“Creative iconoclasm”: a tale of two monasteries

Monastery of St Bernard de Clairvaux, 1133-41, built in Sacramenia, Spain, and today in North Miami Beach, Florida

Monastery (chapter house, cloister, and refectory) of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, 1133–41, built in Sacramenia, Spain, and today in North Miami Beach, Florida

Conservation, restoration and ruination

Cultural heritage professionals often draw a clear distinction between conservation and restoration. The definition of conservation is closely linked with the idea of preservation—the idea is to salvage cultural artifacts so that they retain the histories that produced them.

Restoration, on the other hand, is seen as the act of replacing components that have fallen into disrepair;  it can be seen as a destructive force, or as the salvation of an object from ruination. Even when restorations are done with the best intentions, and with a desire for authenticity, restoration work can alter the historical significance of building. This is especially problematic with medieval cathedrals and monasteries, which often contain an accretion of styles built up through the ages. When doing restoration, which style should be considered the “original”? Which, if any, should be removed? For some time, the Renaissance era was privileged over all others. But this began to change in the mid-nineteenth century, when medieval architecture once again began to be considered beautiful.

ICOMOS Annual Report 2014

50th Anniversary of the Venice Charter, 2014 Annual Report of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)

In 1964, a group of concerned conservationist professionals from various disciplines gathered from several countries to draw up guidelines in regard to responsible restoration. The document they produced,  “Decisions and Resolutions: International Charter for the Conservation and Renovation of Monuments and Sites” is now referred to as The Venice Charter, and it set down rules that should be followed when restoring a historical site or monument.

In the Venice Charter, the principles of authenticity and retention of the historical context were paramount. It states that the process of restoration aims “…to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and historic value of the monument.” This goal in turn should be based on “respect for original material and authentic documents. It must stop at the point where conjecture begins.” Following this premise, the Venice Charter declared that reconstructions or replacements of missing parts “must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence.” The charter also held that all significant building contributions from any time period must be considered. The Venice Charter, now almost 55 years old, is still the go-to guide in regard to historic restoration.  

Creative iconoclasm

In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, restoration often involved the idealized imaginings of the restorer and/or patron—something which British anthropologist Alfred Gell termed “creative iconoclasm.” Creative iconoclasm is essentially when a renovation deviates so far from the original intended form of a building that the building loses its previous meaning and takes on different meaning altogether. Hence, the use of the term iconoclasm (destruction of an image). More recently, art historian Meredith Cohen has written about the “creative interventions” done to medieval structures. They leave in their wake a whole new history, vastly different from what had been recognized for hundreds of years. Two Spanish monasteries purchased by William Randolph Hearst in the late 1920s are prime examples of these overlapping concepts.

William R. Hearst (Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing, photographer)

William R. Hearst (Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing, photographer)

A tale of two monasteries

You may recognize the name William Randolph Hearst (the early twentieth-century newspaper baron and avid art collector), but you may not be aware of the curious case of two Spanish medieval monasteries that made their way to the United States at his behest—the monasteries of Saint Bernard de Clairvaux (originally in Sacramenia, Spain, and now partly in Florida), and Santa María de Óvila (originally in Guadalajara, Spain, and now partly in California). [1]

Both monasteries were purchased by Hearst and arduously removed from where they had stood in Spain for hundreds of years and relocated to the United States. Both were subsequently left to moulder in fragments—one on each coast of the United States. Decades later, they would be problematically restored, at great monetary and historical cost.

The Search begins — Saint Bernard de Clairvaux  

In 1923 Hearst instructed Arthur Byne, architect, art historian, and antiques dealer, to seek out a historic limestone structure. This was a decade before the Spanish Civil War, but Spain had long been experiencing political unrest and climate issues. Over the centuries, medieval Spanish monasteries had suffered the stressors of age and a general lack of religious enthusiasm.

Perspective and plan of the monastery before the plunder (according to Joseé Miguel Merino de Cáceres, architect, from 1982)

Perspective drawing and plan of the monastery of Saint Bernard de Clairvaux before the removal to the United States of the cloister, chapter house, and refectory (according to José Miguel Merino de Cáceres, architect, from 1982)

Monastery of St Bernard de Clairvaux, 1133-41, built in Sacramenia, Spain, and today in North Miami Beach, Florida

Church façade, Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, 1133–41, Sacramenia, Spain (before the 1923 removal of several monastic buildings and their reconstruction in North Miami Beach, Florida. The church is still in-situ.)

When Byne came upon the monastery at Sacramenia, it had already experienced a severe fire in the nineteenth century, and, though repaired afterward, the last monk left in 1866. The monastery is Cistercian (a Catholic religious order of monks and nuns), and Cistercian architecture is known for its fine ashlar masonry, harmonious proportions, and restraint in ornamentation. However, there were also regional variations. Parts of the Santa María de Óvila monastery had walls seven feet thick and small, slit windows to defend the complex from Muslim invaders (the Cistercian tendency to build in remote locations made them particularly vulnerable to attack).

In 1923 Byne declared in a letter to Hearst and his architect Julia Morgan, “The monastery is located in one of the most desolate corners of Spain. It is of Cistercian origin, though probably the only twelfth century cloister to be had in Europe today.” The term “to be had” in this quote underlines the sort of smash and grab policy that Hearst, Morgan, and Byne seem to have been abiding by. There was no pretense of buying the monastic buildings (the cloister, chapter house, and refectory) in order to save and preserve them (sometimes this is the motivation cited when a country appropriates the cultural heritage objects of another—one well-known example is the case of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon).

An offer amount of $35,000 for several components of the monastery was quickly extended by Byne on behalf of Hearst to the current owner, and just as quickly accepted. The idea was for these components to be adapted into part of Hearst’s ever-growing property in San Simeon (generally now known as Hearst Castle in California). The monastery’s church itself was not purchased and remains in-situ (in place), however, the thirteenth-century cloister (covered walkway), chapter house (meeting space) and other outbuildings were purchased by Hearst—and subsequently, slowly, removed.  

Numerous letters from Byne to Morgan and Hearst reveal the politics involved in taking apart the cloister and other portions of the monastery. Numerous bribes were offered  to keep the removal from being stopped by the government. The project was frequently threatened by the Spanish minister of fine arts; the sale was, in fact, illegal and the press had gotten a hold of the story. Despite this, the minister did not make good on his threats, so the project carried on.

Medieval Spain comes to the United States—in pieces

Hearst Castle postcard

Hearst Castle postcard

Taking the buildings of the monastery apart would have been a time-consuming process under any circumstances. It was soon realized the timing would not allow the cloister to be incorporated into the fabric of Hearst Castle—but another solution was at hand—a plan was made to have the monastery’s cloister function as a stand-alone museum.  

Supervision of the dismantling of the monastery at Sacramenia was said to be meticulous—each block was carefully numbered, and extensive drawings made. It was a labor-intensive project that required significant problem solving along the way: weather, the logistics of moving the stones, and politics all came into play. 

Eventually 11,000 crates would be shipped off to the United States. Unfortunately, the crates were not transported before an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease hit the Segovia area, causing the shipment to be quarantined upon its arrival on the east coast of the United States. The crates were opened in order to burn the potentially infectious hay with which the stones had been packed and in the process. Stones were heaved haphazardly into any crate that happened to be handy, spoiling the system of how the stones were to be put back into  place.

By now, several years had passed since the purchase and Hearst’s finances had taken a beating in the stock market crash of 1929 (not that this stopped him from collecting European art and antiques) and the materials that had once formed the monastic buildings at Sacramenia were placed on the back burner. Once out of quarantine, the crates and their stones were left to decay in one of Hearst’s warehouses in Brooklyn, New York. The remains of the monastery lingered there for almost thirty more years.

In the 1940s, Raymond Moss and William Edgemon approached Hearst to purchase the Sacramenia remains, but he refused their offers. When he died, however, the estate was willing to sell to the pair who planned to use the stones to build a tourist attraction in Florida. The reconstruction of the Sacramenia stones was overseen by Allen Carswell (who also oversaw the rebuilding of the Cloisters Museum, a satellite of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan).  

The Rocky Mount Sunday Telegram (June 13, 1954)

The Rocky Mount Sunday Telegram (June 13, 1954)

It took nineteen months and a tremendous amount of money to finish the bulk of the project. Carswell had a crew of eight stonemasons working under him. The rebuilding was criticized for its clumsy stereometry (the science of cutting stone precisely, which the medieval mason did via simple tools and tremendous skill) and the use of concrete in the reconstruction (a material not used by medieval builders).

Moss and Edgemon never intended to recreate what had once been in Spain. They dubbed their tourist attraction the “Ancient Spanish Monastery,” a misnomer still used in the present, and welcomed visitors to “Step back in time 800 years!” Sadly, for Moss and Edgemon, the tourist spot they had fought so hard to create did not entice visitors; bankrupt, they had to sell. 

Cloister, Monastery of St Bernard de Clairvaux, 1133-41, built in Sacramenia, Spain, and today in North Miami Beach, Florida

Cloister of the Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux as rebuilt in North Miami Beach, Florida (photo: Casingrid, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Today the transported parts of the Saint Bernard de Clairvaux monastery function as both an Episcopal Church and a tourist attraction—complete with a gift shop. People consider it a fascinating secret retreat outside Miami, “the perfect place to relax and enjoy the Miami sun with a European flair.”

If at first you don’t succeed…

Hearst, seeing the Sacramenia project as now a hopeless jigsaw puzzle (in fact Time magazine dubbed the situation “The Biggest Jigsaw in History” in a 1953 issue), hit the pause button on monastery acquisitions for a couple of years. But Hearst decided what any tycoon might—even in the face of the Great Depression—it was time to buy another monastery. This go-round he had plans for it to grace a “cabin” he was building in the remote wilderness of northern California, near Mount Shasta, on the McCloud River: his Wyntoon Estate. Hearst was making plans to create something that would make his San Simeon estate pale in comparison. The intended use was similar to that of the Sacramenia monastery—the stones were to be used to create a museum to house Hearst’s collection of medieval armor and other medieval objects, and Hearst had some other ideas as well.

Hearst contacted his associate Arthur Byne once again and put him back on the hunt. If Byne was a little warier this time around, who could blame him? He had seen how difficult the first endeavor was, and he was now dealing with a client who was cash poor. Hearst had not escaped the stock market crash unscathed but chose to ignore the fact. 

Nonetheless, Byne went on his mission and before long he found the ruins of the Santa María de Óvila Monastery in the Guadalajara province in Spain—another defunct Cistercian abbey in a remote locale. Though built later, this abbey was in a far worse condition than the monastery at Sacramenia. The Óvila abbey had suffered from the War of Spanish Succession and the Peninsular War. In the 1830s, the remaining four monks and one lay brother were ousted from the abbey when it lost the support of both the locals and the kingdom.

When Byne stumbled upon the monastery, it was owned by a farmer who used many of the buildings to house livestock; the chapter house was used for manure storage. But Byne saw potential, despite the dilapidation, manure, and overgrown vegetation. With Hearst’s approval, he purchased the majority of the complex. The plan was to remove many of the same elements as at Saint Bernard de Clairvaux: cloister, chapter house, and refectory. But at Santa María de Óvila, the main chapel was also purchased. The vision for the chapel, when rebuilt at Wyntoon, was to have it contain a 150-foot-long swimming pool. There would be a lounge in one side chapel, and a ladies changing area in the other—and the piece de resistance, a diving board in the apse (traditionally, an apse is a semi-circular area at the east end of a church that contains the altar).  

Again, a painful process began to remove the stones from where they had stood so long. Byne wrote Hearst nearly daily, imploring Hearst to pay his bills or Byne would need to quit. Grudgingly, a check would appear to keep the project going, but the money was gone almost as soon as it was deposited. More than one hundred workers had to be paid, extensive equipment needed to be paid off, and the factory producing the crates for the stones could barely keep up with the demand—especially without cash in hand.

The removal of the Santa María de Óvila was illegal, just as Sacramenia before it. The new Spanish government (the Second Spanish Republic) stepped in—literally. A group of soldiers arrived and told Byne the deal was off. However, Byne was able to convince them to let the dismantling continue. Lucky for Hearst, and with the new government already off to a shaky start, the Óvila monastery was forgotten for a time. But Byne knew the clock was ticking and carried out the dismantling as quickly as possible. A local doctor had been trying for several years to convince the government to preserve the monastery finally succeeded in his efforts and in June of 1931 and the monastery was declared a national monument. Alas, it was too late. By this point Óvila had been almost fully dismantled, and within a month the stones were sailing towards the California coast.  

The Sacramenti Bee (March 23, 1980)

The Sacramento Bee (March 23, 1980)

The stones arrived at the San Francisco Harbor later that same year. Hearst found himself once more with thousands of stones, this time on the West Coast and finally faced the fact that he was broke. Ludicrous pillaging of medieval structures takes its toll on the pocket book (these two monasteries were not the only medieval acquisitions he made). The initial estimate for the new Wyntoon estate rolled in at $50,000,000; Hearst’s vision for an elaborate castle by the river was not going to happen. The dismantled monastery had arrived, but neither Hearst nor anyone else had any use for it. In this case, Hearst didn’t even have his own warehouse to store the stones in. They sat instead in a costly rented storage space near Fisherman’s wharf, taking up 28,000 square feet of space. Hearst now owned two dismantled monasteries on either coast that were both hopeless puzzles.  

By 1940, Hearst was ready to give the stones away, and he had an interested party. By this time, the Spanish Civil War had occurred, and Francisco Franco was in power. Franco wanted the stones returned to Spain, but Hearst wasn’t interested. After considering various possibilities, Hearst was convinced to give the stones to the city of San Francisco in return for a tax abatement and forgiveness on his large storage bill. There was a stipulation that the stones would be used to create a medieval museum in Golden Gate Park. World War II intervened and no less than five fires occurred where the stones were now being kept in the park. Almost half of the stones were severely damaged, making them unsound for any kind of large-scale building project. The original numbering system that had been applied in order to place the tones accurately had melted off. Interest in the project evaporated and no museum was built.

The San Francisco Examiner (August 20, 1989)

The San Francisco Examiner (August 20, 1989)

A doorway from Óvila was reconstructed for an entrance at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (the doorway as part of the last additions to the Óvila monastery and dates from the Renaissance era). But the majority of the disassembled buildings, like those of its elder compatriot, was left in boxes to decay. Most of the stones were now kept in a warehouse at the de Young Museum; however, a good chunk remained in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. They were considered debris until some innovative gardeners used them in a variety of ornamental ways. A number of Óvila’s stones remain there to this day. 

 The Sacred Stones Project

In the 1990s, Abbot Thomas of New Clairvaux Abbey in Northern California began to petition San Francisco for the sale of the stones. It took almost a decade and much patience, but Abbot Thomas did succeed in his goal. This was the beginning of the Sacred Stones project, which planned to use the Santa María de Óvila stones for a new chapter house at the abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. By this time, vast technological advances made precision much easier in terms of stereometry. Parts of the reconstruction involved sawing the now extremely weathered stones with a stone saw, then chiseling in an attempt to use the old techniques and thus make the building more authentic. Also, a hydraulic mortar was used (Cistercians built with ashlar masonry, which requires no mortar, just compression and finely cut and fitted stones). A steel framework topped things off, leaving the current building twice as strong as it was in the Middle Ages, and earthquake ready.

The abbey in Vina, California hired a master stonemason and several other skilled masons. Vast amounts of time were spent researching the project, mainly by Margaret Burke, an art historian. Burke made the call that—of all the abbey components brought over—only the chapter house was capable of being rebuilt with any kind of verisimilitude.

The chapter house took over ten years to build and in the end the monks decided that, after all the effort, their creation should be a church not a chapter house (they wanted the public to be able to visit the building). New Clairvaux Abbey is proud of its new structure, and the Sacred Stones project as a whole. Certainly it is better than having the stones continue to decay in a warehouse. But the lack of cultural and architectural accuracy and the repurposing of the building should no longer qualify it as a reconstruction. This is, instead, an entirely different building. The attempt at a reconstruction was lost somewhere during the process to the point where it bears no semblance to any original at Santa María de Óvila, and has effectively stripped it of its previous historical value.

Chapter House of the Abbey of New Clairvaux, Vina, Northern California (photo: Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chapter House of the Abbey of New Clairvaux, Vina, Northern California (photo: Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Those involved in the building of the chapter house/chapel at New Clairvaux in California choose to highlight and even exaggerate the Gothic features that might have been at Óvila and to play down the earlier Romanesque features. Romanesque architecture in the last 100 years has played the foil to Gothic which was described as the clunky, heavy, and gloomy older sister of the lighter, thinner, and delicate Gothic.  

Hearst’s motivations and conclusion

Hearst never lived to see either Spanish monastery rebuilt, but for Hearst it seems as though the process of taking ownership of these buildings was somehow enough. Hearst could have recreated a Spanish monastery on his property without going to the trouble of hauling two medieval Spanish abbeys piece-by-piece across the world. Clearly, there was more at work here than a simple longing to have a European cloister. The power to attain these objects in the first place seems to have been a large part of Hearst’s obsessive collecting, rather than aesthetic enjoyment. Hearst uprooted Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Santa María de Óvila, at the cost of negating parts of Spain’s national heritage, in an attempt to create his own legacy. His narrow and myopic view destroyed what could have been passed on to posterity as a cultural legacy.

So what is at stake here? On one hand one could say that Florida has gained a lovely church and tourist attraction and California monks a shiny new chapter house/chapel. But what has been lost? The original identity of these churches and their history will eventually disappear entirely, and new history centered around the reconstructions will be created. Will people visit the chapter house in Vina, California under the impression they are seeing true work of Cistercian architecture? Will visitors go to the Sacramenia cloister in Florida and understand this was once a space where monks were meant to walk and meditate upon God? Already it is frequently mistaken to be a Spanish Mission from the seventeenth century. Will visitors understand that to take such objects from another country puts that country’s cultural heritage in jeopardy, or just find the story of its creation interesting? 

Monastery of St Bernard de Clairvaux, 1133-41, built in Sacramenia, Spain, and today in North Miami Beach, Florida

Church, Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, 1133–41 in Sacramenia, Spain

And what has Spain been left with? What remains at the original sites? As mentioned, the church was left in place at the Sacramenia site. It is larger than most Cistercian churches and has been restored. It is still on private land but is open to the public one day a week, but it keeps a low-profile and you will find no gift shop here. It is said to be an exemplar of Spanish Cistercian architecture of the golden age, when Saint Bernard came to lead the order.    

The remaining Spanish ruins of Santa Maria de Ovila,

The remaining Spanish ruins of Santa María de Óvila

Santa María de Óvila is also currently on private lands. The monastery was in a derelict state before the Hearst dismantling, but who knows what might be there today if it had been declared a national monument just a little bit sooner and restored at its original site. Now all that remains is a ruin and no visitors are welcomed. The oldest and most intact part of the monastery that remains is the wine cellar.

It would be nice to think that we are beyond acts such as Hearst’s, but black-market deals occur behind closed doors frequently. Absconding with the majority of a monastic complex may be trickier, but war can still destroy large scale structures, as can social unrest. Indeed, it was Spain’s political instability that in part allowed Hearst to come to take ownership of the Sacramenia and Óvila stones. Thus while we may see ourselves as more sensitive to other cultures and more global minded, a glance at history should show that things can change on the turn of a dime and then all bets are off.



1. Saint Bernard de Clairvaux was originally named Santa María la Real.


Additional resources

Richard L. Kagan, The Spanish Craze: America’s Fascination with the Hispanic World, 1779–1939 (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).


Cite this page as: Christine M. Bolli, "“Creative iconoclasm”: a tale of two monasteries," in Smarthistory, June 16, 2020, accessed May 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/hearst-two-monasteries/.