When it came to the sale of the monastery of Santa María de Óvila in Trillo, in the Spanish province of Guadalajara, the Count of Romanones looked the other way. The early 20th-century politician and entrepreneur was a powerful man – he served as mayor of Madrid, speaker of both houses of parliament, and was prime minister on three occasions – but he made no move to save the monument despite pleas from historians and journalists.
And so the Cistercian monastery, located about 137 kilometers by road from Madrid, was disassembled in 1931 in preparation for its passage to the US where newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, the man who inspired Orson Welles’ classic movie Citizen Kane, planned to incorporate it into his Wyntoon estate in northern California.
Built in 1175, only the foundations of the church and of a Renaissance cloister survive, as well as large bare walls, inside which farm machinery and all-terrain vehicles are stored. But its heart – the chapter house, the refectory, the monks’ sleeping quarters and its ornate portal – has been part of New Clairvaux Abbey, located 300 kilometers north of San Francisco, since 2008. It was donated by the San Francisco City Council after being confined to crates on a San Francisco pier in 1941.
The historian José Miguel Lorenzo Arribas has penned Óvila (Guadalajara) 90 years after its sale, published by the Cervantes Institute. “That’s why I object so strongly to Romanones,” he jokes.
The origins of the monastery lie in King Alfonso VIII of Castile’s desire to consolidate his power in the center of the peninsula after taking it from Moorish forces. In 1175 he ordered the construction of Santa María de Óvila in what is now the municipality of Trillo. Arribas describes the dismantled church as being shaped like a Latin cross with three apses. The interior featured ribbed vaults and was presided by a richly decorated Mannerist-style portal. The cloister adjoining the church was covered with pointed ribbed vaulting with double arches.
This impressive monument was erected in a fertile valley on the banks of the Tagus, surrounded by dense forests. It was the cultural and economic center of the area until the 15th century, when civil wars caused a gradual exodus. In the 18th century, the monastery lost its entire library in a massive fire, although its definitive decline did not begin until 1835 with the Spanish Confiscation, when the government seized and sold Catholic Church property.
In 1928, the ever-needy Spanish state sold the monastery for 30,000 pesetas (€180,300) to Fernando Beloso, director of the Spanish Credit Bank, an important landowner in the region of Alcarria. In 1931, he resold it for an unknown amount to media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s intention was to reassemble it in his Californian mansion in Wyntoon along with other pieces he had acquired from all over the world. But things did not turn out as expected, his plans changed and the centuries-old Spanish masonry ended up in piles on a pier in San Francisco where it suffered numerous acts of vandalism.
In 1932 the historian Francisco Layna Serrano published The Óvila Monastery, in which he denounced what had happened and described how he tried to stop the sale. “I objected angrily to the plundering, addressing a somewhat violent letter to the Count of Romanones, decrying the fact and encouraging him to prevent the expatriation of the Óvila monastery, since he was the best person to prevent it and to seek a sanction for the selfish seller [meaning Beloso], since, in addition to being an arrogant politician from Alcarria, he was a minister, director of the Academy of San Fernando and author of a law defending the national artistic heritage.” The count of Romanones, however, completely ignored him, according to José Miguel Lorenzo.
Lorenzo also recalls that Miguel España, a journalist from the national newspaper Abc, was among those who spoke out against the sale in 1931 in his article How an American is taking the monastery of Santa María de Óvila to his country. “Each piece was carefully wrapped in a bundle, and marked with a number and a letter, G or R, which were to indicate whether they were Gothic or Romanesque, two predominant architectural styles,” wrote España.
To reach the old monastery, it was necessary to cross the Tagus River by boat. But Hearst improved access by opening a road with a wooden bridge and laying tracks for mining wagons. The blocks of stone were loaded onto trucks and transported to Madrid. They were then taken to the coast and shipped to the US to be stored in the Golden Gate Park warehouse in the port of San Francisco. In 1941, the year Citizen Kane was released, Hearst sold the disassembled monastery to the city for $25,000, and it remained on the pier until 2000.
That year, the Benedictine monks from New Clairvaux Abbey in California discovered it. Recognizing it would make the perfect addition to their large monastic complex in Vina, they collected donations, and in 2013, with the advice of José Miguel Merino de Cáceres, a professor of history of architecture at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, they were able to resurrect it.
Meanwhile, in Trillo, only a small road sign on a roundabout points the way to the remains of the monastery. Set against the backdrop of a nuclear power plant, it belongs to a private estate. A worn information board by the monastery’s walls states that “only one year after this irreparable damage was done, on June 3, 1931, the Government of the Republic declared the ruins of Óvila a National Historic Monument.” By then, of course, “the church, the refectory, the chapter house, the novices’ dormitory and part of the cloister” had all gone.
The current owners do not allow public access to the site, stating, “We are not interested in talking about it. It is private property.”
The Government should buy a number of privately-owned direct provision centres as a “priority” as it would be more “cost effective” for the State to run the facilities for asylum seekers, international protection officials have said.
The savings arising from owning the accommodation centres rather than paying private contractors to do so “could be considerable”, departmental briefing documents provided to Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman last year state.
The vast majority of direct provision centres are currently owned and run by private companies, with accommodation providers having received some €1.6 billion since 1999, including €183 million last year.
The latest figures show some 7,150 people are in the system of seven State-owned sites and 39 private centres. A further 24 commercially-owned premises are being used to provide emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.
The briefing document, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, says that housing people seeking asylum in State-owned centres would provide the “best protection from the vulnerability of present market reliance”.
“They are also much more cost efficient to run, and the State owns the asset,” it notes.
The document suggested that State centres should aim to accommodate 5,000 people, and “allowing the private sector to supply the rest is regarded as an achievable and reasonable target”.
The purchase of existing centres from private providers “to immediately boost the State’s footprint in this area should be considered as a priority,” the internal document said.
“Some service providers may be open to this and the market appears to be favourable at present,” it said.
The internal briefing suggested the department could then seek private companies or NGOs to run the centres, which would be a “competitive cost option”.
Ongoing maintenance for centres owned by the State was also “badly needed,” as current pressures on the Office of Public Works (OPW) meant it was not possible “for immediate repairs to be done if required”.
“In exploring the model of more State centres, we need to agree and acquire a capital budget,” the briefing stated.
“State land does not require planning permission for new centres as the Minister has a power under the Acts, whereby the OPW can grant the planning permission and this is usually a three-month process. It is not subject to appeal.”
The document says that State centres “can also have a bigger footprint as it will be a permanent fixture in the locality”. In recent years a number of plans for private providers to open direct provision centres in regional towns have been met with protests from locals and anti-immigration activists.
Mr O’Gorman’s department has sought to reform the direct provision system and is seeking to replace the network of centres with a new system of accommodation and supports by the end of 2024.
A department spokesman confirmed the State has not bought any new centres since the briefing note was written. The spokesman said under the planned overhaul of direct provision, asylum-seekers who arrived into the country would initially be housed in a number of reception and integration centres.
Asylum-seekers will spend a maximum of four months in the reception centres before moving into housing secured through Approved Housing Bodies.
“These centres will be State-owned and purpose built to provide suitable accommodation for approximately 2,000 people at any one time, to cater for the flow-through of the 3,500 applicants over a 12-month period,” he said.
Attached by a strap to a safety lanyard, 27-year-old Nathan Paulin slowly progressed barefoot on a line stretched across the river between the Eiffel Tower and the Chaillot Theatre.
He stopped for a few breaks, sitting or lying on the rope.
Paulin holds an umbrella as he performs, for the second time, on a 70-metre-high slackline spanning 670 metres between the Eiffel Tower and the Theatre National de Chaillot. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)
“It wasn’t easy walking 600 metres, concentrating, with everything around, the pressure … but it was still beautiful,” he said after the performance on Saturday.
He said obtaining the necessary authorisations had been a difficulty for him, plus “the stress linked to the audience, the fact that there are a lot of people”.
Photo: (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP)
Paulin, holder of several world records, performed the feat to celebrate France’s annual Heritage Day – when people are invited to visit historic buildings and monuments that are usually closed to the public.
He said his motivation was “mainly to do something beautiful and to share it and also to bring a new perspective on heritage, it is to make heritage come alive”.
He had already crossed the River Seine on a tightrope, on Heritage Day in 2017.