Asistencia in Redlands – Rich in History and the Future
History of Asistencia:
Asistencia or Estancia? Part of San Gabriel Mission or a Mexican rancho? The site known as the Asistencia in west Redlands on Barton Road has a 200-year history, as of 2019, and provides an essential connection between every valley residential group of the past and today’s generations.
Founded and opened in 1771, the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was fourth in the chain of Catholic Church missions established by the Franciscan missionaries in California. As the mission grew in size and population, the mission’s priests spread its influence east to what is now San Bernardino Valley, and in 1819, established the San Bernardino Rancho of Mission San Gabriel with an outpost near today’s Mission Road, about a mile and a half west of today’s Asistencia. The outpost, known as an estancia, included a storehouse used for foodstuffs and a living quarters for the mayordomo, or manager, with accommodations for visiting priests. They added a structure made of dried reeds and sticks to serve as a chapel, but there was no resident priest.
By 1830, San Gabriel Mission had relocated the San Bernardino Rancho estancia to the current site of the Asistencia, and had begun construction of 14 adobe structures. Mexico, which had become independent from Spain in 1826, secularized all California mission properties in 1834. Adding to the turmoil, hostile non-Christianized Native Americans raided the San Bernardino Rancho, making the site a dangerous place to be. Construction stopped when the rancho estancia was abandoned, leaving the partially completed adobe buildings behind.
Several acts in quick succession – an 1842 grant by the Mexican government to Diego Sepulveda and sons of Antonio Maria Lugo of much of the San Bernardino Rancho land, the 1851 sale from the Lugos to the Mormon Church, and the 1857 sale from the Mormons to Dr. Ben Barton of San Bernardino – headed the buildings toward their demise. Someone from both of the groups lived in the estancia buildings at some time, as did Barton who lived in one structure until 1867 when his brick mansion just to the north was completed.
After that, the buildings rapidly deteriorated, as the roofs were built of only brush sealed with mud – the San Gabriel Mission had not finished the tile roofs before the mission priests abandoned the site. Buildings disintegrated, roofs fell in, and rains dissolved the adobe walls before vandalism and neglect combined to hasten the decay. Photos from the early 20th century show the Barton Villa standing north of piles of adobe rubble, with only remnants of actual walls in site. Many builders in Redlands at the time retrieved the adobe bricks to use for foundations of new construction. Many Redlanders took carriage rides to the ruins to sit on the old walls and have a picnic.
The Cheney family bought the site from the Barton family in the early 1900s, and San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors purchased the site from the Cheneys in 1925 and began the effort to construct, restore, or reconstruct the decayed adobe structures with volunteer labor and donated funds. The re-constructors located some of the old cobblestone foundations. With these and the remains of six rooms as guides, reconstruction proceeded, and the new buildings adapted the old remnants to meet needs of the day, according to Dr. Gerald Smith, director of San Bernardino County Museum in 1977.
By 1936 and 1937, construction was taken over under a federal government act of the WPA, and in 1937, the restored site was formally opened to the public, and identified as the San Bernardino Asistencia, even though no formal record exists to substantiate the title of “asistencia.” During the early 20th century’s fascination with California missions, some writers began to refer to the abandoned San Bernardino Rancho estancia as an asistencia, which was a type of mission site which included a chapel and resident priest. Although research indicates the site was never a true asistencia, the label has endured.
In 1960s, the site was dedicated as California State Historical Landmark #42 because the buildings represent some of the best examples of the structures that were built by hand with attention to detail and fine craftsmanship during the depression. In 1992, the building was earthquake-retrofitted. The San Bernardino County Museum operated the site as a museum and as an event center for many years.
Redlands Conservancy involvement:
In July of 2016, Melissa Russo, director of the San Bernardino County Museum, contacted Redlands Conservancy with an offer to deed the Asistencia site and buildings to the Conservancy. The initial meeting involved Russo, SB County Chief Operating Officer Leonard Hernandez, and Redlands Conservancy Executive Director Sherli Leonard,.
Russo followed up the meeting with a letter in September, 2016 which outlined the reasons the museum will divest itself of its historic sites. The museum seeks out “partnerships with historical societies and historic preservation nonprofits which may have an interest in undertaking the operations and interpretation of these sites through ownership/transfer or long term lease. ” The museum then considered two options: 1, “a conveyance of the property to the Redlands Conservancy, encumbered by a preservation easement to protect the historic integrity of the property in perpetuity, and a clause that reverts property ownership back to the County of San Bernardino if the Redlands Conservancy nonprofit were to dissolve;” and 2, “a long-term lease that would provide the Redlands Conservancy a long enough timeframe to justify the organization investing in the long term operation and maintenance of the property.”
ED Leonard presented the discussion to the Conservancy executive committee and then to the Board of Directors in October 2016; the board voted to appoint an ad hoc committee to continue discussions about the museum’s proposals. Robert Dawes, president, Donn Grenda, vice president, and Rollie Moore, treasurer served with ED Leonard on the ad hoc committee, which met repeatedly with museum and county staff to consider the disposition of the Asistencia.
By mid-2017, the museum determined the best disposition was to deed the Asistencia site and buildings in fee to Redlands Conservancy, with the condition that the Redlands Conservancy’s ownership would be encumbered by a requirement to protect the historic integrity of the property in perpetuity, and to revert property ownership back to the County of San Bernardino in the case the Redlands Conservancy dissolves.
Redlands Conservancy conducted several due diligence activities, including investigating likely maintenance costs (e.g., utilities, insurance, gardening), conducting a structure inspection, and investigating potential users. On two occasions, the board of directors voted unanimously to approve continued discussions with the museum and county staff.
After 24 months of meetings and SB County-funded physical improvements to the buildings and site, Redlands Conservancy and the museum concluded the transfer of ownership. When presented with the San Bernardino County’s offer in November of 2018, the Redlands Conservancy Board of Directors voted to accept the gift and become the stewards of the San Bernardino Asistencia.