Skip to comments.Card. Mahony's Other Cathedral: "Saved, But Degraded"<br>The Rescue of St. Vibiana's Cathedral
Posted on 09/06/2002 9:49:18 PM PDT by Dajjal
Saved, but Degraded
The LA Conservancy Recounts the Rescue of St. Vibiana's
By Maggie Garcia
It seemed it would be no problem for Roger Cardinal Mahony to raze St. Vibiana's Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles in 1995 -- even though the building was such an integral part of Los Angeles's history and architecture. Given the unwavering support the cardinal received from Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (who happened to be the archdiocese's attorney) few people thought that it would be possible to save the historic building. Soon, the historic preservation community in Los Angeles decided that they would not only have to oppose the cardinal, but also the entire downtown establishment who supported the cardinal's quest to raze the cathedral. The cathedral was saved from destruction by a successful reprieve from the courts and is now scheduled to undergo a renovation as a secular space.
During the week of October 31, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held their annual conference in Los Angeles. One of the seminars was entitled, "Saving the Unsaveable: The Fight to Preserve St. Vibiana's Cathedral," where the story of how the cathedral was saved was retold.
The session was moderated by Jack Rubin, a partner with the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, who was one of the attorneys that the preservationists called upon when negotiations with the cardinal broke down. Also on the panel was Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, the group that led the fight for St. Vibiana's. Joining her was California state senator Tom Hayden, who fought the leadership of his own party to stop the demolition after the cardinal urged lawmakers to create an exemption in state law that would allow him to demolish the building. Tom Gilmore of Gilmore & Associates, who is the developer restoring St. Vibiana's Cathedral for secular use, Kathyrn Howe, who had been the incoming president of the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy, joined the panel as well. Howe conducted several re-use studies for the cathedral.
Knowing that many in the audience did not know the history of St. Vibiana's, Dishman opened the session by giving a brief history of the structure. Howe then described how the Los Angeles Conservancy had become involved in saving the cathedral.
Howe stated that Cardinal Mahony had invited them to meet with him just before Christmas, 1995. At this meeting that Mahony told them that he wanted to raze the cathedral because of anticipated liturgical changes. Concerned that the cardinal was proposing to raze a building that was an integral part of the history of the city, the Conservancy proposed that the building be renovated instead. Howe said that the cardinal told her that the cathedral was "not an appropriate monument to the largest archdiocese in the county," and thus he wanted to raze it. The Conservancy advised Mahony that he would have to follow state law and perform an environmental impact report before he could contemplate razing the building, because St. Vibiana's was listed on the state's list of historic places. In addition, they offered to help the archdiocese find a way to renovate the interior of the building to suit the cardinal's liturgical changes.
Howe said that they "worked very hard the next two months." Dishman added that they "gave a lot but there was a lot less giving on the other side." During the course of the session, it was apparent that the cardinal had no intention of renovating St. Vibiana's but had already made up his mind that he wanted to build a new cathedral, something that the Los Angeles Conservancy did not know at the time.
Dishman said, "we were led to believe that the cardinal was open to these options." After putting on a two-day presentation on how the cathedral could be modified to accommodate his liturgical changes, Dishman said the cardinal told them, "I will not spend one dime on one brick of this cathedral." Dishman added how disappointed they all were after having spent so much time and effort on finding a way of renovating the cathedral in accordance with the cardinal's anticipated liturgical changes.
Moderator Rubin then told the audience that at the end of the two-day presentation, it was apparent that the cardinal would try to demolish the building. He described how in May of 1996, the cardinal had the stained glass windows removed, along with the statues and other artifacts, all the while assuring the Conservancy that he did not intend to demolish the building.
Rubin then recounted how on May 31, the archdiocese's structural engineer sent a letter to the city citing that, because of the recent Northridge earthquake, the cathedral had sustained serious damage and had to be immediately declared an imminent hazard. Rubin told the audience that the archdiocese did this in order to get around state law. "If the building was an imminent hazard under state law," Rubin said, "they could get around complying with the various laws that would otherwise have prevented the immediate demolition of the building ... because it was designated a city historic cultural monument." Rubin continued by saying how that very afternoon, a Los Angeles city building official accompanied the archdiocese's structural engineer to see the cathedral. Rubin said that the inspection lasted about 20 minutes, and the building inspector later issued an abatement order for the bell tower of the cathedral -- "not the entire building."
"At that point, the building and safety [department] would not go along with the notion that the entire building was a hazard," Rubin said. The abatement order decreed that the bell tower was an imminent danger and was to be removed within 72 hours. The order included a stipulation that the archdiocese would have to secure a demolition permit before removing the bell tower.
The archdiocese told the official that they would not demolish the building over the weekend and would bring their demolition plans to the city's building department. Rubin said that over the weekend the Los Angeles Conservancy decided that the only way they could save St. Vibiana's was by suing the cardinal and the archdiocese. Rubin then said that he got an unexpected telephone call later that weekend from the Los Angeles Conservancy saying a demolition crew was on the grounds of the cathedral and a crew had begun to take the bell tower down. Rubin then contacted the department of building and safety to tell them that the cathedral was about to be razed.
A building inspector arrived at the site after the bell tower had been taken off the building and set aside. Rubin then describes the scene at the cathedral: "a wrecking ball had been attached to the crane, it was literally 20 feet away." The building inspector stopped the demolition of the cathedral.
Afterwards Rubin said he went back to his office to draft the lawsuit. Later that day a building official called Rubin saying that the archdiocese wanted them to issue a demolition permit that afternoon. After hearing this, Rubin said he frantically looked for a superior court judge who could issue a temporary restraining order to halt the destruction of the cathedral. After finding a judge and arranging for a three-way phone conversation with the cardinal's lawyers, Judge Diane Wayne issued a temporary restraining order halting the archdiocese from demolishing the building.
Rubin stated that it was apparent during the conference call between the partiers and Judge Wayne that "the city and the archdiocese really didn't know what their defense was at that point with regard to what they were trying to do. Their plan was really to get that building down before anyone could get inside to see what its condition really was." The archdiocese managed to get Judge Wayne thrown off the case in order to get Notre Dame graduate Judge Richard O'Brien to hear the case.
The archdiocese's only defense in court in support of their proposed razing of the cathedral was a report done in 1995 that said that the bell tower, although structurally sound, was at risk for greater damage in the event of another earthquake. The attorneys for the archdiocese then argued that the week before, on May 23, there had been a 3.5 earthquake in Los Angeles and thus the cathedral was in imminent danger. Rubin pointed out that the earthquake had "caused no reported damage in the entire city." After Rubin pointed out the report had been written eight months before the earthquake, the judge rejected the archdiocese's argument.
On June 3, 1996, Cardinal Mahony held a press conference after the restraining order was issued. Press accounts at the time describe the cardinal as being extremely upset at the halting of the demolition. When he gave reporters a tour of the cathedral he insisted that they wear hard hats and sign waivers dismissing the archdiocese from liability before he let them into the press conference. Rubin said that the press were put under incredible pressure by the "harshness of the statements made by the cardinal at the press conference: 'It is ironic that their victory is meaningless. The old cathedral will remain forever closed and it will continue to deteriorate over the years. No one will ever be allowed in there ever again and it will stand as a shameful testament to a small group of obstructionists in the city of Los Angeles."
The city of Los Angeles then came to the cardinal's defense. The city red-tagged the entire cathedral, not just the bell tower. Two days later, the city declared the cathedral a public nuisance. According to Rubin the city was trying to create a perception the cathedral was a "crumbling dilapidated wreck that was ready to fall down and needed to be demolished." Rubin said that the press never reported on the litigation and instead concentrated on "Cardinal Mahony's pithy sound bites."
The session then turned to Tom Hayden who said he had successfully fended off an attempt by three state senators in Sacramento to create legislation that would not only exempt the cathedral from any state requirements before being razed, but would extend this to the entire downtown area. When the bill came to Hayden's natural resources committee, Hayden refused to vote for the bill, causing it to die in committee. Hayden had been put under a lot of pressure from the leadership of the Democratic party who wanted him to support the cardinal's bill. Hayden refused and the bill died.
Subsequently, the cardinal threatened to move the cathedral to the San Fernando Valley if the Conservancy would not drop their lawsuit. Dishman said that this created more pressure for the Conservancy, although she added that she felt this had undermined the cardinal's credibility as to what he really wanted to do.
When the superior court issued the preliminary injunction against the demolition of the cathedral, the archdiocese appealed the decision to the California court of appeal. Rubin told the Mission that the cardinal had several arguments for the appeal, one being that the designation of the building infringed on the archdiocese's free exercise of religion and there were unspecified religious reasons for razing the cathedral. The cardinal lost his appeal and the case was sent back to the trial court.
Pressure was taken off the Conservancy when the city of Los Angeles decided to sell a lot to the cardinal in order to keep the cathedral downtown. At that point, the Conservancy begun to look for someone who would buy the cathedral and find alternative uses for it. That summer, the University of Southern California's school of architecture developed ideas for some alternative uses. In addition, Dishman contacted Tom Gilmore whom she knew from working on other projects in downtown. When she first spoke with Gilmore about buying and restoring St. Vibiana's Catheral, he was hesitant. After convincing Gilmore that St. Vibiana's was a viable site, Gilmore decided to buy the cathedral from the archdiocese.
Gilmore said that the negotiations with the archdiocese were difficult since the cardinal wanted more for the cathedral than it was worth. The archdiocese included the cost of the litigation with the Los Angeles Conservancy. Gilmore said that they finally settled on 4.65 million dollars, which, Gilmore said "was over-market," but he agreed on it because he wanted to save the cathedral. Gilmore said that the archdiocese agreed to hold the note for them for two years. Gilmore said that even after they bought the site, they still had to ask the cardinal's permission before entering the structure.
In a rapid change of events, Gilmore said that the California State University's Performing Arts School decided to relocate from the main campus to downtown. After a series of negotiations, the performing arts center will now occupy the space of the cathedral. Gilmore added that now the city of Los Angeles has decided to open their Little Tokyo library branch in this space. The development is tentatively being called "Vibiana Place," but Gilmore's partner, Robert Jones, said that this may change later.
The archdiocese of Los Angeles did not respond to messages asking for comment on this story.
Contents © 2000 by Jim Holman. All rights reserved.
[Emphases mine --Dajjal]
Altar in St. Vibiana's - 1940
Interior of in St. Vibiana's - 1945
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