Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

April 1, 2009

Host: Ted Simons

San Xavier del Bac Mission

  • A progress report on efforts to restore a well-known Arizona mission.

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
San Javier Mission was founded by father Eusebio Kino in 1692. It is the oldest European structure in Arizona. For the past 20 years, the mission, south of Tucson, has gone through a major restoration process. Sooyeon Lee has the latest on the restoration.

Sooyeon Lee:
One of southern Arizona's most historic landmarks is in full view again, following a multimillion dollar restoration project. The scaffolding on the west tower of the San Javier Mission is down for the first time in five years.

Vern Lamplot:
This was the most complex project of all. You can tell from the vaults that they're involved, but there's so much detail and crisp workmanship that had to go into this project that we hope everybody thinks was worth the wait.

Sooyeon Lee:
Vern Lamplot represents Patronato. It's a non-profit organization responsible for the preservation of the mission.

Vern Lamplot:
The crisis occurred in 1988 when a big chunk of plaster fell from the main vault and they realized water had infiltrated and wasn't going away. And it threatened the art and sculpture and the race was on to find the money and people to take care of the roof, first, and then find the right conservators to handle the restoration and preservation of the inside.

Sooyeon Lee:
The church dates back to the late 1700s when southern Arizona was part of new Spain. An earthquake in 1887 and lightning strike in 1939 damaged the church which led to the repairs but the materials used to replace the old Adobe brick caused more problems later.

Robert Vint:
The first layer of cement was put on in 1890 and it was called cement with Alabastine. And we haven’t found out what Alabastine is yet! It trapped moisture over time and we found that it's damp underneath even though it hasn't rained for months. Cement is the worst thing to put on this building.

Danny Morales:
We took the cement and original plaster and all of the mortar joints and replaced them on all of the domes.

Sooyeon Lee:
Danny Morales and his construction company has been working on it since 1989.

Danny Morales:
I’m actually the fourth generation. My son’s down there, he’s the fifth generation. It’s great. I love working here.

Sooyeon Lee:
Morales and his team have stripped off the destructive cement coating, replaced a low-fired Adobe brick underneath, and replaced a coating with a traditional and time-proven combination: lime, sand and a unique vegetative ingredient, prickly pear cacti.

Danny Morales:
The prickly itself, we use that in our mix. It replaces the cement in some ways. It helps to cure the lime out in the dry climate. It's an old method. Just lost and nobody uses it anymore. It's easier to buy a bag of cement but on adobe, it's not good to use.

Danny Morales:
Taking on this task, people don't realize what we had to do. Not only did we have to figure out the scaffolding and how to erect it and going up as high as we go. And then you get the tremendous winds that come through. Predominantly through the south. Dust devils and the monsoons. It was quite a task figuring out the details that people don't really notice that was involved in it. It was something. But now that it's done, it's nice.

Sooyeon Lee:
But the project architect says it's not over yet.

Robert Vint:
We've completed a major phase of the restoration, which is the west bell tower. But we still have the east bell tower which has not been touched. The west tower involved reconstructing the lantern, treating the dome, the balustrades at this upper level of the tower. The east tower lacks those things, so we think it will be less intensive. But because it doesn't have a roof, there's probably more deterioration to the brick.

Sooyeon Lee:
Lamplot says it will be tough to get funding to complete the restoration but he remains optimistic.

Vern Lamplot:
Probably been a little more than $5 million so far in 20 years. We have a state grant that's a matching grant that will cover a portion of the first phase, which will be the lower third of it. But we’re still in active fundraising and we hope that those who love the mission, Tucson's iconic building, will see its importance and continue to support us.

Sooyeon Lee:
A scaffolding for the east tower is scheduled to go up in about a month. So if you would like to take an unobstructed picture of this iconic building, the best opportunity is now.

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