Fighting the Good Fight for Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2002, in arcCA 02.2, “Citizen Architects.”]

Author Donald A. Crosby, AIA, is vice president of Ratcliff, an architecture, interiors, and planning firm in Emeryville, California. He is a registered architect in California, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, and Texas, and a member of the Old St. Mary‘s Building Committee. Don earned dual bachelors degrees in art and architecture from Stanford University.

I fell in love with Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral on my honeymoon trip to San Francisco. My wife, Rosalind, and I attended our first Mass as a married couple at Old St. Mary’s. The timeless beauty and Old World charm of its brick façade and Gothic Revival architecture worked its way into our hearts. Erected in 1854 as California’s first cathedral, this five-story building lays claim to the title “San Francisco’s first high-rise,” for it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi during the Gold Rush era.

It is hard to imagine how a structure that survived the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 could still face destruction, yet this venerable building has been fighting for its life for over ten years. A parishioner of Old St. Mary’s and a member of its building committee, I serve as one of the devotees working to preserve it.

During the Gold Rush era, newly consecrated Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany determined that San Francisco needed a cathedral and chose to build one on a donated lot at the corner of California and Dupont Streets. The cornerstone for the cathedral was laid on July 17, 1853.

Architects William Craine and Thomas England designed the cathedral to resemble a Gothic church from the Archbishop’s birthplace in Spain. The new cathedral had parapets on either flank, surmounted with embrasures, and buttresses finished with cut-stone pinnacles. Inside, vaulted ceilings with groin arches rose above a Carrara marble altar imported from Rome. The original plan included a steeple, but fear that an earthquake might cause it to topple changed the plans, leaving only a bell tower. The stone for the church’s foundation was cut in China and shipped to San Francisco, and the original bricks were manufactured in New England. Local redwood beams provided support for the structure.

At Christmas Midnight Mass in 1854, the building was formally dedicated as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception—the first church in the world to be so named. Unfortunately, the glint of this magnificent cathedral was to dim too soon. The neighborhood surrounding the cathedral began to decay from the effects of crime and poverty. The Archbishop determined San Francisco’s cathedral must be moved to a safer place. On January 11, 1891, the new Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption was dedicated on the corner of O’Farrell Street and Van Ness Avenue and the former cathedral became a parish church known simply as “Old St. Mary’s.”

San Francisco’s famous earthquake of April 18, 1906, caused relatively little damage to Old St. Mary’s, but the next day’s fires consumed everything but its brick outer walls and bell tower. A heated debate began over whether to demolish the structure or to rebuild it. Fr. Henry Harrison Wyman, CSP, was determined to rebuild the church. He was supported by noted architect Willis Polk, who claimed that “to tear down the standing walls of Old Saint Mary’s was to tear down history itself.” Finally, a hefty insurance payment convinced the Archbishop of San Francisco to rebuild Old St. Mary’s from the existing brick shell.

Old Saint Mary’s attained official status from the California State Landmarks Commission on May 7, 1966; the City and County of San Francisco followed suit on March 6, 1968, granting the edifice its number two landmark.

On October 17, 1989, I watched in fear as the televised broadcast of the World Series at Candlestick Park was brought to a sudden halt by the Loma Prieta earthquake. Again, Old St. Mary’s survived with only minor damage: the church’s bell tower shifted a little farther away from the nave, but studies have shown the tower to be more stable than the main body of the church. However, the State of California and the City of San Francisco promptly augmented respective building codes with stringent seismic safeguards. These new codes point to the vulnerability of unreinforced masonry buildings and require that supports for brick exteriors be built or the building be demolished.

In 1991, the Old St. Mary’s Building Committee was formed by a small group of parishioners and enthusiasts with expertise in the areas of architecture, real estate management, and local politics. The first two years of our work were spent interpreting the code as it applied to Old St. Mary’s and determining the restoration goals. Old St. Mary’s was fortunate to have survived both of San Francisco’s major earthquakes, but there are no guarantees for its structural integrity in the future.

In 1994, I stepped outside of my expertise as an architect to head the church’s capital campaign. Forty volunteers strong, we contacted each parishioner and many civic and charitable leaders to raise the $8 million in cash and pledges anticipated to complete the restoration. It looked as if the restoration efforts would be complete well before the church’s 150th anniversary in 2004.

While Old St. Mary’s waited for its plans to be approved by the state and local regulatory agencies, inflation in the construction industry in the late 1990’s caused the cost to complete the restoration to soar to $11–12 million, well over the $8 million we had raised.

We continued to show good faith and progress to the state and local agencies by revising our plans and keeping them informed of our progress. The State of California and the City of San Francisco, in turn, were lenient and granted Old St. Mary’s a reprieve from the 1995 deadline set for all unreinforced masonry buildings to meet the new codes or be demolished.

The Building Committee has divided the work into four phases ranging from seismic retrofitting to liturgical upgrading. First, the nave of the church, from the auditorium downstairs to the balcony above, will be reinforced to meet new seismic requirements. If all goes as planned, scaffolding will go up and Old St. Mary’s will begin its path toward structural salvation in 2002.

“Here we find ourselves in the circumstance of most of the cathedrals in Europe,” said Michael Berline, a San Francisco architect and volunteer on the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral Building Committee. “Preservation is ongoing and will continue to be so for many years to come at Old St. Mary’s.”

My fellow parishioners and I are gratified that Old St. Mary’s will see new chapters added to its long and wonderful history. We continue to find hope in the words of church historian Thomas Denis McSweeney. “…(T)he strength and permanency of the work of Old St. Mary’s will be as the Church itself, unshaken by earthquake and fire, rising from adversity to new and greater stature.”



Cull Martin & Associates, Old St. Mary’s: Uniting People, Cultures & Values (San Francisco: Old St. Mary’s, 1995).

Thomas Denis McSweeney, Cathedral on California Street (Fresno: Academy of California Church History, 1952).

Willis Polk, quoted in historical display, Old St. Mary’s Cathedral Nave.

Photos by Steven Jenner.



The AIACC represents the interests of more than 11,000 architects and allied professionals in California. Founded in 1944, The AIACC's mission supports architects in their endeavors to improve the quality of life for all Californians by creating more livable communities, sustainable designs and quality work environments. Today, The AIACC is the largest component of the National AIA organization.

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