• Mission San Juan has a bright new face of uncolored plaster. Photo by Mark Menjivar

Project Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio
Client Old Spanish Missions
Architect Ford, Powell & Carson
Design Team Carolyn Peterson, FAIA; Rachel Wright, AIA; Anna Nau
Photographer Mark Menjivar

For three centuries, the five San Antonio missions have been a constant, standing humbly and stubbornly in the face of neglect. Today, as in the early 18th century when the missions were first constructed, parishioners file into the four southern mission buildings every Sunday. A recent renovation of Mission San Juan Capistrano by Ford, Powell & Carson (FPC) has allowed the modest structure to shine again for parishioners and visitors alike.

It is easy to understand how San Antonians could forget that these structures have been altered many times throughout their lives; with the exception of Mission Concepción, all have endured extensive reconstructions. Early-20th-century photographs show roofs caved in and rows of cars parked right up against the buildings. The recent reconstruction projects were funded by a capital campaign by Old Spanish Missions of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which raised over $15 million and established a maintenance endowment. FPC’s projects under the current campaign have included exterior and interior plaster restoration, structural stabilization, introduction of new HVAC and sound systems, and new electrical and lighting infrastructure.

The restoration at Mission San Juan began as a stabilization project to bring the structure back to its original 1720s architecture. Almost thirty 28-in-deep foundation piers were added at the building perimeter; sections of walls were also stabilized above grade, and 20th-century buttresses were removed. Once the structure was stabilized, a new HVAC system was integrated into the interior renovation along with lighting, an AV system, and new liturgical furniture. The western wall was repointed, and remaining walls were patched and plaster washed, lending the exterior of the building a clean, stark, and stunning new face. The Design Awards jurors noted the restraint of the design and the artful integration of advanced technologies, respecting “the simple beauty and character of the existing historical building without really interfering with it.”

Before deciding what steps to take, the architects and their consultants did a thorough condition assessment. This included research into the history of the site, as well as on-site material investigations, which attempt to peel back the layers of reconstruction to find the original architecture. Rachel Wright, AIA, of the FPC preservation team, notes the frequent friction between architects and preservationists. She points out that the process of design is the same: research, client, budget, site, and scope are all factors to be considered. For preservationists, most of the decisions are on a more micro scale, with more influence from historic precedent. “If we do a good job,” she says, “you can’t see the intervention.”

The reconstruction and restoration efforts of recent years have coincided with a decades-long effort to restore the riparian ecosystem of the adjacent San Antonio River. This, together with the designation of the missions as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has brought renewed interest in, and foot traffic to, the four southern missions. The nearby river improvements have also attracted developers to the surrounding neighborhoods. Wright notes these changes have resulted in growing pains, but the city is supporting sensible and careful growth; after all, the missions were established with the intent that a city would grow up around them. One of the biggest challenges, with so many stakeholders and so much emotional attachment, will be reaching consensus on the buildings’ care. One of the most important — and least visible — aspects of FPC’s current work is the development of an updated conditions assessment and a maintenance manual for the missions. Let’s hope the manual can guide future generations through the difficult preservation decisions that will give these treasures the care they deserve.

Margaret Sledge, AIA, is an architect with Lake|Flato in San Antonio.

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