California missions spotlight: 4-foot-thick walls make Dolores oldest intact building in S.F.

San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores), sixth mission, 1776
A view of Mission Dolores, considered the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores), San Francisco

6th mission


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The National Park Service calls this the oldest intact building in San Francisco, built between 1782 and 1791. Above the 4-foot-thick adobe walls, the church ceiling is decorated with traditional Native American designs using vegetable dyes. But one of its great treasures is invisible for now: In 1790 or 1791, Ohlone neophytes painted a 400-square-foot mural full of abstract patterns and Christian imagery, but it was hidden five years later when a large altar screen was imported from Mexico and placed in front of it. The altar screen is still there, but researchers have managed to photograph part of the mural, and the mission’s leaders are pondering the next steps — perhaps an app to reveal the image when you point a cellphone at the altar. Outside in the mission cemetery, about 5,700 Ohlone, Miwok and other early Californians are buried. Part of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film “Vertigo” was shot there.

Nearby: The Mission District is one of San Francisco’s liveliest neighborhoods, especially at night. It’s known for its Latin American lilt and fast-advancing gentrification. It seems to have almost as many restaurants as California had occupants in 1776. It also features the 16-acre Mission Dolores Park (, which is partly closed for renovation. While romping on the grass, think of this: After the 1906 earthquake and fire, more than 1,600 San Franciscans briefly lived here in a refugee camp.

Info: 3321 16th St., San Francisco; (415) 621-8203, Driving distance from L.A. City Hall: 382 miles northwest.

From the archives:


In 1958, The Times discussed Mission Dolores’ deterioration and restoration.

In 1987, The Times covered Pope John Paul II’s visit to California, including a controversial stop at Mission Dolores.

In 2008, The Times reported on a vocal ensemble, Chanticleer, planning a rare performance of mission-era music at Mission Dolores.

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