Edna Kimbro, an authority on the preservation of historic adobe structures who was instrumental in restoring a number of landmark buildings in California and who advocated new, less invasive techniques for conserving earthen architecture, died June 26 of ovarian cancer. She was 57.
Kimbro died in her sleep at her home in Watsonville, Calif., south of San Jose, according to Charlene Duval, a longtime friend.
Kimbro got interested in adobe preservation in the mid-1970s after she and her husband purchased and renovated a crumbling 18th century adobe house in Santa Cruz. Originally the house was part of Villa de Branciforte, an early California pueblo.
Her next major project was a row house from the 1820s, originally a residence for Native Americans at Mission Santa Cruz. Kimbro and other activists raised funds and public awareness to see the building fully restored and designated a California state historic park.
"No one was the resource that Edna was in historic adobe art and architecture," said Anthony Crosby, a conservation architect based in Denver. "Her combination of expertise in art history and conservation was unique."
Her good-natured zeal and her unusual expertise quickly earned Kimbro a reputation. She was named the Monterey district historian for the California Department of Parks and Recreation in the early 1980s and increasingly was consulted about California missions and presidios around the state.
"Edna was an enthusiastic, can-do person," said Larry Felton, an archeologist for the state parks system who first worked with her in the early 1980s. "She made it her mission to get credentialed as an architecture conservator specializing in adobe."
Born in Monterey, Kimbro graduated from UC Santa Cruz, where she majored in art history. Her earliest interest in California missions was in their furnishings and artworks. Later, when she researched the architectural history of mission-era buildings, dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, she found paintings and furnishings that had been removed from the buildings over the years.
Her interest in architecture complemented her social activism, Felton said. Many of the houses Kimbro fought to save were built by native Mexican ranchers.
"Preservation appealed to Edna's sense of social justice," Felton said. "There was nothing effete about it."
Kimbro said in a 2002 interview with the San Jose Mercury News: "It is becoming more and more important to preserve the heritage intact. People moving here will have a much stronger sense of belonging if they see that their cultural traditions are valued."
About 300 adobe buildings from the mission era remain standing, Felton said. A number of buildings in the Central Coast region where Kimbro lived have been damaged by earthquakes.
In 1989 Kimbro attended a training program in Rome with architects and engineers from Latin America and other countries where mud-brick and stone houses are still common. The program, offered by the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, covered a range of topics, including seismic retrofitting for earthen architecture.
Not long after Kimbro returned home, the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 took down part of the adobe ranch house that Kimbro and her husband were restoring.
Known as the "Castro Adobe," it was built by Jose Castro, a native Mexican rancher, in the early 1840s. Kimbro later sold the house to the California state parks system. It is scheduled for retrofitting this summer.
After the quake, Kimbro learned everything she could about seismic stabilization.
"The problem with restoring historic adobes is that we frequently kill them trying to save them," Felton said. "Pump the walls full of concrete, strip out the interior plaster, remove the original roof."
To call attention to the problem, Kimbro asked the Getty Conservation Institute to help. The Getty sponsored a survey of historic adobe structures in Southern California in the mid-1990s and funded seismic testing. Kimbro and other conservationists looked at newer techniques for retrofitting adobe that include the use of fiberglass instead of concrete to reinforce walls. The Getty published several technical books she co-wrote on the subject.
"Edna was the sparkplug that made the Getty project happen," Felton said.
In recent years, she continued her consulting work. She and Crosby worked on restoring Rancho Camulos in Ventura County, using updated techniques for seismic strengthening. The ranch is said to be the setting for "Ramona," Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel.
Two years ago Kimbro received a lifetime achievement award for her work from the California Mission Studies Assn., which she helped to found.
Kimbro is survived by her husband, Joe; sons, David and Joey; a brother; and a granddaughter.