|“This is the oldest building in America,” said the guide proudly. I didn’t think so but was too absorbed to say anything as I stared in wonder at the beautiful arched roof and ran my hands over the pale yellow ancient limestone blocks of the walls. This 800 year old Spanish Trappist Chapter House was an amazing sight, seeming out of place on a warm California day surrounded by walnut trees and vineyards. |
But it wasn’t really out of place because it was standing in the grounds of a Cistercian monastery, and had been erected by the Trappist monks of New Clairvaux Abbey in Tehama County, California.
We’d overnighted in Corning on Interstate 5, about 170 miles north of San Francisco. A motel tourist leaflet suggested wine tasting at New Clairvaux Vineyards, about 10 miles away so we decided to visit after breakfast before resuming our journey.
With minutes of leaving the freeway behind us we were driving through farmland and over a wide lazy river to the small town of Vina, population 237.
The winery tasting room opened at 10:00am and we arrived there about ten past. Puzzingly we seemed to be expected and were shown into a side room where a small group, including a priest, sat on armchairs and sofas. It came clear to me that we had been mistaken for couple on a pre-booked tour. We didn’t say anything and neither did anyone else and after a few minutes the missing couple came in and a guide welcomed us. She told us that the workers we’d driven past clearing roadside bushes were Trappist monks, that we were in the grounds of a monastery and Abbey of the Cistercian Order.
In stead of going into the winery as I expected, we were led out and across to a large structure; a modern elevated roof sheltered a 800 year old Chapter House that had been shipped in pieces from Spain in the 1930’s by William Randolph Hearst. Because of the Depression Hearst had never reconstructed it and the stones had been passed around and ended in the Golden Gate Bridge park, exposed to the elements, vandalised and stolen.
In 1955 a young monk travelling to join New Clairvaux had one free day to see the sights of San Francisco and when he heard about the stones he determined to rescue them and re-erect the building.
As you’d imagine, it wasn’t a simple task and a lot of time had to pass and money to be raised. Hearst had needed eleven ships to transfer the stones to San Francisco, but he’d not taken all the buildings stones, just the key ones and those that had been carved. In their time in the USA some had been taken to shore up lake banks, others had been damaged or were missing. And the paint marks meant to aid reconstruction had faded away.
To reassemble the building old photographs and plans were examined to work out where the surviving stones fitted. New stones had to be found and carved where needed.
Now this magnificent building, originally built between 1190 and 1220 near Madrid, Spain, at the command of Alfonso VIII, King of Castile, will become the Abbey’s church when construction is finished.
Helping fund the work is the Abbey’s winery, so after this serendipitous diversion I headed back to the
Notes: According to Wikipedia the oldest existing buildings in the USA are pueblo settlements in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah dating from 750AD. The oldest known building in the Americas is Sechin Bajo in Peru.
The Chapter House may freely be seen in the ground of New Clairaux in Vina which is about ten miles pleasant drive eastwards from Corning exit 630 on Interstate 5. See www.sacredstones.org and www.newclairvaux.org
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Entrance to Chapter House
Inside the Chapter House
Exterior End of Chapter House