by Frank Dunnigan
As the winds of change swirl around us, some things just seem to stay the same—or do they? Mission Dolores, founded in 1776 and at its present location since 1791, looks relatively untouched, but in fact, numerous changes have been incorporated into the structure and its grounds over the last 230 years.
The original adobe Mission was built in 1776 at the corner of Camp and Albion Streets, about two blocks from the present location—and that original site is now marked by a ceremonial plaque. In 1791, a new structure (now known as 320 Dolores Street), was constructed, with founder Junipero Serra visiting the site. The building is now regarded by historians as San Francisco’s oldest intact structure—for although a portion of the building that now houses the Presidio Officers’ Club contains remnants of an early wall, those stones do NOT constitute an intact building. Mission Dolores became San Francisco Historical Landmark #1 when the program was established in 1967.
In addition to the adobe Mission church, there were additional facilities—dormitories, farm buildings, and cloth-manufacturing sites. By the early 1800s, the Indigenous Peoples population at the Mission peaked at more than 1,000 individuals, and by 1810, there was a vast enterprise underway with more than 22,000 cows and sheep, plus thousands of other farm animals grazing all the way from the Mission site to the present-day intersection of Mission & Cesar Chavez Streets.
Following the Gold Rush and California statehood, the adobe Mission and some adjacent lands, once “secularized” and acquired by the Mexican government after its War of Independence from Spain, were returned to the Catholic Church, with Mission Dolores again serving as a local place of worship. In 1876, on the 100th anniversary of the Mission’s founding, a new, larger, red-brick church was added at 16th & Dolores Streets, alongside the adobe structure, to serve an ever-growing population. Construction of the new brick church required the eventual demolition of several older buildings at the site.
The graveyard alongside the Mission came into use in the late 1700s. Indigenous peoples, early Spanish and Mexican families, as well as later-arriving Europeans and American-born individuals are all interred there, and the cemetery soon extended a full city block to present-day Church Street. In the 1880s, City government decided to extend 16th Street all the way to Market Street. During this project, a number of bodies on the that side of the cemetery were moved to new locations on the grounds, as well as into other cemeteries, in order to clear a path for the roadway. Even with various boundary changes over time, the cemetery remains one of San Francisco’s few burial locations—though no new interments have taken place there since pre-1900.
Over time, local government made many topographical changes in the area. In the late 1870s, the city re-graded Dolores Street, lowering the roadway by more than one foot, resulting in the addition of a set of entry stairs from the sidewalk to the front doors of the Mission. Records and photos also indicate that the cemetery’s front wall that once extended to a point forward of the Mission entryway, was pushed back at this time, with some bodies re-interred elsewhere within the grounds. In 1906, numerous cemetery artifacts were lost when refugees camping in nearby Dolores Park removed trees, wooden grave markers, and fences for use as firewood.
Following the 1906 earthquake, the damaged 1876 brick church at the corner of 16th Street and Dolores was demolished and a hastily-built wooden church, directly behind the old Mission, began serving community needs. In 1913, the cornerstone was laid for a new Mission Dolores Church which was completed five years later and dedicated at Christmas of 1918, with the 1906 wooden building removed.
In 1917, as the new church was nearing completion, the original adobe Mission underwent some unobtrusive upgrades, including installation of steel beams covered with cement, plus steel trusses beneath the roof (now known as “earthquake retrofitting”) under the direction of noted architect Willis Polk.
Elevated view over wall to cemetery on south side of Mission Dolores, circa 1868. (wnp71.1458; Lawrence & Houseworth, photographers – Martin Behrman Negative Collection / Courtesy of the Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives)
Numerous alterations to the cemetery have taken place over the last 230 years. In addition to city-administered reconfigurations to Dolores Street and to 16th Street in the 1870s and 1880s, cemetery land adjacent to tiny Chula Lane was cleared and eventually replaced with housing. A most significant change to the cemetery site came about in the mid-1920s, when many Sunday morning worshippers were beginning to arrive in automobiles, thus leading to parking congestion. Installation of a parking lot/schoolyard on a portion of the cemetery property was completed in 1924, while construction of a building for Chancery Department offices (since relocated to a new site near the present-day St. Mary’s Cathedral) was completed in the 1950s facing Church Street.
In 1926, the plain style of the 1918 church building was remodeled with a more elaborate design. Influenced by the architecture of San Diego’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a more distinctive ornamentation known as “churrigueresque” was added to the façade and one tower was extended in height. In 1952, Pope Pius XII elevated the status of the church building to that of a Basilica—a church of significant importance. It was the first Basilica located west of the Mississippi River, and one of only five in the United States at that time.
Mission Dolores experienced a bit of world-wide fame when Alfred Hitchcock used the setting for a scene in his 1958 film Vertigo. Visitors often comment that the cemetery looks very different from its appearance in the Hitchcock film. That’s because Hollywood superimposed images of more elaborate grave markers during production.
From 1962, when St. Mary’s Cathedral on Van Ness Avenue was destroyed in an arson fire, until the 1971 dedication of the present St. Mary’s Cathedral at Geary & Gough, Mission Dolores temporarily served as a replacement church for large ceremonies held by the Archdiocese.
In 1976, anticipating increased tourism for celebrations of the U.S. Bicentennial–also the 200-year anniversary of the Mission’s founding–the gift shop at the northwest front corner of the old adobe was expanded, impacting the cemetery slightly, with some grave markers relocated, but with bodies left undisturbed.
Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, further architectural strengthening, interior cleaning, and graveyard restorations took place as part of a $2 million program. During this mid-1990s project, more than a ton of adobe dust was gathered from the attic and used in patching cracks. Work included cleaning—but NOT repainting—interior surfaces, a slow process designed to remove accumulated soot from 200 years of burning candles and incense. At the same time, many cemetery markers were restored and the grounds replanted with species that were historically accurate to the late 1700s.
Today, Mission Dolores is one of San Francisco’s most-visited historical destinations, while it remains a place of sacred worship. Parishioners still have the option of having their baptisms, weddings, and funerals conducted either in the Basilica or in the adobe Mission. Governor Gavin Newsom’s young children were among those baptized in the old adobe building early in this millennium. Original records documenting such events date back to 1776 remain onsite in a fireproof vault, attesting to the continuity of community at one of San Francisco’s earliest settlements.
NOTE: The author is grateful to Andrew Galvan, Mission Dolores Curator since 2003, for his research assistance. Mr. Galvan has a unique connection to the spot because one set of his great-great-great-great-grandparents, members of the Ohlone community, were baptized at Mission Dolores in 1794 and 1802 respectively, as part of a family group that entered into Christianity while other family members chose traditional Indigenous Peoples’ ways for themselves and their descendants.
While there are many significant issues related to the treatment of Indigenous Peoples by the Mission system in general, such a topic requires far more in-depth analysis than is possible here in a mere snapshot of land and building uses at the site.
See more than 800 additional Mission Dolores images here on OpenSFHistory.org.