One icon may doom another

Times Staff Writer

A classic struggle is playing out here in the first capital of California, and it’s anyone’s guess who the victor will be: God or nature.

On one side stands San Carlos Borromeo de Monterey, believed to be the oldest continuously functioning church in California, completed in 1794. On the other, a small stand of stately redwood trees, whose roots have made their way through the chapel’s foundation and threaten its survival.

For this clash of California icons, there is no easy solution: Church officials have asked the city of Monterey for a permit to cut all of the trees down to preserve this landmark of California’s Spanish colonial era. The city recommends that at least two of the four redwoods remain, no matter what.


“You have the classic conflict,” said Robert G. Reid, urban forester for the city of Monterey, a historic building versus “rightfully magnificent native redwood trees that also have some serious standing in the community.”

“It is kind of a dilemma,” he said.

As anyone who has ever seen a redwood knows, the official state tree of California inspires awe and sometimes exceptional fervor. To highlight the plight of endangered old-growth forests, Julia “Butterfly” Hill lived for two years in the branches of a 1,000-year-old specimen in Humboldt County that she dubbed Luna. Fellow activist David “Gypsy” Chain was killed during a logging protest in a nearby woodland, after being struck by a tree felled by an angry logger.

The massive redwoods can live for millenniums. They have been likened to the great cathedrals of Europe. The world’s tallest living thing is a skyscraper of a redwood named Hyperion, which towers nearly 380 feet above Humboldt County in Redwood National Park.

“There’s something about these trees that makes people want to reach out and protect them,” said Ruskin Hartley, director of conservation for the Save-the-Redwoods League. But he also warns that “you have to alter your perspective and time scale when you go about planting these trees that will live for 2,000 years.”

That’s advice that should have been given in the 1950s, when the four redwoods were planted -- probably by well-meaning parishioners -- along the east side of San Carlos Borromeo, a church with its own impressive set of superlatives.

The petite stone structure is variously heralded as California’s first cathedral, the smallest cathedral in the continental United States and the first structure in California designed by a known architect. It is home to one of the first non-indigenous sculptures created in the Golden State, a stone carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas.


It is also the last vestige of the Mission and Presidio of San Carlos de Borromeo de Monterey, which was founded in 1770 by Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra. Within a year, Serra moved the mission to Carmel. But the presidio remained to protect Spain’s interests, along with a humble chapel that ministered to the soldiers and their families, the predecessor to the church that stands here today.

In its early years, the presidio was home to four churches. The first, a flimsy structure of vertical poles, was replaced by a log building, which gave way to an adobe chapel with a thatched roof. That church and soldiers’ barracks were damaged in a fire in 1789.

Two years later, master mason and architect Manuel Ruiz was brought from New Spain (modern-day Mexico) to design and build the structure that stands on Church Street. It was completed in December 1794 and dedicated two months later. Daily Mass has been celebrated in the church since, said Father Peter Crivello, the current pastor.

San Carlos “goes off the Richter scale as a work of architectural significance,” said Jack S. Williams, executive director of the Center for Spanish Colonial Research. “It’s a miracle that the presidio chapel is still standing.”

In more ways than one. The city of Monterey has swallowed up the rest of the presidio; today San Carlos is across the street from a Mercedes-Benz dealership and other secular shrines.

The entire building must be seismically strengthened. Concrete patching -- the well-intentioned but disastrous renovations of an earlier time -- must be removed and replaced. The statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe must be taken down from its place of honor above the church doors for treatment in a conservation lab.


The parish plans to launch a $5.5-million fundraising effort in early 2007 to pay for extensive renovations and reverse the damage wrought by the redwoods. Moisture is anathema to a structure’s stones, and the tall trees’ shade prevents the small cruciform church from drying out.

Then there are the insidious roots.

One recent Monday morning, archeologist Ruben G. Mendoza was leading a team of student volunteers from Cal State Monterey Bay in part of a months-long excavation effort around the church’s foundation.

Digging holes at strategic points, they have unearthed fragments of pottery that document the trade history of early California: ceramics from Mexico, Asian stoneware and porcelain, Spanish majolica. A half real coin dated 1779 was found in an early presidio wall, which is buried beneath the church site. There’s a layer of ash from the 1789 fire. Shards of deep red glass hint at windows installed in the Victorian era.

The redwoods’ roots snake out from the neat excavations, through the foundation, to freedom on the west side of the building. To Mendoza, director of Cal State Monterey Bay’s Institute for Archaeological Science, Technology and Visualization, the need to choose is clear.

“You save the building or you save the trees,” he said. “You can’t save both.”

Crivello, the pastor, applied in late November for a city permit to cut down the redwoods. Having grown up in the San Carlos parish and worshiped alongside the trees throughout his childhood, Crivello finds it “regretful” that they must go. “We wish we could have both,” he said, but “we’re caretakers of this historical gem.... We have to be good stewards of this building.”

The application landed on forester Reid’s desk shortly after Thanksgiving. Reid, who hopes for a compromise, has recommended that only the two redwoods closest to the building be cut down. If the church appeals, the matter would probably go before the city’s architectural review committee within a month or two and eventually could make its way to the City Council.


Reid has suggested pruning the roots of the remaining trees, digging a trench between them and the church and filling it in with material through which new roots could not penetrate. But that would destroy the layers of history buried beneath the site, Mendoza said.

And here at San Carlos Borromeo, history is everything.

“I love redwood trees, and I would hate to see one come down,” said historian Williams. “But we cannot plant another presidio.”