Pictures of the Mission of San Fernando Rey de España through history


What, you may ask, does the Mission San Fernando Rey have to do with the St. Francis dam disaster? Technically nothing, although I did discover that William Mulholland and his entourage drove right by it on March 12, 1928 when he was called out to inspect the dam for leaking “dirty water.” (After being cleared as safe, the dam collapsed at 11:57:30 pm that evening.  Ooops. [Pace, Rick Perry, future Secretary-of-Something, no doubt!]) But it’s always instructive to see how areas grow, and the San Fernando Mission was the first real growth of the Europeans in that part of California.

San Fernando Rey was founding in 1797 to be the half-way station between San Gabriel (in, of all places, San Gabriel) and San Bonaventura (in, of all places, Ventura). Before then, it was a walk of several days. Even with San Fernando Rey, the distance to San Bonaventura was well over 50 miles through the Santa Clara Valley. It was given almost 122,000 acres to support itself (about 13 square miles, most of the western and central sections of what is now the San Fernando Valley). It supported itself by growing its own foodstuffs, as well as olives, grapes, and lots and lots of livestock which pastured on the flat grasslands of the San Fernando Valley.

fernando_iii_de_castilla_02NB: San Fernando Rey is short for “San Fernando, Rey de España,” which translates as St. Ferdinand, King of Spain. He was, in fact, King of Castille and León from  1230 until his death in 1252. He’s a fascinating person in any time in history, but particularly in the 13th century, when he finally fused to two westernmost Christian kingdoms of Spain (Castilla and León). King of Castille while still a teenager in 1217, king of León in 1230, and King of Galicia in 1231). He also led the reconquest (meaning Christian rule instead of Muslim rule) of all of Andalucia (Al-Andalus) except for the emir of Granada, who hung on until 1492 (yes, the same year as Columbus!) It’s doubtless for the Reconquest that he was canonized by Clement X in 1671. His connection with the Franciscans, who after all founded all the Spanish missions, was that he supported Franciscan houses throughout Andalucia (supplementing and to some extent replacing the Benedictine, Cistercian, and Cluniac monks who had led the religious conversion following the reconquest of Muslim areas), and joined the Third Order of St. Francis, where he is still honored. Since most of the names of the missions were chosen for saints related to St. Francis, it’s not surprising that the Franciscans were digging deep into their historical bag when they came up with San Fernando Rey for their 17th mission. There’s also a delicious irony that a conqueror and suppressor of Islam in the Islamic peninsula would have a mission named for him with did similar things to the California First Nations.

The Mission was not in existence for long. The original chapel, finished in 1806, was destroyed in the 1812 earthquake and rebuilt (the 1812 earthquake is the same one that destroyed the mission at San Juan Capistrano, and heavily damaged the missions at Santa Barbara and San Bonaventura). The Mission had its peak production in the 1820’s. Following the separation of Mexico from Spain in 1821, it took a while for the Mexican authorities to get around to the Spanish Franciscans in California, a remote and not-very-important province of the Mexico republic. At the time of Mexican independence, Father Ibarra was the Spanish Franciscan on duty at San Fernando Rey. The local Mexican authorities wanted to replace him, but there was no one else to take his place, so he remained in charge until 1845, some 11 years after the secularization of the missions.

The secularization isn’t something that’s studied much in 4th grade, and I don’t yet know a lot about it. Apparently it simply meant that the mission’s agricultural lands were separated from the mission and the church, and transferred to local landowners, for whom in Indians promptly went to work, perhaps not noticing much difference between their new kind of servitude and the older, mission requirements. The mission and church were not secularized, though that didn’t mean a lot, since the missions no longer had either the lands or the labor to be self-sufficient. One by one they were abandoned. By 1847, the year before the Americans seized California from Mexico during the Mexican-American war, San Fernando Rey and its buildings were in private hands.

Supposedly the mission and church were returned to the Catholic Church in 1861. The church either lacked the interest or the funds to maintain it, and by 1873, the signs of deterioration were clear. Here’s what the Mission looked like from the north in 1873, the first year for which we have a photograph:


You can see the Convento in the center of the picture toward the top, and the ruins of the chapel off to the left.

I’m not entirely convinced that this is the first photograph of the mission. Over the years I’ve found that the dates attached to photographs are often wildly off, and I’m not entirely convinced that this isn’t the case with Mission San Fernando Rey.

Here’s a view about 1875, taken again from the north looking south.


Thereafter it becomes difficult to figure out the progression of photographs. The problem is that we don’t have a way of dating photographs other than by the estimate of the curator or comparison of photographs of the same object taken at different times. I’ll walk you through some of the analysis I’ve done in trying to date the photographs, but if you want a summary of the history of the San Fernando Rey Mission after secularization in 1834, here it is: the mission was abandoned by 1845, and was used for various purposes as the adobe bricks that built it decayed. Eventually Charles Loomis led to a rescue of the mission and a re-roofing of the chapel, but it even though services resumed in 1923, it wasn’t until a major grant from the Hearst Foundation in the 1940’s that the Mission began to look more like its former self (circa 1812-1840, say). Even then, restoration continue through the Sylmar earthquake of 1971 which effectively destroyed the chapel and the Northridge earthquake of 1994, which caused further, extensive damage. 

The problem with the mission was that locals removed a lot of the tiles to roof their own houses. Pictures taken during the 19th century show clearly that all the buildings at the mission except the Convento quickly fell to ruin. And once the whitewash on the buildings wore off and wasn’t replaced, the adobe blocks of the building started to erode. There isn’t a whole lot of rain in southern California (the average is just under 15 inches a year), but really rainy winters (20+ inches) aren’t at all uncommon, and it wouldn’t take many of them to reduce the chapel at the mission to the following:



One of the problems of dating photographs is that even if they come from a reliable source, it doesn’t mean the dates given are correct. About the best you can do is assemble a series of photographs, analyze the changes between them, and look for trends. For example, here’s a picture of the chapel, supposedly taken by Edward Vischer in 1857:


Here’s another, not identified by its photographer, but clearly taken at the same time (look at the grass growing in front of the church and the patterns of where the whitewash has worn off.


If we start comparing these to later photographs, we can establish at least a crude timeline. Here’s the next one in order:


Note that this picture has to have been taken after the two previous ones. If you look at the picture just before this one, you’ll see that the pillars in the first photograph support an overhang that is 6 pillars long. This one is only 4 pillars long, so half of the roof has collapsed since the earlier photograph.


Here’s another example of how dating can be tricky. We know that the chapel was reroofed by the Landmarks Club, lead by Charles Loomis, sometime after 1896. Here’s a picture of the chapel that is dated 1884:


You can see that the workshops that were to the left of the chapel from this position have completely eroded. But what’s that stuff on the roof of the chapel? It looks like plywood or metal covering, probably the beginning of what was the reroofing. How do we know that that wasn’t there before? We have pictures showing that when the tiles were removed, the only thing left were the rafters supporting them:


Here’s another, showing grass growing on the floor of the chapel.


It’s hard to know which is earlier. I suspect the second one is earlier, and the first is at the time that the Landmarks Club is about to attempt the reroofing. I suppose the first could also be dated by somebody who knows a lot more about fashion than I do.

Another shot, supposedly from 1887 (I make no representation that the date is correct), shows that the roof of the chapel was reduced to its rafters:




For those who know the San Fernando Valley today, it’s seems remarkable that the mission was as far from any urbanization as it was. But it sure was:


Even in 1954 there was a lot of open space:


And things hadn’t changed all that much by 1960, even as the waves of suburban housing were sweeping through the San Fernando Valley:



Documenting what the chapel looked like before the current remodel and the installation of the Basque altar (which seems wildly out of place for a mission that was located in a rustic, provincial, California backwater) was a bit of a challenge. Google Images only goes so far. A search through the digitized photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library (which is a real treasure) called up a picture from 1956:


The decorations in this reconstruction of the church seem to be more in line with the decorations created by the California Indians who labored at the mission. Native designs discovered in 1936 during restoration at the Convento looked similar to some of the designs seen in the 1956 picture:



The 1971 Sylmar earthquake, whose epicenter was only a few miles away from the mission, so badly damaged the chapel that it had to be demolished. Not a surprise when you see the damages:


And this:


Restoration thus has been a constant in the modern versions of the mission. The 1954 aerial photos above show that the mission is now in its modern configuration. Yet only 5 years earlier, the workshops to the south and left of the chapel were still in ruins:

The Indian graveyard on the north side was similarly run down, and the adobe on the north side hadn’t been whitewashed in some time. This, supposedly from 1959:


I will leave you with one of my favorite pictures of the Convento. I’m not sure when it was taken, other than in the 1800’s. It shows that the original approach to the Mission was through the Convento, not through the chapel, as many of the other missions suggest. (Perhaps this is unique to San Fernando Rey, however.)



But it’s a reverse photograph, taken of the fountain looking out from the Convento, that reminds us that Mission San Fernando Rey wasn’t always in the middle of a metropolis. This shot is to the south, looking toward Los Angeles:




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