Miroslav Maler traveled far to reach his present work as a restoration stonemason working high above the ground on the centuries-old frontispiece of Mission San José. Maler and Ivan Myjer, fellow master mason, conservation artist and owner of Boston-based Ivan Myjer Building and Monument Conservation, both trace their roots to Czechoslovakia. Myjer was born in Canada. Maler fled his home country, just in time.
“I was one of the students protesting the tanks and troops, and the authorities came to my family’s house, looking for me,” Maler said, recalling the Prague Spring in 1968, when a brief period of political liberalization was brutally repressed by Warsaw Pact troops. Maler escaped the country before he could be arrested. Decades later, he attended an exhibition in New York at the International Center of Photography commemorating Czech street resistance to the occupying forces and found himself staring at an image of himself as a young protester.
Today the two men are quietly restoring and preserving the most elaborate and important frontispiece of Spanish colonial architecture in the country. They have been toiling here without fanfare for months, hoping to finish by the end of April. Other than the people directly involved with the current restoration and preservation of the Missions, few are aware of their presence here, although they are among the country’s most respected stone restoration artisans.
“This is all we do,” Myjer says, taking up a mallet and chisel. “We don’t advertise. People who need us, find us.” His website displays photographs of other work sites: St. John the Divine Cathedral, The White House, and the towering National Monument to the Forefathers Statue in Plymouth, Mass.
The two men first met while working at the still-unfinished St. John the Divine Cathedral on New York’s Upper West Side, where Myjer worked as Director of Restoration for Cathedral Stoneworks. Financial woes shut down the school in 1994.
Fr. David Garcia, the former rector of San Fernando Cathedral who oversaw that historic restoration, raised $15.5 million to fund the current Mission restoration work. He also serves as pastor of Mission Concepción, and is building an endowment to fund continuing conservation work at the Mission. Garcia said The Rose Window Awards Gala will be held on the grounds of Mission San José on Sept. 24 to help meet continuing conservation needs.
He praised the work of Myjer and Maler. “The facade of San Jose is one of the most spectacular Spanish colonial art treasures in the United States,” he said. “You have to go deep into Mexico to find something similar, so we’ve invested a lot of money restoring and stabilizing it. These guys are work in stone, but they are both artists and conservators with a deep knowledge of colonial history and carving techniques and materials.”
Regrettably, that $15.5 million sum only covers desperately-needed stabilization and restoration work at four Missions. It isn’t enough to underwrite Ivan opening a program to teach a new generation of young San Antonians the art and craft of stone conservation and restoration. “We wanted to teach some local boys and girls, perhaps descendents of the original Mission builders, who would become the future conservators of the Missions,” Myjer said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the budget.”
Much attention has been paid to the restoration and rededication of Mission San Jose’s interior, completed last year, but few realize the rarity of the ornately carved frontispiece of the Mission, or how badly it was damaged by time, the elements, thieves and a lack of conservation. Past work in the 1930s and again in the 1950s helped preserve the original carvings dating to the mid-18th century, but also introduced new problems. Native limestone is soft and porous and requires regular conservation.
“Every time it rains we get about three inches of wall crumble on the ground,” Myjer said.
Carolyn Peterson, a partner at Ford, Powell & Carson who serves as the official architect for the archdiocese on the Missions restoration project, agrees the frontispiece is a unique work of art.
“There were three basic Church periods in Mexico: for 100 years, the Spanish built monasteries, then for the next 100 years they built major churches in major cities, and then the third period, our period, was one when the churches were built in the lesser cities in Mexico,” Peterson said. “A lot of the figures on the façade symbolize things, life and fertility, wonderful plants and vines and things; you can see stalks coming up from the bottom of the Mission building, things that represent the family and the Church.”
What about the forbidding Spanish version of St. Francis of Assisi holding the skull? What happened to the bird on his finger and his image as a holy man who communed with animals, I asked. “Lots of paintings of St. Francis depict him holding a skull, or sleeping with a skull for a pillow,” she said. “He seems to be symbolically contemplating death.”
Each morning Maler and Myjer emerge from their studio in the former Franciscan quarters of the Mission to begin their day’s work. Inside the cramped, low-ceiling dwelling turned work studio, one of Maler’s circular stone sculptures sits atop a pedestal. A delicately hand-written poster recording every significant date and name in the history of the Mission spreads across one wall like a family tree. Photographs detailing individual studies of the frontispiece sit atop a table, having been scanned into a computer for the archival study that precedes actual conservation. Remnant limestone litters the floor. In some ways, the studio looks as it might have looked in the 1750s, when a master carver from Spain or New Spain worked here, training indigenous acolytes in the craft of carving and laying stone.
Myjer hefts a piece of stone and brings it to life for a journalist, explaining the source of stone they are using in a conservation and reconstruction effort that has required the replacement of whole limestone blocks and the recarving of matching statuary elements and flourishes.
“When they built HemisFair and the Tower of Americas they demolished St. Michael Church and the Chancery and they dumped the stones in ravines at Mission San Juan,” Myjer said. “Some of the stone we are using now were fished out of there.” It is not lost on Maler that the Church that was home to the city’s Polish community was razed the same year he fled political instability in his homeland. Other stones were provided by Curtis Hunt Restorations, the highly regarded, five-generation-old family business here that has worked on every hundreds of historic buildings in Texas, including the Alamo and the Bexar County Courthouse.
The sun is up now, and Maler and Myjer make their way across the silent and empty Mission grounds to a motorized cherry picker to begin their day’s work. The guided tours, the classes of curious school children, and visitors who come from afar to see the Missions, all will come later in the morning. Their craft is a mixture of new and old. They employ stone carving techniques that date back centuries, but they also employ Photoshop and modern chemistry as analytical tools, and they use synthetic resins and other compounds unavailable to past generations who worked at Mission San José. To spend time with them in the cherry picker is to witness, close up, artists patiently at work.
Myjer takes me on a guided tour of the saints and angels gazing down at all who enter the Mission through its front doors.
“Nobody knows what angels are supposed to look like, but this one is considered the finest piece of colonial carving in the United States,” he said as we studied one small angel located just to the right of the San José statue. ” There’s nothing like it anywhere. It’s as if a master carver was showing off. It’s a single piece of stone with six generations of negative space. Look at the wings: They are only 3/4? inch thick. All the leading edges are tilted downwards so everything about the statue is in your line of sight 35? below as you stand on the ground. It’s a virtuosity.”
The San José statue is another matter. Restored by an Italian stone carver who worked here in the 1930s, Myjer said the talented carver was influenced by the Art Deco movement in Europe, and introduced subtle changes to the San José frontispiece that were not true to its colonial heritage.
“I stared and stared at San José’s ‘new head’, wondering what made it so different,” Myjer said. “Then I realized it wasn’t just the Art Deco triangularity of the face. San José has no ears.”
To see things up close in the presence of a master is to learn things not visible to the ground visitor. There are hundreds of small graffiti carved into the stone –mostly names and dates — well above ground level, some of the inscriptions dating back to 1840s and 50s. “I should point out that all the graffiti is in English, not Spanish,” Myjer said with a wry smile.
“When you stand back you see this extraordinary structure, with some amazing coherence and geometry,” Myjer said. “When you get up close you see there are dozens of inconsistencies that suggest the original helpers were locals and didn’t follow the master stone cutter and carver in exactly the same way.”
You also see the very visible ravages of time now being slowly undone. The Virgin Mary has delicate new fingers. St. Francis of Assisi holds a newly rebuilt skull. Another statue, its top half long ago stolen, has received a facelift. Sagging stone pedestals, ledges and arches have been reset. Substandard mortise work has been removed and redone.
“The wall to the left of the frontispiece is the last original segment of the front of Mission San José, the rest of it is reconstructed,” Myjer said. “It’s easy to see because it’s rubble wall construction, used by the Spaniards in colonial construction, but not so different than the way the Romans constructed stone walls and buildings in their time.”
Myjer offers a brief lesson in the origins and composition of the rock used to construct the Missions. “The rock is tufa, porous limestone that is redeposited calcium carbonate,” he said. “Probably mined at the site of Mission Concepción. Missions San Juan and Espada are primarily sandstone. The Alamo is all limestone, probably constructed of stone cut in what is now Brackenridge Park’s Japanese Tea Garden and the San Antonio Zoo near the bear cages.”
Then Maler takes me back up to demonstrate how 18th century carvers used wood chisels to achieve a finer edge on the stone. He has hand drawn a volute, or spiral, on a small block of limestone now affixed to the wall where the original flourish has gone missing. He carves the new volute to match a companion volute a few feet away. A brief video of Maler demonstrating the difference between stone chisel and wood chisel work as he begins to carve the volute is posted below:
No one in memory saw Mission San José as it was originally constructed and finished. No published record exists. A wall to the right of the front of the Mission displays a small contemporary detail of painted wall plaster to give visitors an idea of what the Mission exterior once looked like. Myjer points out one hand-sized plaster remnant high up on the front wall, a bit of native pigment still faintly visible. Most San Antonians and visitors are unaware the exterior walls of the Mission were plastered and decorated, never meant to be left so exposed.
“I believe passionately that the limestone plaster should go back on,” Mayjer said. “Because if you don’t put it back on, you will eventually lose these stone walls. The stone wasn’t meant to be exposed. It’s like building a wood house and not painting it.”
Myjer said the colorfully painted plaster finished walls must have been visible at great distances to travelers on horseback, in wagons or on foot. The Missions, he said, represented both the power and the majesty of the colonial Church and its central role in 18th century life. People would have grown excited as they approached the safety and comfort of the Mission San José after traveling a long distance through the still-untamed countryside.
Fr. Garcia is less certain a new exterior plaster finish will ever be applied.
“You have to show the Texas Historic Commission some physical or documentary proof,” Garcia said. “We think we have a stronger case for doing Mission Concepción because so much more of the old painted plaster was found. I’d love to see it happen at Mission San José, but I’m not going to say it will happen.”
Interested in supporting restoration and conservation of the San Antonio Missions? You can send a tax-deductible donation to the Old Spanish Missions, c/o Fr. David Garcia, P.O 7804, San Antonio, Texas 78207. You also can sponsor the Sept. 24 Rose Window Awards Gala at Mission San José.
Photos by Robert Rivard.