Mission Team Goes Underground

It looks like nothing happened… which is the way we want it to be! Chattel is thrilled to have been involved in critical repair work at the Santa Barbara Mission church crypt. Many people don’t even know there is a crypt below the church floor, but there is, and it badly needed to be repaired. The problem was out of sight: the structural members of the crypt ceiling supporting the floor above were badly corroded. But not anymore! From inside the church, the finished product looks the same as it always has, and the church’s beautiful interior is ready for the constant flow of tourists and church-goers.

Crypt burial chamber
The work was completed in April 2013 as one of several important preservation projects at the Mission that Chattel is helping implement under a federal Save America’s Treasures grant administered by the National Park Service. The project team includes Mission staff, California Missions Foundation (CMF), Roselund Engineering Company, Griswold Conservation Associates, Cumming Corp., Channel Coast Corp., Center for Spanish Colonial Research, Delta Welding and Fabrication, Da Ros Masonry, and Dan Gruetzmacher Plumbing. Other major funding sources include CMF, Santa Barbara Foundation, Hearst Foundation, Adobe Trust, and Bechtel Foundation.

 Local news coverage provides details about this exciting project:

Preservation consultant Robert Chattel and conservator John Griswold suit up to enter the crypt
Intrepid architectural historian Kathryn McGee prepares for her descent
View looking down passageway toward burial chamber
 View from burial chamber looking toward passageway 
John Griswold (left) installing a datalogger in burial chamber to measure changes in temperature and humidity 
The crypt dates back to 1820, constructed when the church building was erected, and is the only crypt in a California mission. It is a series of underground spaces, accessed through an anteroom that leads to a passageway, and finally to the burial chamber. The degraded structural materials are in the anteroom, where c. 1925 railroad rails supporting the ceiling and floor above corroded and were replaced with new crane rails, which were galvanized and powder coated to ensure longevity.

There are approximately twenty burials encompassed in six in-wall burial vaults, including that of former California Governor, Jose Figueroa (d. 1835), and former syndicato (treasurer) of the Alta California missions and long-time Commandant of the Presidio de Santa Barbara, Jose de la Guerra y Noriega (d. 1858), and his family.

In addition to the critical structural work, ventilation was added. This was essential, as the crypt was tightly shut, with no ventilation, and walls, ceilings and floors are showing signs of deterioration due to moisture. A bronze vent box with mesh was carefully designed and inserted into the riser of the step adjacent to the crypt. This allows passive air flow in and out of the crypt. Also, an exciting discovery was made: a defunct ventilation system that was put back into use! Mystery pipes located in the crypt were found to connect to church floor vents. The vents were cleared out and the ventilation to the crypt restored.

The project also involved testing the crypt walls and floor to understand underlying building material composition and patterns of moisture concentration. As there is little documentation of the crypt’s original construction, and crypt walls are covered over in a twentieth century Portland cement plaster (render), this testing will help determine what underlying wall construction is made of, and where moisture is concentrating and probably originating.

Completing the crypt repair is just the tip of the iceberg for preservation work to be done at Santa Barbara Mission. Future work may include repairs to the convento wall surfaces and stabilization of the lavanderia out front.

 View of crypt anteroom, looking up at degraded structural members on either side of opening, at upper right 
View of crypt cover being placed over opening by Da Ros Masonry during investigative period prior to implementation
Tourists read informational poster while crypt work is implemented in tent enclosure (back right)
 Structural Engineer Nels Roselund (left) works with contractor Channel Coast Corp. during implementation
 Conservator Catherine Smith of Griswold Conservation analyzes crypt wall moisture content (Kristina Foss, 2013)
 Tiles are re-laid around crypt opening, after new structural rails have been installed (Kristina Foss, 2013)

 Father Richard McManus, Guardian of Old Mission Santa Barbara, inspects construction progress (Kristina Foss, 2013)
 Da Ros Masonry places crypt cover back on opening when project is complete (Kristina Foss, 2013)
 View of crypt cover back in place after project implementation (Kristina Foss, 2013)