Perhaps no building is quite as recognizable or is as identified with our community as the “Queen of the Missions.” Throughout the years, the mission has undergone a number of facelifts: a relatively minor one in the 1880s, and two large-scale restorations/reconstructions in the 1920s and the 1950s, respectively.
The mission was looking rather shoddy and timeworn at the dawn of the 1880s due to years of neglect. The shingled roof of the monastery was in poor condition and large patches of plaster had fallen off the walls. In 1881, new rafters and boards were replaced under the roof, and in 1888 the shingles were removed in favor of tile. The fa§ade of the mission and the walls of the monastery were given a new coat of plaster, just in time to celebrate the mission’s centennial in 1886.
The massive earthquake that struck Santa Barbara early in the morning of June 29, 1925, inflicted major damage on the mission. The east bell tower was almost completely destroyed while its twin sustained serious injury. The church fa§ade was also badly damaged, as was the second story of the monastery. Fr. Augustine
Hobrecht, superior of the mission, narrowly escaped grave injury when, nearly blinded by choking dust, he plunged through a gaping hole in the second floor to the room below.
Aftershocks in ensuing months kept everyone on edge. Although the church itself was deemed safe, the towers and the monastery were another matter. Restoration began in May 1926. The roofs of the church and monastery were removed and the latter’s second story removed. It was then rebuilt with reinforced concrete and 46 columns emplaced to further support the new structure. The east tower was entirely rebuilt, and it and the church fa§ade were redone using the stones that dated back as far as the 1820s. The buttresses along the east wall, which had been pulled away by the force of the quake, were re-anchored and reinforced. Damaged artwork was carefully restored and textures and colors of walls were redone with scrupulous adherence to original surfaces.
Funding for the project came from around the state-$100,000 from San Francisco, $150,000 from Los Angeles, $92,000 from Santa Barbara. The project was completed at a cost of just less than $400,000 in the summer of 1927, and the restored mission was consecrated in December of that year.
Within 10 years of this project’s completion, signs of further problems began to appear. Cracks began to emerge in the mission towers and fa§ade and the conditions continued to worsen so that by 1949, it was apparent something had to be done. Studies revealed that chemical reactions in the concrete were fatally weakening the material, rendering the building unsafe, especially should another major earthquake strike. Drastic action was called for-a total reconstruction of both towers and of the church fa§ade. Work began early in 1950 and continued until the summer of 1953. The new towers were made of reinforced concrete and faced with sandstone from the Santa Maria Valley to faithfully reproduce the mission’s historic appearance.
Financing the estimated $300,000 cost was problematic and work ceased periodically due to lack of funds. In the summer of 1951, the project continued only through the efforts of six friars at the mission who removed some 2,300 cubic feet of material by hand. Again, monies came from statewide sources, including charity funds from the Santa Anita and Bay Meadows horse racing tracks. The largest contribution was given by the Max C. Fleischmann Foundation to the tune of $215,000. The result was a Santa Barbara Mission of renewed strength and beauty-the city’s most recognizable landmark.
More like this story
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara's history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.