Nearly 200 years after an earthquake shook large portions of it to the ground, the Great Stone Church is finally stable again.
On Tuesday morning, workmen put the finishing touches on one of the final and most difficult phases of a 13-year restoration that will cost about $9.6 million: suspending the weight of the church's dome from the walls to a steel truss system.
"I just had my 80th birthday, and I wasn't sure if I would ever see this day," said Harry C. Francisco, an archeologist at Mission San Juan Capistrano for the last 22 years.
"This was a lot tougher project than we ever anticipated. Once we got into it, we realized the church was in much worse shape than we ever thought possible."
As part of the latest phase, workmen had to remove 30 tons of rubble from the top of the badly cracked dome, which was about 20 inches thick. If after a period of observation the weight-shifting process proves successful, as expected, the church's seismic retrofit will be complete and scaffolding inside the vestry will be removed.
Architect John Loomis, the project's manager, said attention will then shift to wall reinforcement and cosmetic improvement.
The entire preservation of the church, built in 1806, is expected to completed by July.
"We don't want to give the impression the building is completely safe and earthquake-proof," Loomis said. "But we've made it much more stable and resistant to damage from future earthquakes."
Since stabilization work began in 1990, the project has been manned almost full-time by 16 preservationists, six to 10 masons, two archeologists, one engineer and one architect. Loomis said the hope is that the restoration work will keep the church stable for at least another 200 years.
Mission officials say that once the church project is completed, they will concentrate on cosmetic improvements to other structures on the grounds.
"We'll be shifting our gaze away from corporate rentals and parties and toward historic events and historically authentic improvements," said Mechelle Lawrence, the mission's director. "We want to create new chapters in a visitor's experiences."