Julia Costello Lecture

Dr. Julia Costello, co-author of the 2010 Historic Preservation Book Prize winner The California Missions, gave a talk on her book November 3rd. Dr. Costello introduced her talk by mentioning her late collaborator, Edna E. Kimbro, and the work she did on the book before her death in 2005.  The California Missions was originally intended to be a text on conservation, but evolved with the help of Dr. Costello into a history of the 21 Mission settlements in California.

Dr. Costello gave an affecting history of the Missions, discussing their development and daily life. The Spanish settled California in the late eighteenth century and built sprawling ranchos to house and convert the Native Peoples of the area. The missions were self-sufficient and were generally four separate buildings formed into a rectangle with a courtyard in the middle. Under a score of Europeans inhabited these missions, but over 1,200 Native Americans lived in and around each mission settlement. The agreement was once an Indian was baptized into the faith, they had to stay in the mission area. A tipping point came when the Indian culture couldn’t sustain because their lives on the mission were limited to a precise set of acres. Even the grasses and native animals were driven out. This presented the need for extensive Native settlements that often surrounded the four main mission buildings. The Catholic Church was the most elaborate of each of the structures, and is what most commonly remains today.

Mission San Louis Rey was the catalyst in California Mission conservation. During a fiesta, a large piece of plaster fell from the wall exposing lovely intricate paintings underneath. Artists from the index of design came to San Louis Ray and documented the paintings. The missions then became the focus of the WPA index. A method was then introduced to gently pick off the layers of whitewash and expose these beautiful paintings. Most of the designs were European with high perspective and faux finishes, but as the Native Americans became apprentices in the trade, more adaptive paintings were done that included Native American design and interpretation.

Dr. Costello reminded the group of the difficulty of researching the Native American populations in these missions. Existing research was limited to death, birth and marriage records, and paintings and carvings of mission life. Dr. Costello and fellow researchers wanted to know who actually built these structures. Who were the brick-layers? Who taught them this skill?

Dr. Costello discussed the ignorance of many Californians on how important these structures are. Most artifacts are covered in cobwebs in broom closets, or used as shelving. Thankfully, many modern people in California feel like their ancestors built these places and are invested in them. Restoration efforts are now underway. Today, eleven of the original 21 unique mission churches remain. These structures are preserved and conserved in different ways, but the awareness raised by Dr. Costello in her book is certainly helping the cause.

Danny Messplay, a Junior in the Department, asked Dr. Costello how social justice was fuel for the book. Dr. Costello answered that this was an impetus to go beyond a text on conservation, giving the Indian people a voice, and turn the book into mission stories for the public.

Dr. Doug Sanford asked whether the Catholic Church has a policy for preservation of the missions, since the majority of these structures are owned by the church. Dr. Costello discussed that the preservation decisions were mostly up to dioceses and the Catholic Church as a whole does not choose to be involved, but partnerships with the National Parks Service and other organizations could potentially help with the preservation.

Another student asked how the mission system was different from other places in the Americas. Dr. Costello answered that the Jesuits ran many other missions, but they were becoming too powerful in California so the Franciscans took over on the west coast.

Dr. Costello’s book “California Missions” and her lecture were truly inspiring. The California Missions are some of the most important relics of California history, and some of the most fragile. Dr. Costello gives hope to preservation projects in the US as a whole, and makes material and cultural conservation attainable. Congratulations to Dr. Costello for receiving the 2010 Historic Preservation Book Prize, and thank you for inspiring preservationists and conservationists around the globe.

– Emily Morton ’11


  1. Daniel Messplay says:

    Great article!

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