Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Mission Dolores

If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to visit the oldest building in the area: the Mission San Francisco de Asis, or Mission Dolores as it is more commonly known. You may or may not find it remarkable that this building, constructed from adobe bricks over two hundred years ago, has survived two major earthquakes that destroyed thousands of other timber, brick and concrete buildings in the city. Today the Mission Dolores chapel is an integral part of the complex of buildings that serve the local parish, and its wonderfully plain, spacious interior is a welcome retreat for the foot-weary traveller.

Located in the heart of the Mission District, an easy train or bus ride from the CBD, the Mission was established in 1776 by Spanish colonists. This was at the same time as the Declaration of Independence was being signed on the east coast of North America, and was well before the ‘west was won’ and became included in what we now know as the United States. From a New Zealand perspective, this was when Captain James Cook embarked on his third voyage to the Pacific, including his final stop-over in the Marlborough Sounds.

Mission Dolores was constructed between 1782 and 1791 by the resident Ohlone Indians under the supervision of the Mission’s Spanish priests. It formed the northern side of a courtyard complex which originally contained chapel, school, and accommodation for both people and animals.Today, a diorama in the small internal courtyard depicts the complete complex in its original rural setting, the homeland of the Ohlone people, but the rest of the buildings that defined the courtyard are long gone. What remains sits in what has become a well established inner city suburb with leafy parks, large timber houses, churches, and schools. A small replica Ohlone reed dwelling in the cemetery adjacent to the church is the only evidence of the pre-colonisation era.

Mission Dolores

From the street the Spanish Mission style chapel is dwarfed by the large and more recent Basilica next door, but once inside this is soon forgotten. The long tall space, with altar seemingly miles away, has a quietly humbling effect where all else becomes unimportant and just being there takes over. The thick whitewashed walls, the dark tiled floor and the painted ceiling overhead, incorporating Ohlone traditional designs, define this very interior world.

Structurally the building is straightforward. Its plan is rectangular, 46m long by 9m wide with walls of rendered adobe brick, 1.2m wide and approximately 7m high . The gabled roof has a flat ceiling with closely spaced adzed redwood beams spanning the 7m internal width. These beams form the bottom chords of trusses that are lashed together with rawhide strips. Perhaps it is the simple geometry of the structure and the minimal wall openings that meant Mission Dolores survived the infamous 7.8 magnitude 1906 earthquake, while its grander neighbours did not. The width to height ratio of the walls at 1: 6 is well under the often cited recommendation of 1:8 and may also have helped.

Mission Dolores

The building did however suffer some damage, the exact nature of which is unknown, but not enough to render it unuseable. It would be reasonable to assume that there were not many operational churches in the city after the quake, as is the case in Christchurch right now. One of the old photographs on display in the courtyard shows horse drawn hearses parked outside the intact Mission Dolores, alongside the remnants of its newer brick and timber neighbour, the St Francis Real Church. The exact construction date of this ill fated neighbour is unknown but it was in existence by 1876. Its replacement, the present day Basilica was completed in 1918.

At the same time as the 1918 Basilica was being constructed, strengthening and restoration work at Mission Dolores was carried out under the direction of architect Willis Polk. By all accounts Polk was extremely thorough in his research into the original building materials including the on-site manufacture of the adobe bricks and clay roof tiles. Steel reinforcing was added to the structure but it has been so sensitively done that it is almost impossible to detect. One can assume that this strengthening has been successful as Mission Dolores survived the next big earthquake, this time of magnitude 7.1, in October 1989.

Mission Dolores Mission Dolores

With images of the destruction to buildings caused by the Canterbury earthquake still fresh in our minds, the survival of Mission Dolores is particularly poignant. It seems incredible that an unreinforced, unfired mud brick building survived when so many more modern buildings failed in similar circumstances 100 years later. On the other hand, although the fate of other earth buildings in the 1906 San Francisco quake is unknown, it is reassuring that most of those in Canterbury have survived in a reasonable state, particularly those which incorporate steel reinforcing in line with the 1998 Earth Building Standards. Yet none of these buildings have walls even half as thick as those at Mission Dolores and therefore their wall width to height ratios are considerably higher. Perhaps we should reconsider the thickness of our earth walls, for it is undoubtedly this combination of thick walls, simple geometry, small openings and the additional reinforcing installed in 1917 that mean this gem of a building could well last another 200 years.

i Measurements have been converted from the imperial.
ii Preferred wall to height ratios for earth walls are often cited as being 1:8 or 1:10 at a pinch.


This article follows a visit to San Francisco in November 2010 . All photographs by the author.

Min Hall Feb 2011