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The Monastery Stones – Final Chapter

by Jack Leibman

The monastery stones of Santa Maria de Ovila, found enclosing the Library Terrace Garden and at other locations in the SF Botanical Garden, have been controversial since their arrival in San Francisco in 1941. The monastery was built about 1200 by Cistercian monks on a hilltop in Spain overlooking the Tagus River, 90 miles northeast of Madrid. In 1835, it was suppressed by royal decree, sold, and used briefly as a hostel and for farm buildings. By 1930 it was in ruins, although the walls were still standing. They attracted the attention of a roving American art dealer who had handled many art acquisitions for William Randolph Hearst. He contacted Hearst, who immediately agreed to buy the monastery for $97,000 and have it transported to California. He had previously bought many gigantic pieces for his San Simeon palace, and in 1925 had bought another Spanish monastery that he was storing in a warehouse in the Bronx.

Hearst still felt infinitely wealthy despite the financial crisis of 1930. San Simeon was almost finished. He envisioned another extravagant castle to replace Wyntoon, his mother's hunting lodge near Mount Shasta. It was to have eight stories with sixty-one bedrooms. Santa Maria de Ovila was available, and Hearst grabbed it. His architect, Julia Morgan, initiated an evaluation of its remote site in Spain, followed by a yearlong process of demolition, packing, and transportation that required a workforce of one hundred laborers. The abdication of the Spanish king and the ensuing disorganization allowed the demolition to proceed, despite its blatant illegality.

Transportation required construction of a new railway, bridge, and ferry, a crane to lift the stones to trucks, and a new road connecting to Madrid. Hearst, notoriously and paradoxically cash-poor despite his reputed income of $15,000,000 a year, repeatedly delayed partial payments. Meanwhile Julia Morgan was struggling to integrate the varied monastery components into the Wyntoon fantasy, including a movie theater and a 150-foot-long pool.

After being trucked to the Spanish port of Valencia, the stones were loaded onto eleven German freighters, which steamed across the ocean and through the Panama Canal to finally dock in San Francisco. The project had consumed over $1,000,000 so far. The stones were unloaded and stored for the next ten years in their first San Francisco setting, the Haslett Warehouse.

Financial strictures finally forced Hearst to relinquish his Wyntoon dream, which had a price tag of over $50,000,000. The monastery was now useless and the storage fees became burdensome. In 1940, Hearst decided to give the stones away, rejecting Franco's request for their return to Spain. Herbert Fleishhacker, Chairman of the Board at the DeYoung Museum, in August 1941 persuaded him to sell the monastery to the city for a token payment of $25,000. It was to be re-erected in Golden Gate Park as a museum of medieval art. Julia Morgan drew plans for the new museum, infinitely more restrained than her original plans for Wyntoon. It would cost $500,000 and connect directly to the DeYoung. To move the crates to the park and to build sheds and protective covers, the City allotted $5,000. No money was available for construction.

Soon after the arrival of the stones at their new location behind the DeYoung, fire consumed the crates, damaging their contents and markings. To repair the damage took a year. Ensuing years were distinguished by acrimonious exchanges about contending proposals. There was fierce opposition, then as now, to any new building in the park. The Federated Arts Group, chaired by Frieda Klussman, also challenged the Park location and favored Sutro Heights to suggest the original locus overlooking water, and also to echo the setting of the Cloisters in New York. The Board of Supervisors never voted for a bond issue, and the DeYoung Museum was preoccupied with the acquisition of the Brundage collection.

The issue was referred to the Parks Commission, and to a neutral citizens' commission, but was never resolved. In 1958, two more fires caused extensive damage. In 1960, though enough stones remained to substantially rebuild, mounting cost estimates dashed any hope for the revival of the museum plan.

Alternate plans were briefly considered and dropped. In the 1960s, the Recreation and Parks Department assumed responsibility for the forlorn rock pile. Many stones were appropriated for enclosure and wall projects, most prominently in the Arboretum and Japanese Tea Garden but also in other parts of the park. The Hearst Foundation sponsored an architectural survey and a scale model in 1980-82. At least 50-60% of the stones remained, including most of the vaulting stones. The Fine Arts Museums proposed a five-year campaign to raise $45,000,000, including $3,000,000 for recon-struction, but there were no takers.

Meantime, another scenario was gestating. In 1955, Father Thomas Davis, who was to be the Abbott of the New Clairvaux Cistercian Abbey in Vina, in the Sacramento Valley 175 miles from the City, had detoured to San Francisco to see the stones and to reaffirm his hopes to reclaim them. In 1982, after the last failed financing plan, several truckloads of stones were sent to the Abbey but had to be returned because of ownership uncertainty. Father Thomas appealed again in 1983 and 1987; the response was “maybe.” Then a decisive train of events was set off by the 1989 earthquake. The DeYoung was to be re-built. In 1994, the Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums approved the "deaccessioning" of the stones and their release on indefinite loan to the Abbey. Public outcry followed, with the Museum accused of "giving away the City's ancient Spanish abbey." A supervisor called it "scandalous, arrogance towards the law," asserting that title was held by the City, not the Museum. The clamor subsided, twenty truckloads of stones eventually arrived in Vina, and the reconstruction process slowly accumulated the requisite funding.

Would this finally be the happy ending to this chronicle? Not quite -- still another outburst occurred in 2001, when some of the remaining stones were used as a decorative enclosure wall at the Arboretum. Outraged critics called it "an abomination," the "worst act of desecration of a medieval monument in the past 50 years." A UC professor was "appalled at the Park Department's handling of the stones." The construction was firmly defended, and this furor also abated.

In 2006, construction is really well on its way in Vina. The stones of Santa Maria de Ovila have found their last resting place, half a world away from their origins. A small part of their history remains permanently in San Francisco. But in fact the San Francisco connection has been preserved and perhaps renewed. For the Abbey is located on a 580-acre site that was formerly Leland Stanford's estate. A winery is in production for the first time since 1915. The Abbey is open to the public for three- to four-day retreats and wine tastings. Perhaps the ghosts of William Randolph Hearst and Leland Stanford, among the giants of San Francisco history and bitter foes in life, can now be reconciled. Sources:

San Francisco Almanac, 9/1995 San Francisco Weekly, 1/2001

San Francisco Independent, 5/15/2001

Minutes from Board of Trustees Meetings, DeYoung Museum, 1960-62

San Francisco Chronicle, 8/20/1989, “The Spanish Acquisition”

Preservation Online, 3/10/2006, “Stone by Stone” GRIT, Stories of American Life and Tradition Heritage, Vol 32, Issue 3, 4/1981, “Hearst's Monastery Stones”

Photo s of monastery stones courtesy of Jack Leibman.

Historic photo of crates courtesy of SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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The monastery stones in the SF Botanical Garden

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Several fires caused extensive damage to the stones when they sat in crates behind the DeYoung Museum.

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