Photo by Robert Burroughs
"It’s the West Coast equivalent of Jamestown."
In the beginning of the end, which for West Coast Indians was 217 years ago, the site of Mission San Diego de Alcala was an Indian village known as Nipaguay. Indians had occupied the site, located on a bend in what we call the San Diego River, off and on for hundreds of years. Then in 1769 the Spaniards invaded Alta California, and in a span of just fifty years, the population of California coastal Indians was reduced from 70,000 to approximately 15,000. The village of Nipaguay disappeared. To the Indians, the bells of Mission San Diego de Alcala, like those of the other twenty missions in California, sounded the death knell of an ancient culture.
According to an article in the Journal of San Diego History, this site of the proposed parish hall overlaps the original mission Indian cemetery.
Today those dead Indians may be coming back to haunt the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego. The mission is now home to a 1500-member parish, whose pastor, Monsignor I. Brent Eagen, plans to build a two-story parish hall at the southeast end of the mission quadrangle, opposite the church.
Msgr. Eagen: “It’s not really a restoration. It’s a building that looks similar to the granary that was on the site."
The proposal was snagged temporarily last year when preservationists from throughout the state learned of plans to bulldoze exposed archaeological ruins, including floors, partially standing walls, and pilasters, which made up the foundation area for the proposed building.
Mission San Diego de Alcala, circa 1980. Abraham Lincoln, in granting the twenty-two acres to the Church: "The missions are more than simply historical monuments, more than a weekend outing for tourists."
San Diego Historical Society
But even though the mission has been designated a local, state, and national historic landmark, no government agency has the power to halt or even to alter the plans for erecting the new hall, and construction may begin as early as this September.
Mission ruins, 1905. Until last year a well-defined pattern of excavated walls and floors remianed; today one sees only a grouping of rock-strewn mounds that are eroding into dust.
San Diego Historical Society
Only one constituency can affect those plans now: the dead Indians.
According to an article in the upcoming issue of the Journal of San Diego History, the site of the proposed parish hall overlaps the same location as the original mission Indian cemetery. Mission scholar Norman Neuerburg, who authored the article, bases that assertion on a number of historical references, among them a map pinpointing the cemetery just east of the exposed ruins and beneath the proposed structure.
Mission ruins, 1905
San Diego Historical Society
The map accompanied a document, signed in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, that returned twenty-two acres of the mission to the Catholic church from private landowners. “If, as seems the case, this proposed facility is needed by the parish,” Neuerburg stated last year before the city’s historical site board, “then surely a less critical location could be found that would not desecrate the burial places of California’s first converts to Christianity.”
Mission church with reconstructed belfry, circa 1930
San Diego Historical Society
Besides Neuerburg’s research, other evidence suggests that the cemetery is located beneath a portion of the proposed building, including assertions by at least one archaeologist who assisted in excavations at the site that Indian bones were unearthed there and reburied by archaeologists.
Museum docent Joy Higginbotham learned in late 1984 that a new building was planned for the site where the ruins lay.
But Msgr. Eagen and archaeologists and historians from the University of San Diego, the Catholic university (established by the diocese in 1959) that has been excavating the building site since 1966, claim the cemetery is not under the proposed building. And they decline to say where they think the Indians rest.
James Moriarty. “One Saturday Moriarty said a fountain was going to be built in the quadrangle. So we did a hurried excavation. We found some gun flints, musket balls. We came back the next time, and the fountain was being built."
California law is explicit about the procedures for reporting the discovery of Indian bones. State Senate Bill 297, enacted in January 1984, mandates that disinterment of suspected Indian bones — whether the burials were Christian or non-Christian — must be immediately reported to the county coroner, whose obligation it is to determine the nature of the remains.
Ray Brandes. Brandes felt archeologist Barker insulted him in the media.
If Indian burials are suspected, the coroner must contact the state’s Native American Heritage Commission, which in turn contacts the local Indians who are most likely to be descendants of the dead Indians in question.
Ray Starr, a San Diego State University history professor: “This is not the way professional academicians are supposed to behave.”
The local Indians have discretionary power as to the treatment of the remains; they may decide to have the bones disinterred and reburied elsewhere or to leave them undisturbed. If it were determined that Indians do lie buried under the site of the proposed building, the project would certainly — at least temporarily — be halted, and the Indians brought into the building process as formal observers.
Excavations and proposed parish hall.
These regulations have so hampered building and archaeological projects throughout the state that many archaeologists strictly avoid digging near suspected Indian burial grounds. The possibility that hundreds of “Christianized” Indian skeletons lie just east of the mission quadrangle could impose a major setback in the parish's plans.
One might assume that since USD archaeology professor James Moriarty has been conducting excavations around the mission quadrangle for nearly twenty years, he could simply be asked if he had searched for or encountered Indian remains in the area of the project. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of fellow archaeologists, historians, city bureaucrats, state preservation officials, federal Historic Register officials, and local preservationists, he has declined to comment on his findings. On January 15 Moriarty, who holds a doctorate in anthropology from United States International University, responded to a telephone inquiry by saying, “No, I’m not going to discuss it with you. Good-bye,” and hung up the phone without another word. Moriarty’s superior, Ray Brandes, who is chairman of USD’s history department, dean of the graduate and continuing education program, and a recognized expert on the site, was equally terse. “No, I will not talk to a reporter. I’ve had my fill of San Diego reporters .... We’ve reached the point where we’re really fed up with the press. You’re going to get zilch from me.
The cemetery issue is just one knot in a tapestry of questions surrounding the diocese’s plans. Historians and archaeologists note that after almost twenty years of work, USD archaeologists have not published a single scholarly report in a refereed journal. (A refereed journal is crucial to scholars because it means the article has been circulated for review among other professionals prior to publication.) “It’s very unprofessional to dig at a site, one of the most important sites in Western American history, for as long as they’ve been digging, and so far as we can find, there has been no significant publication,” says Ray Starr, a San Diego State University history professor and a leader in the effort to preserve the mission ruins, who conducted a computer search for articles on the excavations. “This is not the way professional academicians are supposed to behave,” Starr continues. “It says something about their standards for tenure and promotion that they don’t expect and demand this kind of publication; it shows they’re not good stewards of an important historical site, and it’s made worse by the fact that apparently Brandes does not want to make this public.”
The lack of openness on the part of the university and the church regarding the archaeological excavations has been decried by officials of the City of San Diego, as well as the National Park Service (which oversees national historic sites), and it led last year to open feuding between the history departments of USD and SDSU. “The church isn’t accountable to anybody, except maybe God, and we can’t appeal to him,” comments Starr. Through his urging, the SDSU history department adopted a formal resolution condemning the USD project. The questions raised about the site are numerous and directed from many sources. Starr asks, “What is in their field notes that they don’t want us to know about? It may be that their procedures and methods are so sloppy they don’t want anybody to see it.... Another possibility is that they’ve found some Indian bones, which would bring the whole thing to a halt.”
Ron Buckley, secretary of the city’s historical site board and an associate city planner, asks, “Did they disinter everybody from the graveyard?” He’s referring to a U.S. Army graveyard that exists on the site. “What happened to the bodies? Did they excavate the whole site, half the site, one-third of the site? What’s left? We don’t know.”
Leo Barker, staff historical archaeologist with the National Historic Sites Register, asks, “What’s left? Would further excavation be required? It was a native village, a prehistoric site. Did excavation go below the floors of the structures they found? We'couldn’t ascertain that from the information we were being given.”
“My guess is Moriarty has probably not kept very good records,” says Fern Southcott, a local Indian activist who, as a member of the Ipay tribe of the Northern Dieguenos, is probably related to Indians buried at the mission. “He’s above being answerable to anyone. There’s a bit of arrogance in those older fellows. They’re old school.... There are probably quite a few Indian burials there, and I think the church knows it.”
What kind of site is it, and how important is it to Californians today? Those who oppose building over it consider this to be the San Diego Mission’s last opportunity to provide the public with a realistic sense of mission life, since it is the one remaining undeveloped piece of ground on the mission quadrangle. Brandes and Moriarty, as expressed in the former’s letters to both the city and to Msgr. Eagen, believe that since all the artifacts have been removed to campus storage facilities and only parts of walls and other structures remain, the site isn’t worth leaving open to the public. And right now it isn’t much to look at. Eagen, the pastor (who is chancellor of the San Diego diocese and second in command under Bishop Leo Maher), has allowed the area to go to seed. Until last year it was a well-defined pattern of excavated walls and floors; today one sees only a grouping of rock-strewn mounds that are eroding into dust. But two centuries ago it was the seat of Christianity west of the Appalachians. And as such, Ray Starr calls it “the second most important archaeological site on the West Coast,” after the presidio, above Old Town.
The mission was originally established in 1769 by Padre Junipero Serra on what is now Presidio Hill, overlooking both the bay and Mission Valley. Serra and the accompanying garrison of a few dozen Spanish conquistadores were part of Spain’s last attempt to expand its crumbling empire.
The first mission at San Diego was not very successful in its attempts to convert the Indians; it took nearly a year before the first Kumeyaay was converted. Historians have suggested some explanations for the failure. For one thing, the missionaries tried to entice the Indians with food, but the natives could plainly see that the Europeans were dying in droves. Of the 219 men who’d set out for San Diego from Mexico, only 119 survived the journey, and many of them died shortly after arriving. What the Indians saw when the party had established itself was essentially a hospital, and they assumed, correctly, that the source of the ill health was the food the Spaniards ate. Many had succumbed to scurvy. So even when the padres placed lumps of sugar into the mouths of Indian children, the natives spit it out.
In 1774 the missionaries left the soldiers and the presidio and moved the mission six miles east to its present site on the northern bank of the river. Availability of water was the chief reason because not much agriculture could be supported around the original site. But the padres were aware of the bad influence the soldiers had on the Indians, and the new site would distance the church from the main garrison.
The new mission site, located beside the village of Nipaguay, whose Indian population numbered several hundred, became a working ranch. However, about a year after the new church was blessed, the Indians revolted and burned it and the other mission buildings, killing Fr. Luis Jayme, who would become California’s first martyr. It was the only such attack in California mission history, although priests at other missions were poisoned by Indians cooks.
The ‘‘official” history of the San Diego Mission, written by Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt and published in 1920, is based primarily upon church documents and is particularly chauvinistic toward the Indians. It portrays them as pathetic, thieving savages and attributes their uprising to the influence of the devil. But other historians, such as Jack Forbes, look at the Spanish invasion from the Indians’ point of view, which provides a more practical explanation for the revolt.
“From the native viewpoint,” Forbes writes in Native Indians of California and Nevada, ‘‘the missions were a catastrophe of indescribable magnitude, since the coastal population was largely eliminated by sickness induced by concentration in unhealthy mission compounds, new foods, new styles of labor, probably an insufficient diet (often with little meat), and, perhaps most important of all, a state of psychological depression. It is indeed disheartening to read diaries of pre-mission travelers commenting upon the vigor and enterprise of the natives and then to read the accounts of later visitors who almost invariably note the apathy, lethargy, and depression exhibited by long-term neophytes. Although the missionaries did attempt to mitigate the ‘slave-labor camp’ character of the missions with Catholic religious pageantry, musical groups, and rarer educational programs, the net effect of the experience was apparently quite devastating for the average Indian.” Obviously, a lot of Indians died and were buried at the San Diego Mission.
Padre Serra, who had been in Monterey at the time of the conflagration, returned in 1776 to build a new church at the mission site. There have been five churches constructed on the site over the years, and it is not known exactly where the original church was located, although many historians suspect it was on or very near the site of the proposed parish hall. USD’s Ray Brandes even postulated this in an article entitled “Some Important Discoveries,” included in a mission history published in 1976 by the archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Brandes wrote, “This first structure by Padre Junipero Serra’s hand, called an iglesia de horconeria, was composed of brush and timber using the forked pole and brush construction. USD archaeologists have not searched for its precise location, but Moriarty believes it may not have been underneath the present church [reconstructed in 1930-31], since a hundred yards to the east a cemetery has been located (but not excavated).
“This cemetery is early in time and probably is the site of the first mission burial grounds, since burials appear to be Indian and had a few objects of a Christian religious nature associated with them. Usually, if not always, such sacred grounds were located adjacent to the church. This cemetery has no connection to the military cemetery nearby.”
So Brandes did acknowledge the presence of Indian burials, but in that same article he contradicted himself on the location of the Indian cemetery. “The oldest [cemetery] is about 150 yards east of the present church, beyond any ruins,” he writes toward the end of the article. “A second [cemetery], arranged by the military, is about 100 yards east of the present church in the ruins.”
If Brandes and Moriarty were answering questions, it might be instructive to ask: Is the Indian cemetery one hundred yards or 150 yards east of the church? Where exactly were those Indian remains discovered? Perhaps they’re nowhere near the site of the proposed building. Brandes appeared before the city’s historical site board last year and stated that the Indian cemetery was not under the site in question, but he would not say just where it was. He is apparently trying to protect it from scavengers.
At the time USD began its archaeological excavations in 1966, the mission grounds were bursting with artifacts. The work provided the basis for both undergraduate and graduate courses in archaeological methods. The goals of the program, as stated by history department chairman Brandes in an article in The Anthropological Journal of Canada were fourfold:
“A. To perform a thorough archaeological study to find the true and logical sequence of structure and occupancy during the past 200 years.
“B. Through stratigraphic studies and artifact typology to bridge many unrecorded or lost informational gaps in the mission’s history.
“C. To gain insight into the irrigation and hydro systems of the Franciscans and, in addition, to determine their systems of defense, their productivity, and how they overcame the problems of everyday living in Mission Valley.
“D. Through knowledge gained by these excavations to one day be able to restore the mission complex in its entirety, using materials made in the same fashion and from the same source as the original material.”
Twenty years after those goals were published, no one outside the USD history department knows the true nature of the thousands of artifacts recovered at the site or whether the information gained has filled “gaps” in the mission’s history since very little has been published in refereed scientific journals. And Brandes has evidently abandoned the idea of restoring the mission complex “in its entirety.” In letters the university professor has written to the mission’s priest, Msgr. Eagen, and to the mission’s retained attorney, Don Worley, which were passed on to city staffers, Brandes states that the archaeological excavations are completed, and the mission’s “restoration project” should not be delayed. A singular problem remains, however: the building that Eagen wants erected and which Brandes fully supports is not a restoration at all.
Apart from the church, which is the 1931 reconstruction of the fourth church completed at the mission in 1813, none of the buildings that line the mission quadrangle are reconstructions of original structures. Msgr. Eagen built a rectory in the common “mission style” on the northeast edge of the quadrangle in 1972 over ground that was, according to an archaeologist who was working there at the time, only superficially excavated. Eagen paved the quadrangle with asphalt in 1972 before it, too, was properly excavated. And although he and the proposed building’s architects say the structure is based on an 1848 sketch of a building on the site, other historians and architects state flatly that it is not a historical reconstruction.
Leo Barker, the archaeologist with the National Historic Register office in San Francisco, met with local building architect John Henderson last summer and says of the meeting, “It was clear there was insufficient historical data at that time to create a historical replica.... Henderson admitted the structure was composed of the mission vernacular style.” The building will feature a tile roof, arched porticos, and white stucco walls.
Ray Starr from San Diego State University regards the building as an outrageous misinterpretation of history. “The building they’re proposing to construct has nothing to do with the mission,” he says. “It is a marvelous example of mission revival architecture, which grows out of a whole era of the mission myth in California, and will actually do a lot to perpetuate the mission myth. The myth is that these were glorious places with bougainvillea growing and the fountain splashing and the happy Indians singing music. The padres being very pious, that sort of thing. The reality of it is that you had a huge population, with poor sanitation facilities, you had cattle, you had sheep, you had pigs running around, it was a working ranch. It was not clean, it was not pretty, and it was downright brutal in terms of the treatment of the Indians. It was not a pastoral, idyllic paradise. The old mission myth assumes that the Indians were all happy children, just as the Gone with the Wind myth assumes that the slaves were happy children. From the Indian point of view, it completely clouds over the incredible death and destruction of cultures.”
Although Brandes’s letters repeatedly refer to the building as a “restoration,” even Msgr. Eagen admits it is something less. “It’s not really a restoration,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s a building that looks similar to the granary that was on the site. There was a building there in the 1840s, and there have been several buildings on the site, but you have to pick a point in time for a reconstruction. We picked 1830 to 1840, the heyday of the mission.”
Actually, according to the mission’s official history (Mission San Diego, by Z. Engelhardt), the period Eagen calls the “heyday” was instead the nadir of church influence, that time when the neophytes — many of whom were required to live on the mission grounds — were freed and the mission properties were confiscated by Mexico and disbursed to private landowners. Mexico had taken over Alta California in 1821, and the vast mission lands, which included some 50,000 acres under cultivation, were coveted by increasing numbers of immigrants. On August 9, 1834, Governor Jose Figueroa signed the decree that in effect killed the missions. “From that date, the missions were doomed to destruction, and the neophytes to extinction,” writes Engelhardt.
“It’s so frustrating,” remarks SDSU’s Professor Starr, “because Eagen doesn’t know the history of his own mission, he obviously has no feeling of responsibility toward history, and yet we can’t get to him.”
The archaeological excavations, conducted by USD faculty and students during the school terms, have produced thousands of artifacts, some of which are to be housed in a museum inside the proposed structure. The building site, on which Padre Serra may have built the original church, later served as the foundation for shops and mission outbuildings. A blacksmith shop, leather-working shop, a butchering area, and other buildings have been mentioned by Brandes as occupying the site. Throughout the 1970s and up until last year, the intricate patterns of walls and foundations exposed by the archaeology students were part of the mission’s main tour. These are now fenced off from public view.
Local archaeologist Dick Gadler worked on the digs as a student, and he says, “It was common knowledge we were in a cemetery.” Gadler saw bones himself, which were assumed by the students to be Indians. He says the cemetery was located directly beneath a modern-era wall that enclosed the mission compound on the east. The new building is to be situated directly over a portion of that wall.
Gadler says it was clear that the archaeologists were working at the pleasure of Eagen. One particularly rich store of artifacts had just been discovered in an old underground cellar and not yet completely excavated when, to the students’ surprise, a road was paved over it leading to the quadrangle/parking lot. “One Saturday Moriarty said a fountain was going to be built in the middle of the quadrangle,” Gadler relates. “So we did a hurried excavation under the site of the [proposed] fountain, and it looked rich. We found some gun flints, musket balls, some other things. We came back the next time, and the fountain was being built and the quadrangle was being paved. I got the distinct impression that to protest was to be invited to leave.” Gadler says the intent had always been to wait until the dig was completed before publishing anything about the work. “But they waited too long,” he says. “The mass of information became overwhelming. You’d want to match the field notes with the site before you wrote anything.” The excavation site now is completely filled in with mud and weeds. Gadler echoes other local archaeologists and historians when he says, “That mission is the starting point of civilization on the West Coast. The only thing I'd build over that site is the best possible re-creation of what was there before. What they’re doing there is not to the benefit of the church’s or the public’s heritage. They’re certainly not treating it as hallowed ground.”
Were it not for the actions of Joy Higginbotham, a docent at the mission who led tours of the grounds, the site might already have been bulldozed away and the parish hall standing today. After she learned in late 1984 that a new building was planned for the site where the ruins lay, she arranged to see Moriarty. They met on a Saturday afternoon, when Moriarty brought a USD seminar class to the mission. “That’s when I got my first bit of scary information about that site,” she says. “You’d expect an archaeologist to say it was too bad the site was being lost and that he was sad about it. He looked at me, expressionless, and said, ‘My job was to dig this place up, and now my job is over. They can do with it what they want.’ ” Higginbotham later talked with one of Moriarty’s students, who told her that Moriarty in fact had very intense, personal feelings about preserving the site. Outsiders theorize that both Moriarty and Brandes have been pressured by the church to either support the project or stay out of the issue. They point out that Eagen is an extremely powerful figure in the diocese, that he sits on the board of trustees of the University of San Diego, and that his boss. Bishop Leo Maher, is chairman of that board.
Brandes’s response to this conflict-of-interest question was included in a sharply worded letter he sent to SDSU’s Ray Starr. Starr had written to the city, objecting to a request that Brandes write a supplemental environmental impact statement on the building project’s effect on the ruins. The city sent a copy of the letter to Brandes, who wrote, “A few persons asked the ethical question of where my allegiance lies: (1) I am not an employee of the diocese; (2) I am employed by the University of San Diego, a private corporation, and if the truth were known, we have more academic freedom than most public schools, which may well be bound up in too many regulations that hamper their teaching, or the opportunity to become innovative; (3) Note well: No one asked me to step into this situation. I am not being paid to do this. My intent was to serve as a moderator. I am not in a conflict-of-interest situation — I know the difference. (4) The most grievous sin, however, is to suggest that I have to choose between my job and professional judgment, a libelous statement which strongly infers that I have little, if any, credibility; (5) If Monsignor Eagen is a Trustee of the University, so is Ernest Hahn. Eugene Trepte, Douglas Manchester, and over thirty other prominent citizens such as Mrs. Helen Copley. Does this mean that you or I may not accept work from them if asked? The comparison is ludicrous...”
Higginbotham and the other docents understood that the exposed ruins were going to be filled with sand and preserved and that the proposed new structure would do the least amount of damage to them. But as she checked into the plans filed with the city, she learned that she’d been misinformed. The diocese had received city approval for the project in 1980 but hadn't acted on it for four years. The plans filed then were very different from the more specific plans the diocese filed in late 1984, when Eagen decided to move forward with the project. The diocese now contemplated grading the site and building a parking lot, neither of which was part of the originally agreed-upon plan.
Higginbotham had asked the city’s historical site board secretary Ron Buckley about the plans in January of last year, arid he discovered the discrepancies. Buckley and his boss, Allen Jones, talked with Brandes, who informed them that preservation of the ruins would no longer be necessary since Moriarty had finished digging. However, the discrepancies brought the project to a halt and set into motion a byzantine review process that ultimately enlightened Higginbotham to the hard fact: The diocese can legally build almost anything it wants on the site, without preserving any of the ruins, and no city, state, or federal agency has the power to prevent it.
The city’s historical site board, which reviews proposed building projects on historic sites and also designates buildings as historical sites, originally approved the building in 1980. At that time an environmental impact report (EIR) was completed by city staffers, and it found that if the ruins were preserved under sand, there would be no significant environmental impacts. Today preservationists find this EIR laughably inadequate, in part because it relied primarily upon information supplied by Moriarty and Brandes, who had close connections to the owner of the property — the diocese — and not by outside, “independent” archaeologists. The 1980 EIR neglected to say that bones had been found during excavation and described the proposed building as a “reconstruction,” which even Msgr. Eagen admits it is not, and mistakenly refers to it as a 4000-square-foot building. Actually, the proposed building comprises 8191 square feet. The diocese claims city staffers made a clerical error in computing the size of the building. Nowhere does the EIR mention a parking lot.
When the diocese decided to move forward with the project last year, the city’s deputy director of the planning department, Allen Jones, informed Eagen that a supplemental report to the EIR would be required, including an explanation of why the ruins need no longer be preserved, what digging had occurred on the site since 1980, what artifacts have been recovered, and other details. The city proposed to circulate this report to other archaeologists for review and comment.
In his reply, addressed to Jones’s boss, assistant city manager John Fowler, Eagen balked. He wrote, “Dr. Brandes feels [JonesJ is exceeding his authority in proposing to circulate this information to other archaeologists in California.” Eagen included a long letter from Dr. Brandes, in which the professor gave an overview of the dig and asserted that “to delay a restoration project any longer is not only unnecessary, it is unconscionable, and beyond the bounds of reasonableness.”
There followed months of meetings and bureaucratic maneuverings in which the diocese and its counsel, Don Worley, successfully argued that regardless of the shortcomings of the original EIR, the city could only delay the project for 360 days. The diocese did alter its plans, returning to the original idea of preserving the ruins beneath the building, and the parking lot was dropped. According to Msgr. Eagen, a full report on the archaeological dig is now being written by Moriarty’s and Brandes’s students. This is something less than was requested by the city: that the diocese hire an independent archaeologist to write a supplemental EIR. In a letter to Worley, Brandes states that the students’ report will be completed in December 1986.
But December will come three months after the diocese is legally entitled to receive the city’s building permits. Under San Diego’s toothless historic preservation law, owners of property with historic value cannot be forced to preserve it. The city can only delay a developer’s plans. If approval of a project is denied for any reason by the historical sites board, and also then by the city council, the law states that the city has 360 days to come up with a plan for preserving the ruins. In cases such as the mission, as well as a 1979 case involving the Melville Klauber house at Sixth Avenue and Quince Street in Hillcrest — both of whose owners were represented by Worley — the city has two options: to condemn the property or buy it outright. Those options were unrealistic in the past and remain so. Despite the city’s efforts to prevent it, the Irving Gill-designed Klauber house was demolished, and that site remains vacant. “There is no right for a person to preserve property not owned by them,” Worley points out.
When the historical site board decided last September 25 that it couldn’t consider the mission’s proposal without a more complete archaeological report, this action was deemed by the city attorney to be tantamount to a denial of the project. The diocese had asked for the matter to be considered as a new project that day, knowing full well the board would have to, in effect, deny approval, which would set the 360-day clock running. Buckley, who was on vacation at the time, says the matter should never have been placed on the board’s agenda that day without the environmental report. Next September the city will be forced, under its historic preservation law, to issue the building permits. And no restrictions may be placed on the project’s construction, although the diocese has voluntarily agreed to preserve the site under sand and to excavate by hand the holes for the twenty support pilings.
The city has been trying to toughen the historic preservation law since 1980; Ron Buckley says he’ll have a draft of a rewrite finished in late February. Meanwhile, in an effort to halt construction on what they believe is one of the most important archaeological sites in the nation, a committee of interested citizens, archaeologists, and historians was formed last year. Joy Higginbotham was the main leader; Ray Starr was also an active member. Although their efforts may only succeed in having the ruins preserved beneath the building, the Committee for the Preservation of Mission San Diego de Alcala was awarded a certificate of merit by the California Committee for the Promotion of History, a statewide watchdog group based in Sacramento.
The committee brought speakers from throughout the state to testify before the city’s historical site board. One speaker, David Hornbeck, a professor of history at Cal State Northridge, is an expert on Spanish/Mexican land tenure in California. He pointed out that the church’s ownership of the mission property differed somewhat from that of a private landowner. “The interesting point I’m bringing up is that the missions were not legal owners of the property to begin with,’’ Hornbeck testified. “The property that the missions own today was appropriated from landowners in the 1850s and 1860s by the U.S. Government and returned to the Catholic church on the basis of care and trust. And Abraham Lincoln signed the patent, “My second point is that the missions are more than simply historical monuments, more than a weekend outing for tourists. The missions are very much a part of our landscape heritage. And we note today that San Diego is the eighth largest city in the United States, the second largest in California, but there’s very little that’s old here, in fact there’s very little that’s old in California. We seem to build so rapidly and so quickly that we tend to forget our past. We have very little on the landscape today that reminds us of our heritage. The missions are an integral part of our heritage.”
Making a plea to allow history to stand in the way of progress in San Diego is almost un-American. So the preservationists brought up the mission at San Juan Capistrano, which has preserved and restored many of its archaeological ruins, and they gave that argument a uniquely American twist: “These ruins are a treasure to the church, and an economic bonus as well,” says Nick Magalousis, the Chapman College anthropologist who has directed the archaeological dig at San Juan Capistrano since 1979. Entire adobe walls have been preserved under glass and roofs to protect them from the elements, and original buildings have been reconstructed. Fr. Paul Martin, the mission’s priest, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the project. “I’m not sure many people in the church have been schooled enough in the economic benefits of historic preservation,” says Magalousis. “I think Eagen and others need to sit down and go through some classes .... Fr. Martin was quite intuitive about the benefits of this project. The more historical resources you preserve, the more visitors will come to the mission. And the more you excavate, the more you find, and the more praise you receive, and the more money comes in to the mission.”
Magalousis, as an officer in the California Mission Studies Association, tried at first to act as a moderator in the dispute between the local preservation committee and the diocese. He called Eagen to offer the association’s services, but “Eagen was extremely rude and brusque over the phone,” he recalls. The association was forced to join ranks with the other preservationists against the mission.
Archaeologist Leo Barker of the National Historic Register encountered a cool response when he came down from San Francisco last August to investigate the status of the dig. He had contacted Brandes, saying that he needed an indication that a proper excavation had been performed. Barker asked to meet with Moriarty, but Brandes told him Moriarty was in poor health and that he himself would handle it. “Brandes was reluctant at first about attending this meeting we had with Eagen at the mission,” Barker explains. “We needed to talk about the landmark, what was going on, the role we might have in ensuring the information on the site would be saved, and a proper report written. I talked with him twice, and the second time he said he would make every effort to attend, and he’d bring information such as students’ masters’ theses about the site and other things. But when I arrived, Eagen said Brandes felt I’d insulted him in the media and he wouldn’t attend.” Barker says there was never any intent to insult Brandes. “All we needed to know was that records existed, and we’d support that the work had been done.” He left dissatisfied, and the National Park Service later forwarded a letter to the city with a list of suggestions for what should be included in an archaeological report on the site. This list has been included in a formal request by the city council that the diocese complete a report before the city can approve the building plan. Of course the diocese can ignore the request (and it appears to be doing just that), and the city cannot withhold building permits next September. The list, which serves as a handy guide to what archaeologists find lacking in the available data, includes:
“—A planar map showing all excavated features (foundations, floors, pilasters, burials, archaeological features, et cetera).
“— Cross-sectional profiles and elevations showing the vertical relationship among excavated features.
Discussion of the location and description of any test excavations that were placed to determine the depth and variety of cultural deposits below those floors and foundations presently exposed at the site.
“—A preliminary report of findings, including interpretations of the period and function of those features located in excavation.
“—A statement of the presumed research or public-interpretive value of those remains discussed above.
Based on the archaeological work conducted to date and the mass of historic documentation available, provide an extrapolation of the nature and value of additional features that may be present within the project area which have not yet been excavated. Include a map showing these untested areas.”
Even the National Park Service cannot compel the USD archaeologists to produce such a report. This is what frustrates historians such as Ray Starr, who would like to see the ruins stabilized and protected and an interpretive program established that would explain their function in relation to mission life. “The missions didn’t just introduce Christianity to California,’’ says Starr, “they introduced citrus and olives and vineyards and irrigation and wheat, all the European products, sheep, horses, cattle, weaving, hide trade. The missions are the economic foundation of California.”
Msgr. Eagen says the proposed building will be the last phase of a long-established plan to enclose the quadrangle. He says that another small plot of ruins across the southern edge of the quadrangle should be left as they are, “but on the eastern side, there are three or four different levels of buildings; it’s just kind of a hodgepodge. No one can stand there and really see anything.” Eagen says he is waiting to see the paper being written by Moriarty’s and Brandes’s students before he decides whether to submit an archaeological report, in accordance with the city’s request. Eagen maintains that even if that report isn’t completed before the city must issue building permits in September, “I don’t plan to start any building until the report is done.” This is quite a change from his earlier eagerness to force the city to deny the project so that the 360-day “clock” would start its countdown.
The preservationists are suspicious of Eagen’s apparent turnabout, but they can do nothing except wait and see if he’s true to his word. “What’s so frustrating,” comments Ray Starr, “is that not everything in the world can or should be solved through legal means. It seems to me that we are dealing here with a very important moral issue, of the church being in possession of what I would call the second most important archaeological site, after the presidio, on the West Coast of the United States. It’s a site important to United States history, Spanish history, Mexican history, Indian history. It’s the West Coast equivalent of Jamestown. And I think the church is the custodian of a great public resource, and they have an obligation to a greater public than their 1500 parishioners. There are thousands of ways of meeting the needs of parishioners in a church. There is only one San Diego Mission ruin, with its great message of history.”