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St. Vibiana’s Survival Could Offer Link to Past

TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Dusted with crumbling brick, overgrown with weeds, the Cathedral of St. Vibiana barely recalls its former luster. Once the seat of Los Angeles’ Roman Catholic archdiocese, it is now a ruined hollow mass, scarred by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

To some, the cathedral is a tearful symbol of Los Angeles’ peculiar disregard for its own heritage. In a city that glibly discards the past--like an assembly line endlessly churning out a new world--the neglected 19th century structure has become a symbol of what little heritage we still have to preserve.

But to the city’s archdiocese, the cathedral is a dilapidated embarrassment unsuited to be the glorious seat of a powerful church--and a structural hazard not worth the $20 million they say it would take to repair it. Last June, the archdiocese surreptitiously began knocking down the cathedral at 2nd and Main streets, but only succeeded in tearing off the bell tower. Further demolition was blocked when the Los Angeles Conservancy--aided by a local judge--intervened. Nonetheless, church officials abandoned the cathedral in a huff. A new cathedral will soon rise along the Hollywood Freeway near Hill Street.

Now, the future of the current St. Vibiana seems a vast emptiness. By abandoning an admittedly dysfunctional structure, the archdiocese is also erasing much of the cathedral’s historic meaning forever. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Conservancy’s hope is to locate someone with the money and vision to find a new use for the building. They have asked the USC School of Architecture to propose possible designs for the space--even while the archdiocese prepares to start demolition anew. It is an uphill battle for the preservationists.

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Los Angeles’ sense of cultural freedom comes in part from the fact that it accepts change so lightly. Sometimes that acceptance is a shock. In a city that has been a fertile ground for experimental housing, for example, it is painful to watch adequate, even visionary, housing schemes plowed under while people inhabit congested shelters. But can the same be said about a building that has outlived its usefulness to the community?

St. Vibiana, designed by Ezra F. Kysor, was completed in 1876 when the city was still an anarchic frontier town surrounded by huge ranches and devoid of cultural monuments, its vast urban sprawl a distant vision. At the time, the cathedral could hold nearly a third of the city’s population of 10,000. Its octagonal bell tower dominated the flat, dry landscape.

It was a simple structure with two distinct features: the ornate facade, loosely modeled on a Baroque Spanish church, and the bell tower, which rose in back. Inside, a vaulted ceiling rested on 14 slim Corinthian columns painted to look like marble. Narrow aisles ran along either side.

But the archdiocese was never satisfied with the structure’s grandeur. As early as 1904, tentative plans were already in the works for a new cathedral, but funding ran out. Instead, during the 1920s, the church’s street facade was extended and recast in stone. Other changes followed: A gallery was raised at the back of the nave; a new rectory was designed; bells were removed from the tower.

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None of these changes ever could accommodate the growing ambitions of the church. Church officials insist that, aside from the damage done by the earthquake, the fundamental cause for the move is that St. Vibiana is too small for the archdiocese’s holiday masses and ceremonial events such as the ordaining of priests. They have little interest in the building’s future.

Looking at the battered cathedral today, it is hard to defend it as a major architectural work. Even if it were returned to its 1922 luster, the building’s various elements seem oddly disjunctive: The uninspired stone facade obscures the simple interior, the bell tower--its severed top now resting sadly on its side in a back lot--always seemed somehow tacked on. Awkwardly proportioned, the church’s architecture has neither the inspiring simplicity of a New England meeting house nor the refined complexity of its European models.

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But great architecture is not the true issue here--the issue, instead, is the value of cultural memory. As one of maybe a dozen 19th century structures still surviving downtown, St. Vibiana is a very real link to an elusive past. Its existence adds a layer of complexity to a city that is forever erasing itself.

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And as a historical and cultural anchor in an area devastated by either careless development or outright neglect, that historical depth has concrete value. Hopelessness is on all sides: Boarded-up theaters and bail-bond offices dot Main Street. An abandoned 10-story building and a barren parking lot face the church across the street. Nearby is a giant brick-strewn ditch. The cathedral is part of a looser monumental fabric that extends along City Hall and Union Station a few blocks away. As such, it is a link to a more hopeful past.

Finding a new role for the cathedral will only add to the structure’s richness and complexity. And that complexity will increase as the city shifts around it over time. Like Wall Street’s Trinity Church--whose tiny spire rises shockingly amid colossal new towers--what seems fragile now will gain a strong presence in a context of urban renewal.

In the meantime, the task is to protect a layer of memory that would otherwise be obliterated. The USC study will conclude sometime in February with a public exhibition of half a dozen proposals for the structure’s reuse. Each of the proposals will address how to restore the cathedral within a viable economic framework.

That plan may or may not succeed: A mini-mall tomorrow may become a bank years later--or revert to a hollow shell. But the cathedral building’s survival would at least preserve a level of cultural complexity that is crucial to the future of any city.

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