply scarred it. When it closed in 1995, only 100 people still called it their home for worship. Soon after, the city decommissioned the building's landmark status, and most sacred artifacts were removed from the church. Vibiana herself now rests in a small chapel within the new cathedral's mausoleum.

In 1996, huge cranes pulled the crowning cross and cupola from the building's bell tower. But a city inspector blocked the archdiocese's attempt to demolish the bell tower, which officials said was necessary to prevent the 83-foot tower from toppling.

What followed was a bitter court battle, in which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and eventually a state appeals panel ruled in favor of the preservationists, saying that the building could not be torn down quickly. Eventually, the archdiocese decided to build a new cathedral elsewhere.

At the time, the idea of reviving the cathedral was far from a sure bet. This was the mid-1990s, when the area around the historic building had major crime and homeless problems. It was several years before the old bank buildings nearby were revitalized as lofts.

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