Rocks of Ages Monastery: Chunks of a 12th-century Spanish structure are at the heart of a rebirth, and a battle, in San Francisco.

February 04, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

VINA, Calif. -- The Rev. Thomas X. Davis slaps his hand against a pile of limestone blocks stacked on the mud at the Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux, his monastery three hours northeast of San Francisco. "Here they are," he says.

Here they are indeed, blocks 800 years old, once the sacred walls and soaring archways of the 12th-century Spanish monastery Santa Maria de Ovila -- and later the property of the brazenly wealthy American William Randolph Hearst.

"I feel like I've rescued them," says Father Davis, abbot of New Clairvaux. "Oh, certainly, yes."

This is not the final destination that the swaggering Hearst envisioned for these medieval blocks, not here on flat, remote farmland far from wealth and splendor. He hadn't intended the stones to be rebuilt by monks who grow walnuts and prunes and run a religious retreat.

Hearst had a more secular purpose when he bought Santa Maria de Ovila in 1931: He simply wanted another castle -- something very old -- to add to his collection of grand buildings.

He ended up buying this austere Cistercian monastery, which he had taken apart and shipped to San Francisco. But once he had it, he didn't do anything with it, ultimately losing it.

Father Davis knows what to do with it. After years of negotiating with San Francisco officials, the abbot, 63, has brought the stones to his monastery. He has big plans for these cream-white blocks. If he gets his miracle (read: about $2.5 million in donations), he and the 30 Cistercian monks who live at New Clairvaux plan to reassemble part of the old Spanish monastery -- the chapter house -- for the monks and visitors to use.

"I don't think people think it can ever be put back together," Father Davis says. "But we know what we're doing."

A few San Franciscans are not delighted that the blocks have a new home. With all due respect to the holy men at Vina, the naysayers want the stones back.

"San Franciscans need to be educated about what they've lost," says Walter Biller, 37, a historian who's trying to organize a protest. He's dubbed his movement, which he acknowledges numbers just 12 to 15 people, the Knights of the Spanish Abbey. And he intends to crusade for the return of the blocks.

Biller says the abbey got the stones illegally. The city museum, which signed the deal to send the stones to Vina, did not have the authority to do so, Biller says. By his reckoning, only city supervisors did, but the issue never went before that body.

Father Davis, of course, says the transfer was public and legal. Under his deal with the museum, he has 10 years to begin assembling the stones into a structure open to the public. The monks are working with John Bero, a New York preservation architect, who has drawn up plans.

"It will be very significant once it's rebuilt," says Father Davis, wearing jeans and a hooded sweat shirt against the winter rain. "It will be important for architectural studies."

The American chapter of the saga of Santa Maria de Ovila begins in the Roaring Twenties, when nouveaux riches Americans were buying all manner of things European.

Hearst, fascinated with castles since his youth, wanted one more -- perhaps to use as a museum, or maybe yet another residence. His chief architect and the designer of San Simeon, Julia Morgan, supervised his planning.

Hearst sent his people off to the Continent to search. In 1931, when they couldn't find just the right castle, Hearst instead bought Santa Maria de Ovila. The monastery -- comprising a chapel, refectory, a cloister, a chapter house and assorted other structures -- was home to Cistercian monks beginning in 1180, when the monastery was founded on the Tagus River, about 80 miles from Madrid.

Spain was headed toward civil war, and Hearst took advantage of the governmental disarray.

"Today, the Spanish government probably wouldn't allow it to leave Spain," says Pamela Forbes, spokeswoman for San Francisco's M.H. de Young Memorial Museum. "And no responsible museum would accept something that was spirited out of another country."

But early in the century, rich Americans rationalized they were saving old buildings from ruin.

"It's kind of desecration, in a way," Father Davis allows. "A person like Hearst today could never do that."

Relocating a relic

Hearst had the monastery taken apart, each stone carefully numbered for easy reassembly, a gigantic puzzle to amuse a millionaire. ("You may think this is unusual," says a de Young Museum spokeswoman. "But Hearst did this kind of thing all the time.") Witness San Simeon, full of remnants of other buildings.

Santa Maria de Ovila, a relic that had been sold by the church to a rich Spaniard, cost Hearst about $100,000, according to Biller's research. But that was just the start. Hearst had to pay 65 laborers for nine months to dismantle the monastery, crate it up and move it. That, plus shipping, cost another $900,000.

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