On Friday night, thousands of people watched as the Mission San José was draped in multi-colored light as part of the inaugural World Heritage Festival. The lights projected onto the walls of the mission digitally restored the original façade, a mix of geometric patterns in red, yellow, and bright grays.

Shanon Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation, told the Rivard Report Wednesday that the event educates the public on the vibrant look the mission had in colonial times.

Shannon Shea Miller and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran address the audience during the event. Photo by Scott Ball.
Director of the Office of Historic Preservation Shannon Miller and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran address the audience during the event. Photo by Scott Ball.

“When the missions were constructed, they had an elaborate façade,” Miller explained. “Those have been lost and faded away. But through research, historians have a good idea as to what they looked like. They’ve been able to digitally restore what the façade looked like with some amount of speculation.”

Miller expects the event to become part of San Antonio’s annual calendar.

“We hope it’s annual,” Miller said. “This happened last year during the first World Heritage weekend at Mission Concepción. It was such a great event we wanted to do it again.”

To fully realize the project, the City hired Ford, Powell, & Carson, a local architecture and design firm specializing in historic preservation, last year. In a Thursday phone interview with members of the firm’s Historic Preservation Studio, Preservationist Tobin Hays and Principal Rachel Wright told the Rivard Report that the digital restoration of Mission San José has taken a lot of research, but the end result made the long hours worthwhile.

“Over the past decade, our restoration work has been investigating the façade of Mission Concepción and San José,” Wright said. “Conservationists have been coming out and doing detailed mapping and a lot of ground work.”

Hays digitally rendered the image that was being projected.

“We’ve based the image off of (a series of) paintings by Ernst Schuchard and plaster analysis of finished models,” Hays said. “Our firm has done 50 years of mission work so we had a lot of documents to work from.”

Hays has been researching and digitally modeling the design for a few months, making sure the façade was as detailed as possible.

“There were a couple of things we had to speculate on,” Hays said. “There’s not a lot of material to analyze. Borders and field pattern we know, but there’s not a lot of info on how the arches on the west façade looked.”

She’s also had to adjust for modifications to the building.

“In the 1920s, the bell tower collapsed at San José,” Hays said. “Looking through the historic photos, we realized they changed the size and opening of one of the windows that made it look more symmetrical than it was in the colonial era.”

There has been a lot of interest in making this installation permanent, Wright said. Since the light show at the San Fernando Cathedral grew in popularity, people have been asking for more.

“There are rumors of a long-term installation,” Wright said. “But there are technical difficulties that prevent that right now. There’s currently no place to mount the lights that wouldn’t be visually intrusive.”

For now, Hays said, the light show brings attention to the original beauty of the Mission San José.

“This will give people a new appreciation and a better understanding of what the mission was like in its heyday.”

Speaking before the lights were projected, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) praised the project for contributing to the education about the missions and strengthening their preservation efforts.

“This is a way to educate, celebrate, and bring awareness,” Viagran said. “If this is your first time at the missions, I hope it is not your last. I guarantee that it won’t be.”

After the lights were projected, Viagran spoke to the Rivard Report, elaborating her support.

“By knowing what (the mission) looked like over 250 years earlier, it helps us appreciate, them but also (to) be better stewards for them in the future,” she said. “It makes history come alive.”


This article was originally published on Sept. 9, 2016.

Top image: Mission San José during the Restored by Light illumination.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Mission Concepción ‘Restored by Light’

First Annual World Heritage Festival: ‘Something for Everyone’

Missions Accomplished: The Journey to World Heritage Designation

Mission Pachanga: A Musical Homage to World Heritage

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James McCandless

Former intern James McCandless is a recent St. Mary's University graduate. He has worked with the San Antonio Current and Texas Public Radio.